Brown Eggs Taste Better December 11 2011, 1 Comment

Like other country kids, I earned money by having an egg route. I would deliver on foot or by bicycle to all my neighbors. The tradition lives on, sort of. My daughters collect the eggs, but I end up doing the hard work, washing, boxing, and selling the them at my office. The girls get to keep the money though for their savings accounts. Good old Dad. My co-workers are eager consumers, but at first there were a variety of questions and misconceptions about buying farm fresh eggs.

Foghorn Leghorn
Foghorn's Hens Lay White Eggs

Leghorn Rooster
The Real Foghorn Leghorn

Eggshell Color Our chickens lay brown eggs. Up to the time I was a teenager, I don't think I'd ever seen anything but a brown egg. Today, most eggs in the supermarket are white. The color of an egg's shell is determined by the genetics of the hen. It has nothing to do with what the hen eats, or how it is kept. There are no intrinsic nutritional differences either. Simply put, some breeds of chickens lay brown eggs, some white, and a few others lay blue, greenish, or mottled. In the US, many of the most popular breeds used in commercial production (especially the Leghorn of Looney Tunes fame) lay white eggs, and that's why you see predominately white eggs in the larger market areas.

Assorted Shades of Brown Eggs
Brown Eggs of Various Sizes and Shade

All eggshells are actually white. The color is only skin deep on the shell's surface. You can easily scrape some off. If you crack open a brown egg, you'll see the inside of the shell is white. Color comes from natural porphyrins, or pigments in the bird's bloodstream. They are deposited on the eggshell during the final stages of its trip down the chicken's oviduct. It is said that all chickens once laid only brown eggs, but selective breeding gradually led to the white layers. The overwhelming majority of the world's hens still do lay pigmented eggs of one shade or another.

Red Star Hen with Lighter Earlobes

Generally speaking, white egg breeds have white or light feathers, and brown egg breeds have brown or dark feathers. However, even within the same breed, there can be slight variation in the shade of egg color. If you want to predict amount of pigment from a given hen, the place to look is her "earlobes". A hen's earlobes are a patch of skin on the side of the face. The redder or darker the earlobe, the darker brown the egg.

Orange Yolks A deep yellow or orange yolk is a good thing. Unlike the shell, the yolk color is very much influenced by the hen's diet and environment. The yolk represents about 1/3 of an egg's weight, but it contains all the vitamins, all the fat, almost all of the calories, and about half the protein. It's the business part of the egg to be sure. The yellow color comes from carotenoids, which are natural compounds found in plants. The best known carotenoid is beta-carotene. Chickens with access to the outdoors ("free-range") eat more vegetative material than their less fortunate caged sisters, so their egg yolks will be deeper yellow. Darker yolks should not necessarily be considered any more nutritious. They do imply a more diverse, richer diet, which has a direct correlation on taste. So, better tasting eggs have deep yellow yolks, and they come from free-range hens with diverse diets. That's the theory at least.

Farm Fresh Eggs

Commercial egg producers aren't dummies though. In response to consumer preferences, some are now adding synthetic pigments to chicken feed in order to liven up the color of their eggs. Salmon farmers do it too. One widely used additive is citranaxanthin, and it has attracted some controversy. Natural supplements including marigold flowers and leaves are reportedly used as well. Our own brood of hens has a large run attached to their coop. Officially, that qualifies as "free-range". The chickens spend most of their time outside (so long as there's no snow on the ground), catching occasional bugs and worms. Alot of the natural carotenoids they consume are from all the grass, vegetable and fruit scraps we feed them year-round, in addition to their regular grain regime. A little diet diversity is all it takes. It shows in nice orange yolks.

Some customers at work had only been accustomed to store-bought white eggs. It took a little convincing to get them to try a dozen of my funny mixed browns. The rich-colored yolks were also surprise, but after a bite or two they were hooked. Now, I have co-workers bringing in empty cartons, and lining up each week with $2 in hand. I am the eggman.