"THE AVERAGE AMERICAN eats about 175 “shell eggs”—the kind you buy by the dozen at the market—a year, or about one every two days. Most of these are produced in egg factories by hens crammed into cages. But those of us who buy organic get eggs that are qualitatively different from the factory sort.
Because of the abundant minerals and natural foods in the organic hen’s diet, organic eggs’ shells are thick and smooth. When you crack them open, the yolk is a richly colored dark orange due to an abundance of beta-carotene and stands up tall above the white. Again, because of the hen’s natural diet, the white is gelatinous, with substance—it doesn’t just spill out across the pan or bowl. It has a light greenish-yellow tint that indicates it’s high in riboflavin. It has prominent chalazae, the thick white place in albumin strings that center the yolk in the shell.
The first time I used fresh organic eggs from free-range hens I had to separate four eggs. I remember that the whites were not runny, but clear and viscous, holding together in a thick, jelly-like mass. The yolks were deep orange and gave the batter of the cake I was making a rich, warm color. The yolks were also plump, standing up in the bowl before I beat them into the batter with a fork. They were thick and clung to the tines of the fork, so I had to squeeze the tines with my fingers to get the last of the yolks off the fork. They clung to my fingers, they were that thick and sticky. There is no substitute for eggs like these.
Compare these against eggs from a factory farm, where hens spend their lives cooped up in tiny cages under 24-hour-a-day lighting, fed genetically modified and pesticide-sprayed corn, and routinely treated with antibiotics to prevent the diseases that would otherwise flourish in these smelly, noisy, inhumane conditions. I’ve been in such egg factories, and they are a vision of chicken hell. Forced to lay too many eggs, fed as cheaply as possible, and living in unnatural conditions, factory hens lay eggs that may have rough and ridged shells, loose light yellow yolks, and watery whites. In the kitchen, this translates into poor performance in what eggs are supposed to do: bind ingredients, add body, and support light, well-risen cakes, among other functions.
The organic farm, however, is much closer to chicken heaven. According to the standards for the National Organic Program, “All organically raised animals must have access to the outdoors.… They may be temporarily confined only for reasons of health, safety, the animal’s stage of production, or to protect soil or water quality.”
This means that organic eggs come from hens with a scratch yard. Notice it says they can be shut in the henhouse only temporarily—in other words, they are truly free-range birds. That doesn’t mean they can fly out of the scratch yard and start living under the hydrangea. Laying hens and roosters usually have their flight feathers clipped so they can’t fly. Humane treatment, healthy diet, and lack of stress translate into organic eggs that perform beautifully in the kitchen, including functions such as coagulation, foaming, emulsification, and browning.