Many people love having backyard chickens, and one of the best things about it is getting fresh eggs. There’s something special about finding a new egg in the coop, and it’s always exciting, no matter how many times you do it.
Now, let’s talk about these eggs. Ever wonder how they actually form? And why do eggshells come in different colors? Are all eggs like the ones we see in the store? Let’s explore the journey of eggs, from the chicken to your plate.
Having backyard chickens pays off with a constant supply of fresh eggs, and it’s not just about the taste – there’s a satisfaction in knowing where your eggs come from, right from your own backyard.
How Chickens Make Eggs
When a girl chick comes into the world, she’s got a bunch of immature yolks (ova) in her ovaries—more than enough to last her whole life. As she grows up, her left ovary becomes the main one that gets things done. When she hits around 18 to 21 weeks old, the egg-making adventure kicks off. Every day or so, her ovary lets out an ovum, and in the following seven to 10 days, her body adds yolk to that egg.
When the ovum is all grown up, ovulation happens, and the yolk gets released into the oviduct for a 24-to-26-hour egg-creating process. Most of the action takes place while the hen is catching some Zs. It’s essential to remember that an egg isn’t designed to be human food. Its job is to make a new chicken and give that little life a good start.
The egg white joins the yolk in the early stages of egg creation, taking about four hours. The yolk moves into the infundibulum, the entrance to the oviduct, where it can get fertilized if there’s a rooster in the mix. Then, it continues its journey through the oviduct.
As the egg white is forming, a vitelline membrane (a clear cover to keep the yolk safe) and layers of albumen are added. While the yolk spins through the oviduct, chalazae (clear to white stringy bits) are thrown in to keep the yolk right in the middle of the egg.
Just before hitting the uterus, the egg takes on its shape as inner and outer shell membranes are added. The next 20 hours in the uterus are all about forming the shell, which is made of calcite, which is a fancy form of calcium carbonate and is naturally white. It takes about 4 grams of calcium to pull off that shell. And that’s when the eggshell color comes into play.
A common myth is that eggs with different shell colors taste different, but that’s not true. By the time the shell is being formed, all the tasty parts of the egg are already set. The shell is just there to keep everything together for the chick to grow inside. Shell color comes from pigments added by the hen as the egg travels through her oviduct. In brown eggs, the inside is still white because the pigment comes in late in the shell-making game.
Once the shell is done, the egg heads to the vagina, where the protective bloom gets applied, and the egg turns large-end-first for the big moment of being laid. If chicken keepers are lucky, they might catch a glimpse of the final step as the egg is laid or see it shortly after. In those cases, most folks notice the egg is shiny and wet. It’s not the shell itself that’s wet; it’s the bloom, and it dries up fast. An eggshell has more than 17,000 pores, giving plenty of chances for dirt and bacteria to sneak in. The bloom keeps those intruders out while still letting air and moisture do their thing.
When we stroll down the grocery store aisles, we’re greeted by rows of flawlessly colored, perfectly shaped eggs neatly arranged on the shelves. It seems like a flawless display, except for the occasional cracked shell or broken egg in the carton. But does the reality of egg-laying chickens mirror this picture?
Not really. In the world of backyard chickens (and even in factory farms), a hen has the potential to lay a thousand eggs or more throughout her lifetime. In most cases, imperfections in eggs don’t necessarily indicate a health issue; it’s just that achieving perfection every time is a bit of a long shot. Let’s explore some common quirks found in eggs.
Double-yolk eggs: These eggs surprise us with more than one yolk when cracked open. They often occur in pullets laying their initial eggs or in older hens as their laying pace slows down. About one in every thousand eggs turns out to be a double-yolk, with hybrid and large-breed chickens exhibiting a higher frequency. The phenomenon arises when two ova are released into the oviduct simultaneously, progressing through the egg-formation process together.
Double-yolk eggs can either be standard-sized or unusually large. The larger ones may have a softer shell due to stretching over a larger area with the same amount of calcium as a regular egg, making it thinner.
Some chickens are intentionally bred to lay double-yolk eggs, but consistent production of large eggs can lead to health issues, such as egg binding (when an egg gets stuck inside the oviduct) and vent prolapse (where the hen’s oviduct is pushed outside her body).
Fairy eggs: These pint-sized eggs go by various names like fairy eggs, fart eggs, or wind eggs. They are more common in young or elderly layers, whose reproductive systems may be a bit out of sync. These eggs form when a piece of tissue enters the oviduct and undergoes the egg-formation process.
Wrinkled and cracked eggs: Occasionally, two eggs navigate the egg-formation process simultaneously, leading to collisions and resulting in wrinkles or tiny cracks beneath the surface. Rough handling of a hen during the egg-forming process can also contribute to imperfections. Persistent wrinkled eggs might signal health issues like infectious bronchitis or Newcastle disease.
Eggs can also develop with extra calcium deposits, causing pimples, bumps, and rough spots. This typically means the egg stalled during formation, and additional calcium was added in specific areas. Uneven coloring occurs in a similar fashion – if eggs rotate too slowly or too quickly, coloring is applied unevenly, akin to getting too much paint on a brush and attempting to create a perfect Monet.
Meat spots/blood inside an egg: Meat spots occur when a bit of lining is released into an egg during formation. Blood spots happen when a blood vessel ruptures, releasing some blood with the yolk. Technically, both are safe to eat, but it ultimately comes down to personal preference.
When you start pondering the quirks of eggs, it raises the question of how grocery-store eggs manage to look so flawless. The quick answer? They don’t always. While the chances are decent that you might encounter some imperfect eggs when raising chickens, the greater likelihood is that you’ll come across seemingly perfect ones.
Grocery-store eggs go through a process called candling, where they are examined under a bright light to check for meat spots, blood spots, and to assess the yolk and white. Interestingly, candling becomes more challenging when dealing with darker-shelled eggs, particularly the popular brown ones. These days, dark-brown eggs are quite in vogue.
Additionally, grocery-store eggs undergo grading, descending from AA, A, to B. These grades are determined based on factors like yolk height and firmness, the thickness and firmness of egg whites, and shell quality.
Eggs that don’t meet the grade aren’t wasted but rather find their way into other products. On a side note, the size labeling of grocery-store eggs—jumbo, extra-large, large—doesn’t necessarily reflect the actual size of the eggs. It’s determined by the average weight in ounces per dozen. Hence, not every egg in a dozen from the grocery store will be the same size.
In an ideal scenario, collecting backyard eggs should be a daily routine. It’s recommended not to use soap and water for washing because that removes the natural bloom, leaving the egg pores susceptible to dirt and germs.
Generally, eggs laid in a clean nest box are already clean when you gather them. In case some dirt is present, a simple wipe with a dry cloth should do the trick. If they happen to be soiled and require washing, opt for warm water and use them promptly.
The topic of egg storage has sparked many debates: to refrigerate or not to refrigerate?
Here’s the lowdown. If left to nature, a hen would lay a clutch of eggs over several days, sometimes spanning two weeks. She would only start sitting on them after the entire batch was laid. These eggs would then go through a 21-day incubation period, with most of them remaining fresh and unspoiled. Eggs are designed to endure.
They can stay fresh on a countertop without refrigeration, but they will degrade faster over time. If you’re planning to use your eggs shortly, leaving them out is fine. However, for longer storage, a refrigerator is the optimal choice.
If you’re in the mood for hard-boiled eggs, it’s crucial to refrigerate them within two hours of cooking and consume them within a week. Hard-boiled eggs are more prone to spoilage because their protective bloom has been removed.
Sometimes, chickens can surprise you with a hidden stash of eggs, or you might lose track of how long your eggs have been in the fridge. To check for freshness, you can perform a float test. An older egg will float in water, while a fresh one will sink. It doesn’t determine if an egg is good or bad, only how fresh it is.
As a precaution, always crack eggs individually in a separate bowl from your other ingredients. Eggs that emit a foul odor or have an unusual appearance should be discarded.
How to preserve eggs long-term without electricity
Preserving eggs without electricity can be practical in various situations, especially if you’re looking for sustainable methods. Here are a few methods that do not require electricity:
Water Glassing (Sodium Silicate Method):
Process: Submerge clean, unwashed eggs in a solution of water glass. Ensure the eggs are completely covered. Store the container in a cool, dark place. The water glass forms a protective coating that helps prevent air and bacteria from entering the egg.
Considerations: Check the water glass solution regularly and add more if it becomes diluted. Proper storage conditions are crucial for the success of this method.
Lime Water Preservation:
Process: Create a solution by mixing one part food-grade hydrated lime with ten parts water. Immerse the eggs in the lime water solution, ensuring they are fully covered. Store the container in a cool, dark place.
Considerations: Rotate the eggs periodically to ensure each egg is adequately coated. This method requires careful preparation to avoid using excessive lime.
Coating with Mineral Oil:
Process: Gently coat clean, unwashed eggs with a thin layer of mineral oil. Place the eggs in cartons and store them in a cool, dark location.
Considerations: The mineral oil creates a barrier that helps seal the eggshell, reducing moisture loss and preventing bacterial contamination. Make sure to use food-grade mineral oil.
Process: Bury clean, unwashed eggs in a container filled with salt, ensuring each egg is completely covered. Store the container in a cool, dry place.
Considerations: The salt creates an environment inhospitable to bacteria. When retrieving eggs, brush off excess salt and use as needed.
Process: Prepare a pickling solution using vinegar, salt, and spices. Boil the solution, let it cool, and then immerse peeled, hard-boiled eggs in the pickling liquid. Store the pickled eggs in a cool place.
Considerations: Pickled eggs have a distinctive flavor. Ensure the pickling solution is well-prepared and has enough acidity to prevent bacterial growth.
Remember that these methods may alter the taste and texture of eggs, and the storage conditions play a crucial role in their success. Always use clean, unwashed eggs, and regularly inspect stored eggs for any signs of spoilage. Additionally, labeling and proper rotation can help manage the freshness of preserved eggs.
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