Kathleen Purvis

Shelling fresh eggs is enough to make you crack up

People who work with very fresh farm eggs struggle with the issue of shelling them.
People who work with very fresh farm eggs struggle with the issue of shelling them. dlaird@charlotteobserver.com

We come here not to praise farm-raised eggs, but to share our misery over peeling them.

People who buy locally raised food know the drill: You shell out $5 to $6 for a dozen eggs freshly laid by chickens who spend their days dancing in fields, eating bugs, flowers and grass.

Crack one of those eggs open and compare it to a supermarket egg for less than $2 a dozen. The difference is visible: The farm egg usually has a deep orange yolk that stands as tall as a Pac-Man ghost, while the cheaper egg has a pale, flat yolk.

But then you hard-cook them, for deviled eggs or a salad, and curse the kitchen gods: Farm-egg shells cling so tightly, the egg ends up as cratered as the surface of the moon.

The problem, most cooks agree, is freshness: Commercially raised eggs may be a couple of weeks old or more. Local eggs are usually only a few days old. As an egg ages, the air pocket inside gets larger and the yolk and white get looser.

Kim Shaw of Small City Farm raises almost 50 chickens for eggs she sells to local restaurants. When she cooks them herself, she usually hard-poaches them, cracking eggs into simmering water, rather than wrestle with shelling them. If she has to hard-cook eggs for a special dish, she tries to plan ahead and age them a couple of weeks.

Recently, though, some of the thinking on fresh eggs is changing. Food-science writer J. Kenji Lopez-Alt challenged a lot of the common wisdom in his book “The Food Lab” and his posts on the website Serious Eats. He says the problem isn’t age, it’s how we cook eggs.

The standard method is to place eggs in a pan and cover them with cold water. You bring the water to a full boil, cover the pan and remove it from the heat. Let it stand for anywhere from 12 to 17 minutes. That gentle method keeps the eggs from overcooking and reduces rubbery whites and yolks with a circle of green sulphur around them.

Lopez-Alt tested everything, from egg age to adding things like salt, baking soda or vinegar to the water. His conclusion: None of that matters. All that matters, he says, is heat control.

Some sources now suggest steaming eggs instead of boiling them. Lopez-Alt came up with this approach: He puts whole eggs into 3 quarts of boiling water, cooks for 30 seconds, then adds a dozen ice cubes to rapidly cool the water and let it slowly come back to a boil. Then he reduces the heat to a “subsimmer” (just a few bubbles) and cooks for 11 minutes.

He peels the still-hot eggs under cold water, starting at the wide end where the air pocket is.

Raising and lowering the temperature makes the outer layer cook faster so it doesn’t fuse to the shell, while not overcooking the yolks so they stay creamy. Peeling them hot also keeps them from fusing to the shell.

Does it work? I’ve tried it with mostly good results. Refrigerator-cold eggs crack easily when you add them to boiling water, though, so use a slotted spoon to ease them into the water.

Yes, it’s a fuss. But which is better – fussing while you cook them, or fussing while you try to peel them?

Kathleen Purvis: 704-358-5236, @kathleenpurvis