Not eggzaggeratin’

🕔Jun 13, 2011

The next time you pull an egg from the fridge, ask yourself this: Why do we refrigerate eggs?

You probably know the general answer: Eggs go bad if you leave them out. You probably remember hearing as a kid that the egg is the ideal medium for bacterial growth (or was that blood?) Anyway, you can’t leave eggs out.

But I was travelling in England recently, and I have to say that, despite all the castles and museums and beautiful landscapes, the most interesting thing I saw were the eggs in the supermarkets.

There they were, rows of them in their little cartons, on the shelves, the regular shelves. Just sitting out there, at room temperature. Uncovered, unrefrigerated. That’s how they’re sold there, like packs of cookies or boxes of raisins. And that’s how, in homes, they are stored. No one thinks eggs are supposed to go in the fridge; they go on the pantry shelf.

Of course in Canada we know you can never do that. Eggs, like milk, are chilled to a steady 4º C from the moment they drop out of the hen until the moment you crack them open to bake a cake. In fact, American and Canadian authorities agree on this basic point: eggs are a real food-poisoning risk, and we must be ever-vigilant.

Here’s a thought experiment. A friend says, “Oh, for Pete’s sake—these eggs were out all night. I think I’d better throw them away, don’t you?” It’s an uncomfortable situation. The eggs are definitely a bit suspect. It might be better to throw them away, although certainly a tragic waste of food. (Note: if you had recently taken a BC Foodsafe course, you’d DEFINITELY throw them out.)

The lives eggs lead
Here’s an honest question from the man-on-the-street, sent to an English newspaper:

Should eggs be stored in the fridge? Although fridges come with an egg tray, I read somewhere that putting eggs into the fridge actually makes them degenerate quicker. Can anyone enlighten me? – Neil, London, UK

Most of the responses he received from other readers have wonderful and reassuring, if anecdotal, common-sense reasons why no one keeps eggs in the fridge. It’s simply self-evident that you don’t do that. Refrigeration makes eggs more difficult to cook, more likely to be contaminated by salmonella after cooking, quicker to deteriorate in quality, quicker to absorb other food smells. My favourite:

An egg kept in the fridge is more likely to “go off” as the porous shell will allow water to be absorbed. I have been led to believe that it is this water absorption that actually makes the egg inedible.
See, and here we are, always refrigerating our eggs, never suspecting it makes them more likely to go off.

The more I thought about the different lives eggs lead on the two sides of the Atlantic, the more I realized that the science about what happens to eggs left out at room temperature must be the same here and there. It’s not like eggs are rare or hard to experiment on. The science must be the same and it’s the interpretation that’s different.

Here’s the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) counselling us on the clearly very risky business of buying eggs:

Choose only refrigerated Grade A eggs.

When shopping, pick up eggs and other cold food last so they stay cold.

Keep your eggs cold!

Always put eggs and other perishables away first when you get home. Keep eggs in the coldest section of the fridge.

It sounds like warm eggs are more dangerous than I’ve ever suspected! Yet as consumers we are trusted to be able to manage this on our own. Kind of makes you feel proud.

You’re probably thinking, then, that the majority of UK supermarkets and residents just have bad attitudes when it comes to basic food-safety practices. But here’s the CFIA’s counterpart in the UK, DEFRA (the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs), essentially reassuring us that not refrigerating your eggs is fine and, well, completely normal:

Before purchase by the consumer, EC legislation requires that eggs are stored and transported at a preferably constant temperature. This is current practice within the UK egg industry and the reason why the majority of retail outlets’ egg displays are not refrigerated. Changes in storage temperature and humidity can lead to condensation forming on the eggshell which can cause mould growth together with the possibility that any bacteria may infect the eggs as a result.

Yep, it’s actually OK with their government, and it sounds like the rest of the EC is doing it as well. And they’re not dying of salmonella.

The salmonella question
Ah, salmonella. Now this is where the debate gets interesting (not that there is actually any transatlantic debate about—or even awareness of—these differing practices.) The CFIA (and its counterpart agency south of the border, the USDA) focuses on gripping statistics about salmonella. One in every twenty or thirty thousand eggs, according to their statistics, is infected with salmonella. Consistent chilling, and thorough cooking, of eggs appears to follow logically from this ever-present threat.

The UK takes a different view: basically that salmonella is not the entire story. It’s there, but it’s no cause for hysteria. Adequate cooking kills it. It’s mostly on the eggshell, not in the egg. It really doesn’t indicate a need to refrigerate your eggs.

Much is made in Britain of the constant-temperature approach: that good eggs make bad choices, if you will, not when they fail to be chilled, but when their temperatures are changed too quickly. The culprit here is condensation. A cold egg sitting in warm moist air will quickly, like a glass of ice-water, become a damp egg. Eggshells are permeable to moisture (especially if washed), so if the shell has bacteria on it, when the egg absorbs that moisture you might have a contaminated egg.

This means (to me, anyway) that your choice of storage method may be limited by the state you get your eggs in: if you got ‘em cold, and they were washed, you’ve got to keep ’em cold. If you got ‘em warm, and they weren’t washed, you can keep ’em in the pantry. Or, in either case, change their temperature gradually.

What we’re used to
All this sort of analysis is very reassuring, and I’m sure at this moment you’re considering leaving your eggs out and seeing what happens. (It would make a heck of a science-fair experiment.) But trying to come to a single right answer on the best way to keep eggs is going to elude us. It’s that basic fact of human culture that we’re used to what we do, and we don’t want to change. It’s as true of eggs as it is of fossil fuel. People in the UK have been leaving their eggs out for generations. When refrigeration of eggs is publicly suggested there (probably by refrigerator manufacturers), here’s the kind of resistance they run into:

I never have and never will keep eggs in a fridge. My Mum always said there was no need and Mum knows best! If using eggs in baking they have to be room temperature anyway and I certainly couldn’t be bothered to wait for them to warm up!

That’s on a UK website discussing this sort of thing. Take that, you egg-refrigeration advocates!

Meanwhile, we’re very comfortable here with our cold eggs. They’re familiar, our recipes work, and who wants to mess with success? Don’t you just feel SAFE when you take those eggs from the fridge? Don’t you enjoy the thrill of the calculated risk of leaving them out on the counter to warm up prior to baking?

My guess is that, even though it’s widely accepted overseas, anyone here who hopes to keep eggs on the pantry shelf faces an enormous battle. You’ll be defending your practices against the questioning looks of well-meaning friends and family, who will be reading up on the symptoms of salmonella and keeping an eye on you.

And you didn’t hear it here, brother: you didn’t read it in Northword…