Homegrown eggs kept on the counter
Backyard Chickens

Eggs: To Chill or Not to Chill

One of my favorite things about backyard eggs — besides the orange yolks, the daily discoveries, and the hilarious hens themselves — is not having to refrigerate them. That’s right, I leave my eggs out. Sometimes for weeks. And you know what? They’re just as fresh (if not fresher) as the eggs I used to buy and keep in the fridge.

Since my plucky ladies started laying last month, I’ve stored all their eggs on the counter in a handcrafted egg holder. I spotted it in a Mexican woodworking shop on my recent road trip. It holds 12 eggs neatly in 12 little slots — and I’m even weird enough to display them in alternating colors!

Fresh eggs in a wooden egg holder

With three hens, I get about a dozen eggs a week, which the fella and I go through easily between our breakfasts and baked goods. They usually don’t sit for more than two weeks on the counter, but they also don’t make us sick. If eggs can be stored at room temperature for that long, you may be wondering, why are we told to store them in the fridge?

The United States is one of the few countries to keep its eggs refrigerated. This cultural norm emerged when mass production of eggs required them to travel long distances and sit in storage before arriving at your local market.

I personally think it’s also a result of our generally germaphobic society, and the fact that we have massive refrigerators and like to put everything in them. Many other countries I’ve visited, from all over Central America to Europe to Asia, keep their eggs on the shelves right next to the unrefrigerated produce. And yet, their eggs will last for months.

When some of my friends learn that I don’t chill my eggs, they’re confused and caught off guard. “Won’t they go bad?”… or, “Aren’t you afraid of salmonella?” With backyard eggs, no.

To understand how this is possible, you would first have to understand the differences between a backyard egg and a factory egg.

Eggs are permeable membranes containing thousands of pores. When a hen lays an egg, her body deposits a natural protective coating on the shell called a bloom (or a cuticle). The bloom is a mucous secretion that quickly dries after laying and seals the pores on the shell, making it impervious to bacteria and reducing the loss of moisture. When moisture is lost, carbon dioxide is lost, which then speeds up deterioration of the egg.

If you’ve ever examined a backyard egg and a factory egg up close, you may have noticed that the white (or albumen) of the backyard egg appears cloudy. The cloudiness indicates the carbon dioxide present in a fresh egg; the older the egg, the more gas that escapes, making the white more transparent (and thus more watery or runny).

If you have backyard eggs, the ideal method of storing them is in a dry place at room temperature, around 65°F to 70°F. This could be a pantry, a cupboard, or in my case, the counter. There is no need to refrigerate your eggs, assuming you’ll eat them within a couple of months (and even then, months-old eggs are still safe to eat, as long as they were properly stored; they just won’t cook as well). There is also no need to wash your eggs for storage, since this will remove the bloom and make your eggs susceptible to bacteria.

I only wash my eggs right before I use them (to rinse off residual dust). If you keep the bedding in your chicken coop clean, there should be little, if any, dirt on the eggshells when you collect your eggs. Designate nest boxes for laying, don’t allow your flock to sleep in them, and don’t put roosts right above the nests. Clean and healthy hens produce clean and healthy eggs.

My hens lay on plastic nest pads and never sleep in their nests, so most of their eggs come out spotless. Specks of dirt can be brushed off with your finger or a towel. If you find an egg very dirty, you can wash it under running water, but plan to use it right away or keep it chilled.

A clean and healthy egg

USDA guidelines state that eggs should be stored at 40°F or below. This is necessary for factory eggs, which are kept in the fridge at the market and should stay in the fridge at home.

Factory eggs come from large-scale farm operations where hygiene cannot be adequately monitored. Factory eggs often end up poopy and dirty with feathers sticking to the muck on the shell.

To make the eggs palatable for the public, the eggs are washed and sanitized (with anything from chlorine to peracetic acid, depending on how “organic” the factory is), which strips them of their natural barrier and makes them vulnerable to pathogens. Commercial packers will try to prolong shelf life by spraying the eggs with their own protective coating, usually mineral oil or vegetable oil. If your store-bought eggs appear shiny, you’re seeing the film from the oil.

By law, eggs must be processed within seven days of being laid. By the time they are collected, cleaned, graded, packed, and shipped statewide or nationwide, those “farm fresh” eggs could already be two weeks old… and then they sit for another week or two in the store… and then another week or two in your fridge.

Refrigeration during this period is critical because it keeps the temperature of the eggs constant, which inhibits bacterial growth. A cold egg left out in a warm room will sweat; its pores expand from fluctuating temperatures, causing bacteria to seep into the egg. This is true of any egg, washed or not. For this reason, even if you have a freshly laid egg with the bloom intact, you should not keep it on the counter once it’s been refrigerated. It’s either in or out, from farm to fork.

If for some reason you have a surplus of eggs that you can’t eat in the next few months, by all means, refrigerate them and they will probably keep for at least six months or more. But if you have that many eggs, what’s the point of storing them? Sell them, share them, and use that space for something else!

A good rule of thumb for storing eggs is to store them in the same condition you acquired them:

  • If they were chilled at the store, you should chill them at home.
  • If they were sold in the open by a family farm at the farmers’ market, you can store them at room temperature.
  • If they were collected from your own coop, find yourself a cute little egg holder and proudly display them. Fresh eggs are simply too beautiful to hide away!
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