The question of what’s the best way to store eggs between the times they are collected and when we eat them is a recurring theme in Facebook chicken groups. There are two distinct camps: refrigeration vs. counter storage. I grew up refrigerating eggs and always took it for granted that was the only method of storage. As someone who enjoys research and exploring why folks do things differently I set about investigating the how’s and why’s of egg storage.
I grew up in a city, buying my eggs from the store. As soon as they got home they were put into the fridge until required. If you live in many parts of Europe (and other places around the world) it might be common practice to store your eggs, at room temperature, on your kitchen counters. When I visited England as a teenager I was surprised to see most households had very small fridges, still had their milk delivered (and left on their doorstep, sometimes for hours) and eggs were sold in grocery stores on shelves beside non-perishables.
So Why The Difference?
The bottom line is our practices have been shaped by two different philosophies about preventing the same bacterial pathogen – Salmonella – one of the most common causes of food poisoning.
In North America, large-scale commercial operations are preferred over the free-range systems used in Europe. Factory farms mean more eggs can be produced in a smaller area, but it also makes them more susceptible to salmonella contamination, even with good hygiene practices. Bacteria can be passed on from an infected hen to the inside of the egg before it’s laid, or can get on the outside of the shell by coming into contact with the hen’s poop.
To combat the problem, back in the 1970s the U.S. perfected egg washing. Once laid, the eggs go directly to a machine where they’re treated with soap and hot water. This process washes away any potential pathogens, but also strips the eggs of the thin protective coating on the exterior of the shell called a cuticle (or bloom). What you are unable to see with the naked eye is that eggshells are actually porous and once the bloom has been removed it makes them vulnerable. Without protection, the eggs can’t keep water and oxygen in or harmful bacteria out. So the eggs are refrigerated to combat potential contamination.
It’s critical that the eggs are washed properly or the process can actually increase the chances of bacteria seeping into the shell from feces outside it. Once cleaned, eggs are kept at cooler temperatures to prevent them from deteriorating as quickly and to deter bacterial growth.
Europe takes a different approach. In the late 1990s, Britain implemented a widespread Salmonella vaccination program for laying hens. Their efforts paid off with the marked decline of bacterial infection in the birds, and subsequent Salmonella infection in consumers. Their practice is to leave the bloom intact, not wash eggs (it is illegal for commercial producers to do so) and discourage refrigeration. The goal is to produce clean eggs at the point of collection rather than trying to clean them afterwards,
So far, this discussion has been about commercial egg farms where most hens are kept in small cages where their eggs drop and are whisked away from potential fecal contamination.
As small flock chicken keepers how do we collect, clean and store our eggs? I try to deter any birds (usually youngsters or newcomers) from sleeping (and pooping) in the nest boxes. I change the shavings weekly, but their eggs can still get dirty, especially in the winter when it rains and their feet are muddy. Occasionally an egg is contaminated with poop or the remains of an accidentally broken egg.
I collect eggs in a wire egg basket, which can easily be rinsed out. Placing dirty eggs in cartons is a breeding ground for bacteria; the residual dirt/poop can contaminate subsequently collected eggs.
Tips On Refrigerating Eggs
- Store in an egg carton to prevent them from absorbing odours from other foods.
- Place eggs pointed side down. Air and bacteria can enter the egg through the wide end into the air sac located there. If you store the egg pointed end up the air pocket will rise, touch the yolk and risk contaminating it. By storing eggs blunt end up, the pocket of air stays away from the yolk, and the egg stays fresh longer.
- Keep on a shelf at the back, rather than the door, to avoid fluctuating temperatures
- If using for baking bring them to room temperature before use
- Refrigeration can more than double an egg’s shelf life by keeping bacteria under control – good for 50-60 days
- Do not wash/clean until just before using them. Wetting a dirty shell provides moisture, assisting bacterial growth and penetration through the shell
- Store at an ambient temperature of 17-23c/62-73f
- Good for 21-28 days before using
- If you need to clean your eggs (for refrigeration or the counter top ones just before use) wipe them gently with a dry sponge or paper towel
- For persistent dirt/poop use a moistened paper towel or cloth; if necessary wash under running water, but don’t immerse them
- Clean with warm water which causes the contents to expand. Cold water can make the contents contract, pulling bacteria into the egg
- Don’t use soap, bleach or vinegar
- Dry with a paper towel or cloth
How To Tell If Eggs Are Fresh
- They should have a firm white, a small air cell at the wide end and a centered yolk.
- Fresh eggs sink in water; older eggs will float. As an egg ages, the size of the air cell inside increases, causing it to float.
- A cloudy egg white is a sign of freshness, not age: the cloudiness is the result of the high carbon dioxide content when the egg is laid.
I have to admit that I was heavily biased in favour of refrigerating my eggs and didn’t think any research would sway me from my tried-and-true way of doing things. I had finished this piece and decided before posting it I would have a poll on my Facebook page asking my followers what their egg storage practices were. I was surprised that I got such a response: 215 (152 counter storage vs. 63 fridge storage). 40 people made comments explaining their rationale for doing so. Some of the fridge folks weren’t against counter storage – it often came down to a question of space.
I’ve decided that I will try a hybrid mix: if eggs are pristine at collection I’ll try the counter storage method for those used for my personal consumption; eggs that require some cleaning or are sold to customers will be refrigerated. I’ll give it a go and see how I like it. One thing I know is that my eggs will look great on display.
Now you know the back-story on the different rationales for how eggs are stored I’ll leave it to you to decide what works best in your household.