As a chef, I find myself frequently fielding inquiries that are vast in their range of subjects. Anything from which apple is best suited for a particular dish to what type of kitchen utensils are most appropriate for a specific task. I am asked about unfamiliar vegetables, fruits, or brands of food. I am asked how to adjust flavors, textures, cooking times, acidity, color, and spice. There are queries about seasonings, growing seasons, seasonality. I tackle topics such as science, ethics, culture, history, geography, animal husbandry, home economics, oenology, mycology, restaurant management, and culinary arts, among others. Some are easy answers, others necessitate research. Still others require reflection, and are sometimes a question of conscience, and rather than hard facts, I am doling out my (sometimes strong) opinion.
But I digress. What I really wanted to write about was the specific question that I was recently asked. Here is the query:
True or false:
If a person purchases organic, cage free eggs they are more likely to crack one open to discover a chicken embryo.
My first thought – ewww. If one were more likely to discover a chicken embryo in their egg when purchasing organic, there would probably be a lot less organic egg enthusiasts. But perhaps there was something that they discovered in their egg that led them to believe that they had found an embryo?
There is more to this than true or false. You are probably not likely to encounter a chicken embryo, since most commercial egg producers, whether industrial or family farmer, do not allow a rooster in the hen house. Roosters tend to rough up chickens – not so good for laying stock. Embryos in eggs only form in fertilized eggs.
Are your eggs from a commercial source, a Farmers Market, or from a neighborhood hen-house hobbyist who is selling eggs?
If it is from a commercial source that you procure your eggs, it should not ever happen, even in commercially available fertilized eggs, since they have high-tech candling techniques that locate impurities and can then omit those eggs from their sale stock. If you have found something strange, such as a blood spot, in your store-bought commercial organic, cage free eggs, bring it to the attention of the company. They may be able to tell you what it is, or they may just offer you a free dozen. If it is the latter, and no explanation is given, consider switching brands.
(though blood spots are not the worst of what commercial eggs offer – here is an article about the recent salmonella outbreak at one of the nation’s largest commercial egg facilities – all the more reason to eat local & know your farmer!)
If they are from a Farmers Market, the farmer should be very upfront about their practices. You can inquire as to whether they have a rooster, or what might cause something strange in your egg (describe what you’ve found, or better yet, bring them a sample).
“Our eggs have occasionally contained some fairly bizarre looking particles, and we always replace the “bad” egg and explain why the bad egg is just an ugly egg,” offers one local farmer. This is the great thing about shopping at a Farmers Market – you are able to candidly discuss any discrepancies, questions, or problems directly with the person who grows or raises your food. Invaluable. After all, your body is a temple – it’s good to know who is making what kind of offerings!
The random egg seller or hobbyist may have a rooster, then all the eggs would be considered fertile. The egg could potentially be fertile even if it was laid several weeks after the chicken had been. If the keepers of the coop are not being careful about candling their eggs, or if they don’t gather all the eggs on the day that they are laid and then find the missing egg days later, then yes, you could end up with an embryo in your egg. Not a good sign. I would suggest you don’t buy from them again.
My farmer friend, Gus Eberhardt, of Raynblest Farm, who sells deliciously rich “Happy Chicken Eggs” (no cages or drugs – they even get to roam the farm’s plum orchards to forage and scratch for bugs) at the Portland Farmers Market, commented, “An egg with an embryo indicates that the farmer found an “out nest” and sold the eggs as fresh. If we find a nest outside of the laying coops, which are gathered daily, we eat them or discard them as necessary. We would never sell them because we do not know how old even the good ones are.”
What you’ve found is more likely a bit of the ovary or the oviduct of the chicken, that has sloughed off and formed inside the egg. This happens as part of the natural life cycle, more typical in older laying hens. In commercial egg laying facilities, chickens are worked very hard and usually expire after a year, or are “expired” since they will produce less after that time. For a laying hen, if you can’t keep pace in the assembly line, it’s curtains. Commercial eggs are hyper-inspected, and any egg with a “blood spot” is discarded. They probably discard more eggs than we imagine, I imagine. Eggs from a family farmer’s laying hens that he sells a the Farmers Market could perhaps be from a much older hen – not a big producer, but a fine old gal who is still worth more for her eggs than for her tough old carcass. These spots, usually a bit of red or brownish red, or a red dot in a milky-looking blob, are sort of gross looking, but harmless. “Blood spots or “meat spots” found in our eggs are always maternal tissue and is harmless, though sometimes very gross looking. Remember, even if it looks gross, it tastes just like chicken!” says Gus.
Just pick them out with your fingers, the cracked half-shell, or a spoon and move on to the frying pan.