The incredible egg?
March 21, 2014 10:09 AM   Subscribe

I am trying to puzzle out why the supermarket eggs I buy in Europe are so different from the eggs available in the U.S.

When I buy eggs here (specifically, France and / or Switzerland) they are not refrigerated, generally brown, with a thick, orangey yolk. From what I remember, eggs in the US have pale yellow yolks, a more watery texture, and are generally white. I only recently realized how different they were as I watched some cooking shows from the US. I was kind of creeped out by the yolk color and texture of the eggs I saw the chefs use. And wouldn't high-end chefs on TV be using the best eggs, or at least eggs that look appetizing when filmed?

I have found some info on the refrigeration issue (seems to be due to washing, and salmonella levels), but not why what I would think are comparable grocery store eggs are seemingly so different in so many other ways. From what I can tell, the prices are somewhat different, with the European eggs being a bit more expensive.

So what factors are affecting the yolk color and texture of my eggs here? And why is the quality seemingly so different, when there is a fairly minor difference in price? I am interested in specific physical reasons (i.e., maybe the chickens are eating really different things, or there are colorings added in Europe?) as well as any policy or cultural reasons that might be relevant. Thanks!
posted by ohio to Food & Drink (29 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
I don't know the answer to the question, but I can add one more data point: the eggs I buy from the organic produce stall at our local farmer's market are shockingly different from the eggs I buy from the supermarket (even the "organic" "cage free" eggs from Trader Joe's). They have a richly yellow yolk and when you bake with them you get a much denser and thicker texture than you do with the store-bought eggs.
posted by yoink at 10:15 AM on March 21, 2014 [1 favorite]

Shell colour is a function of breed, and has no bearing on the egg.

In Europe, I'd guess that chickens probably eat food that's closer to their natural diet, including bugs and things, which will make the yolks much deeper in colour and richer in flavour.

AFAIK there is no way to add colour to a yolk inside the shell.
posted by feckless fecal fear mongering at 10:16 AM on March 21, 2014 [1 favorite]

I remember reading somewhere once that egg yolk color is determined by what the bird ate. Generally free range chickens eat a wider variety of better food, and their yolks are darker. I think the lighter the yolk meant more of a grain-based diet.
posted by phunniemee at 10:17 AM on March 21, 2014 [1 favorite]

I know that there are chefs who feature different dishes for eggs produced at different times of the year, because the eggs are different depending on what the chickens are eating.

If a chicken is a yard-bird, it will eat the seasonal things that grow, in addition to whatever it's fed on top of that.

And yes, different food means different egg consistancy, yolk color etc.

If the egg is watery, it's older, if it's firm it's fresher.

Harder shells mean more calcium in the chicken's diet.

Double yolks occur if the hen is young and she's just regulating her cycle.

Also, white eggs come from white hens and brown eggs come from brown hens.

The things you can learn from talking to the egg lady at the farmer's market.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 10:19 AM on March 21, 2014 [1 favorite]

The interior of an egg is determined largely by diet. Here in the US eggs from the store are generally a paler yellow than those from a farmers market which more to orange.

The shell color depends on the breed of hen laying. There is a misconception that brown shells are healthier, but based on a conversation I had with a chicken farmer at a farmers market there is no evidence that they are any healthier (or even different) from white eggs.
posted by lharmon at 10:22 AM on March 21, 2014 [2 favorites]

The price differences of food between countries has very little to do with breeding techniques and whatnot, and mostly to do with government regulation and subsidies. Chickens in the US will most likely be fed a grain diet based mostly on corn and soy, due to the massive US subsidies those two crops get. Additionally, chickens that would not normally survive factory conditions are kept alive by the liberal use of antibiotics.

European chickens have a more diverse diet - they're by no means all free range, eating bugs and grains in a field, but there are no one or two crops fed to them like in the US. Antibiotics are also banned.

As far as color goes, it's a matter of chicken race... but it comes down to the consumers. Europeans consider brown/cream eggs to be more natural, while US consumers find non-white eggs to be inferior. In either case, the eggs are identical and the shell color purely cosmetic.

You can get really crappy eggs in Europe as well, just go to any of the discount supermarkets we have and get a pack of their cheapest eggs. I see that the average price for a dozen eggs in the US is about $2, here in Poland I can get that for anywhere from $1.60 to $3 for organic eggs at a Whole Foods-style store.
posted by jedrek at 10:23 AM on March 21, 2014 [1 favorite]

Regarding the eggshell color, I know Yahoo! Answers often isn't a great authority, but the people who commented on this question about that seem to have some expertise, and they say the "white eggs from white hens, brown eggs from brown hens" rule of thumb is largely a myth. Maybe the egg lady at the farmers' market just happens to have brown hens that lay brown eggs and white hens that lay white eggs, but it seems that's not necessarily a rule.
posted by limeonaire at 10:24 AM on March 21, 2014 [1 favorite]

Best answer: As mentioned, yolk color is determined by what the hens eat. Europeans tend to prefer their yolks more orange, so various natural and synthetic additives are often included in the birds' feed.

You can read a lot more about it here.
posted by neroli at 10:24 AM on March 21, 2014 [5 favorites]

I buy organic eggs, usually brown, and they have nice bright orange yolks. Every once in a while I have no choice but regular eggs, and those are paler but I would say still significantly brighter than the eggs of 10 years ago.

European eggs must be sold with the "bloom", a shell coating excreted by the chicken, intact. This makes them not need refrigeration. US eggs must have the bloom washed off, which makes the shells significantly more porous. That allows salmonella etc to penetrate the egg, so it is kept at refrigerator temperature below the survivability of salmonella.
posted by Lyn Never at 10:24 AM on March 21, 2014 [8 favorites]

I remember when I was in Switzerland, I had to pay about $1/egg. In the US, even when I buy organic, free-range, antiobiotic-free eggs, they are only about $.50 to $.80 per egg.

The reason why they're not refrigerated is simple: They don't wash the eggs. Eggs naturally have a film that makes them good to keep, but sometimes that means there are other gross things on there (hens have only one outlet down there, if you know what I mean. also, there's dirt.) so you need to wash it before using it.

In the US, all eggs are washed before reaching the supermarkets. The wash removes this protective film and then the eggs need to be refrigerated.

On preview: What Lyn Never said.
posted by ethidda at 10:29 AM on March 21, 2014 [1 favorite]

I keep chickens. The more they are allowed to free range, the more bugs they eat; the more bugs they eat, the oranger the yolks. However, even when they don't free range at all, their yolks are much more orange than even the organic so-called cage free eggs from the supermarket. One possible difference is that my chickens are heritage breeds. Another possible difference is I let them rest in winter, and don't force them to lay year round through the use of artificial lighting. Another possible difference is they are getting natural sunlight even when cooped. I don't know what the conditions of your European chickens are--could any of these factors be in play? I can tell you for sure that insect consumption makes a dramatic difference. The yolks get almost freakishly orange.
posted by HotToddy at 10:39 AM on March 21, 2014

Best answer: Egg yolk color can be affected by what the hens eat. Ralston Purina markets chicken feed that includes marigold flower petals to enhance the color of egg yolks.
posted by X4ster at 10:41 AM on March 21, 2014

And yes, the thickness of the whites is a factor of age. Eggs laid this morning are extremely viscous, but if I keep them for a week they will thin out markedly. So maybe you are able to get your eggs sooner after laying over there?
posted by HotToddy at 10:42 AM on March 21, 2014

Response by poster: Neroli, that link is just exactly the kind of thing I am looking for. And thanks for the answers everyone, I would love to hear from anyone else who has looked into this!
posted by ohio at 10:45 AM on March 21, 2014

A while back I vaguely recall Ina Garten, Alton Brown, or some other celebrity chef in the US explaining the visual difference between US eggs and European eggs. He or she seemed to imply that Americans have been trained to expect their eggs to be a standard size, color, and yolk consistency based on marketing starting in the 50s and 60s. I also recall the chef saying something about how the standardization of chicken farms led to a standardization of breeds used for egg production, and that's how production influenced expectations and vice versa. I'll check the Food Network site in a bit when I'm home for lunch and am making myself an omelet. ;)
posted by Hermione Granger at 10:46 AM on March 21, 2014

I also have chickens. My 6 girls of 3 breeds lay 3 different colored eggs in three different sizes and deep orange yolks that are due to the amount of free ranging they do. I had them confined to their coop for about a month due to issues and their yolks were yellower. Also, I let them have free access to oyster shell for calcium and find that their shells are super-duper hard. I can accidentally carry them around in my pocket for an hour and they don't break.

I'm always happy to answer chicken and egg questions (except the original chicken/egg question) for any mefites who are wondering. Please feel free to memail me.
posted by Sophie1 at 11:07 AM on March 21, 2014 [5 favorites]

Different breeds indeed lay different colored eggs, but the white hen=white egg, brown hen=brown egg is not really true.

Not all eggs in Europe are free range but even factory farmed chickens will have a better, more varied diet than their American counterparts, which accounts for the differences in yolk.

Fresh, unwashed eggs don't need to be refrigerated but any commercial egg you buy in the US has to be washed, alas. I actually don't know if that applies to farmers' markets, though.

I'm European and grew up with chickens, I miss the quality of the eggs over there. Only way to get close in the US is obviously to get your own flock, which we won't have the space for until next year.
posted by lydhre at 12:08 PM on March 21, 2014

I've bought eggs from a local farm shop that were laid on the premises. I've seen the chickens trotting around - I nearly got to pet one once. I'm not really that familiar with breeds, but they're different colours and sizes. Their eggs seem pretty varied in shell colour, but they're pretty uniform inside. A bright orangey-yellow yolk with a firm-ish albumen.

A neighbour bought us some supermarket "value" eggs in exchange for some baking a couple of days ago. The shells were uniform in colour, but the insides looked like they'd faded in the sun, or something. Very pale yolk with a horrible watery albumen.

I seem to recall that the colour of an egg is dependent on how long it stays inside the oviduct (?). Longer times mean more colour is applied.
posted by Solomon at 12:29 PM on March 21, 2014

Eggs with watery whites are older. When you crack an egg and the yolk sits nice and high it's nice and fresh. Older eggs are great for meringue making.
posted by wwax at 12:46 PM on March 21, 2014

Older eggs are also better for hard boiled eggs as the shell peels off much more easily. We leave a box of eggs sitting for a week to have to boil for the next week at all times (my girls lay about 2 dozen +/- a week).
posted by Sophie1 at 1:24 PM on March 21, 2014 [1 favorite]

You might be interested in this timeline about eggs in the US. It includes quotes from magazines and manuals about egg production and norms. It's kind of neat to see how people evaluated eggs as a resource over time.
posted by Hermione Granger at 2:17 PM on March 21, 2014

Anecdotal, but I recall once having a discussion re: shell colours. In NZ, Pakeha, or Europeans feel that brown speckled eggs are healthier somehow, bit on the flip side Pacific Islanders see white shells as more wholesome.

I'm so pleased to be able to buy free range eggs in the UK, usually with poop and feathers.
posted by teststrip at 3:39 PM on March 21, 2014

Oh and here's a guide to egg printing, in case you ever were wondering what the numbers meant:
posted by teststrip at 3:41 PM on March 21, 2014

Q: Are the color of a hen's eggs determined by the color of her earlobes?
A: Not exactly, although ear lobe color seems to be related to (not determined by) egg color most of the time. Breeds with white earlobes lay white eggs... except for Penedesencas and Empordanesas, which have white earlobes and lay dark chocolate colored eggs. Chickens with red earlobes lay eggs in shades of brown... except for Easter Eggers, Ameraucanas and Araucanas, which lay blue eggs (usually blue or green in the case of Easter Eggers). Then there is the Silkie, which lays light brown or nearly white eggs; silkie earlobes are blue.

From here:

The earlobe thing is what I was taught. We have chickens. The size of the eggs is also often determined by the age of the chicken. Younger ones have smaller eggs and so on. A single chicken will produce different colored shells at different times as well.

The person above who said feeding the chickens oyster shells is also totally right. You have to give hens calcium to make the egg shells hard.
posted by syncope at 3:46 PM on March 21, 2014

Forbes: Why American Eggs Would Be Illegal in a British supermarket and vice versa
It’s all to do with the fact that commercial American eggs are federally required to be washed and sanitized before they reach the consumer. EU egg marketing laws, on the other hand, state that Class A eggs – those found on supermarkets shelves, must not be washed, or cleaned in any way.
posted by Rash at 4:10 PM on March 21, 2014 [2 favorites]

Best answer: Here's a bit from The Omnivore's Dilemma by Michael Pollan about Joel Salatin, a "grass farmer" in Staunton, Virginia:
The chef cracked one [egg] into a saucepan; instead of spreading out flabbily, the egg stood up nice and tall in the pan. Joel refers to this as "muscle tone." When he first began selling eggs to chefs, he'd crack one right into the palm of his hand, then flip the yolk back and forth from one hand to another to demonstrate its integrity. The Filling Station chef called his staff over to admire the vibrant orange color of the yolk. Art explained that it was the grass diet that gave the eggs their color, indicating lots of beta-carotene. I don't think I'd ever seen an egg yolk rivet so many people for so long."
Joel told me that when he first began selling eggs to chefs, he found himself apologizing for their pallid hue in winter; the yolks would lose their rich orange color when the chickens came in off the pasture in November. Then he met a chef who told him not to worry about it. The chef explained that in cooking school in Switzerland he'd been taught recipes that specifically called for April eggs, August eggs, and December eggs. Some seasons produce better yolks, others better whites, and chefs would adjust their menus accordingly.
posted by lharmon at 4:59 PM on March 21, 2014 [4 favorites]

I went to a farm expo once where there was an egg-selling dude explaining about egg yolk colours (in Australia). He had a set of cards of different colours of yellow and orange, each labelled with a country. He said that each represented what inhabitants of that country think of as the "typical" or "ideal" egg yolk colour. They differed substantially. He said it's based on the traditional make-up of chickens' diets in each country. Modernly farmed chickens are fed diets designed to create eggs of the expected (eggspected :) ) colour.

He said that he feeds chickens slightly different diets depending on which part of Australia he is selling their eggs to, and depending on the ethnic makeup of that region, which I thought was fascinating.
posted by lollusc at 6:50 PM on March 21, 2014

Even here in Europe (Hungary) the eggs can vary. Most are brown shelled, some are white. Supermarket eggs tend to be smaller, paler yolks. Eggs I buy in the market, which are not prepackaged in egg containers tend to be larger and have thicker, deep yellow yolks. Here we can buy factory produced battery chickens and, presumably, their eggs, but we also have corn fed chicken which has a better flavor and much more yellow in the skin and fat. Or I can go to the part of our market where country folk set up their stalls and sell farm raised chickens (head and feet on) and their eggs, which are twice the price but beyond comparison for flavor.
posted by zaelic at 1:43 AM on March 22, 2014

Just skipped down to say a more orange, thick egg yolk is desirable. Euros tend have more generic products be BIO (which means organic). I've had the same reaction to farm fresh eggs.
posted by xammerboy at 2:26 PM on March 22, 2014

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