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Chefs, at least the ones whose expertise, reputations and food I trust, have a few simple rules—a credo, if you will, that they live by. It’s one that guides their paths towards culinary success, perhaps even to greatness.

At the top of their lists of “musts” is “fresh.”

Fresh tops talent every day of the week and twice at Sunday brunch. You can teach talent, you can hire talent, but you can’t make something that’s un-fresh fresh.

When it comes to fresh, some ingredients are easier to judge than others. Produce loses crispness and color. It spots, it molds, it sprouts. It does a number of things to let you know it’s spoiling.

Meat, likewise, discolors, slimes and becomes rancid; milk acidifies and curdles.

Most everything you buy has some kind of shelf life, and proteins have some of the shortest.

Of all the protein groups, eggs are perhaps the trickiest to gauge freshness in because they’re encased in a shell, and therefore, have little, if any, smell or change in appearance from fresh to, well, un-fresh.

Seriously, how long do fresh eggs really last in your fridge? At what point are you pressing your scrambled egg luck by cracking that shell? And what can you do to be reasonably sure you’re eating fresh, wholesome eggs?

Actually, compared to most proteins, eggs have a VERY long shelf life when kept under ideal refrigerated storage conditions.

What are ideal storage conditions you might ask?

1. Between 35 F and 40 F.
2. Kept in their *“original” carton container to protect against your fridge’s stray odors, which can permeate through the shell and give your eggs an off flavor. This also helps lessen moisture loss. The carton also insulates the eggs from temperature variations when your fridge door is opened and closed.

*Another benefit to keeping eggs in their original carton is that the carton is stamped with the actual packed-on and expiration date for your eggs. Well…duh.

In search of freshness.

If you look at your egg carton (usually at the end of the package), you’ll see a three-digit number. That’s the “julian” date, which is the numerical day of the year on which the eggs were packaged. On the carton I picked up at Nino’s (see photo), you can see that the julian number is 051, which means that this particular carton of eggs was packaged on Saturday, February 21st at 9:59 a.m.

Egg Carton

Okay, so we know when they were packed. When will they expire and how long might they still be good past the expiration date on the carton?

Here’s where it gets tricky.

The United States Department of Agriculture has some general Code Dating rules for the states to follow.

1. Believe it or not, USDA-graded eggs are not “by law” required to have Code Dated expiration dates (but typically they do). If they do, they are asked to follow these guidelines and use suggested words.
2. If using the terms: Expiration, Sell By or Best If Used Before dating, it can be no more that 30 days past the julian (packed on) date. That is an indication to sellers (in effect) that the product should be pulled from their shelves 30 days from packaging.
3. If using: Use By, Use Before, or Best Before dating, it can be no more than 45 days past the julian (packed on) date. That is that last date they should be consumed by the customer.

Sounds pretty clear right?

Except the USDA’s Food Code (above) isn’t a national mandate, only a model based on scientific evidence. From there, each state is allowed to adopt its own rules. In Ohio for example, they follow the USDA guidelines. Their expiration date is 30 days from the julian date. In Michigan, however, it’s 45 days. California, which seems to be strict about air pollution, isn’t so strict about their eggs. They are at 60 days from julian, twice that of Ohio.

This made me do some further research. Forget about laws; how long do eggs really last (at least ones you’d want to eat)?

The general scientific consensus (which I determined after spending way too much time on the Web) is that fresh eggs last about 66 days on the average under good storage conditions.

So, getting back to the question of how much additional shelf life is there past the expiration date on your egg carton…

I suppose that depends less on your fridge’s temperature and more on where your fridge is located.

If you live in Ohio, you could probably get 36 days past expiration unless you choose to throw the eggs at some passing motorist with a Michigan license plate. In Michigan, expect 21 days, and in California, it’s a mere 6 days.

In my example (see photo again), I happened to be in the dairy aisle on February 24th (4 days after they were packaged by the plant). So, according to the producer, I should expect 41 days of shelf life on these eggs, which would be until April 5th.

From there, I’m on my own, but I could (possibly) get an additional 21 days, taking me all the way to April 26th.

Actually, all the eggs with this initial julian date will be gone from our shelves in a matter of a couple days, so that’s not much of a concern. However, if you buy your eggs from a grocery store that doesn’t rotate or sell that many eggs, the carton you buy could have a shorter shelf life than you think.

So, it’s easy to know now just how fresh your eggs are if you leave them in the original container under ideal conditions, but what if you take them out of their carton and (like so many people do) place them in your refrigerator’s own egg tray, then forget when you bought them?

The float, eyes and nose test.

Egg shells are porous, and as such, the interior contents of eggs evaporate as time goes by, making the small air pocket (even in very fresh eggs) grow larger.

A fresh egg (in its shell) will sink to the bottom of a glass of water because the contents of a fresh egg overwhelms the buoyancy of what little air pocket there is.

As time goes by and evaporation creates a larger air pocket, that same egg will eventually begin to float. That happens at about the same time an egg hits its final expiration date.

A floating egg doesn’t necessarily mean the egg is spoiled (although I wouldn’t trust it), but it is a good enough indication that it’s a worthwhile one to use.

Another, and perhaps even better indicator, is once you crack the egg and examine it.

A fresh egg has a plump, bright yolk, which sits up high on a plate. There is a rather firm, gelatinous ring directly encircling the yolk, and the rest of the white doesn’t spread too far out. Older eggs, on the other hand, have yolks that look flattened because they have lost that encircling gelatinous ring and the white is watery and spread well away from the yolk.

Finally, if you crack an egg and not only is the white watery but slightly pinkish, it’s a goner. Likewise if you notice any off odors.

  The life beyond…

Other information:
• It’s the cuticle, a waxy protective layer on the egg that gives eggs their long shelf life. Much of this cuticle is washed off during processing, but enough of it remains to help protect your eggs from spoiling rapidly.
• You can freeze eggs to extend their shelf life, but if you do, consider this:
o I’d personally only use them in bakery recipes.
o The frozen egg yolks in your whole eggs will get gummy after thawing. To prevent this, beat each ½ cup of beaten egg with 1/8th tsp. of salt or 1 ½ tsp. of sugar. Be sure to compensate for this salt or sugar in your recipes.
• Hard boiled eggs only have about 7 days of shelf life after cooking, so I don’t recommend cooking off older eggs if you are trying to extend their shelf life.

Last words…

With the health risks associated with spoiled eggs, including salmonella and E. coli strains of bacteria, it’s always a safe practice to enjoy your eggs well cooked and to consume them prior to the expiration dates suggested above.

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