Handling Eggs Safely
With Easter just around the corner, I suspect many people will be making hard-boiled and dyed Easter eggs this weekend. Over the past 50 years since I was a child we have learned much about egg safety. Gone are the days where we left our eggs in the basket on the kitchen table (or in our separate bedrooms) until we ate them – even several days later. That is just not safe. I remember as a child thinking we had the ‘flu or ate too many Easter goodies when in fact we probably had a light case of “food poisoning” (foodborne illness). I know we survived, but there are about 30 deaths each year attributed to food poisoning caused by eggs and many, many more illnesses.
Preparing and keeping your eggs safe to eat
How Commercial Eggs Come to You
The eggs you buy in the supermarket come to you washed and virtually free of bacteria. This also means that the protective coating that contained a natural antibiotic from the hen is washed off. That is why in America we refrigerate our eggs and in other countries where they don’t wash them, they don’t. While the eggs have been washed with a sanitizer there is still that 1 in 20,000 chance there is salmonella on the egg. The FDA estimates there are 79,000 cases of foodborne illnesses caused by eggs each year and 30 deaths.
How to Protect Eggs from Contamination
That being said, most contamination of eggs and foodborne illnesses come from how WE handle them, not how they come to us. Have we left them out too long? Did they come in contact with a contaminate in the fridge (meat juices that ran out of a package comes to mind)? Did we think we could still use a cracked egg (never!)? Were they set on a contaminated surface before cracking – such as the one used for produce that hadn’t yet been washed or meat? Were our hands clean before we started working with the eggs?
After taking the ServeSafe Food Managers course in culinary school I haven’t looked at handling food the same since. Once you start seeing all the ways foods become contaminated and how the different contaminates can make people sick, first you recognize the many times you thought you had “a touch of the ‘flu” that was actually a foodborne illness and then you change how you handle food. Eggs are no exception. In fact, children, pregnant women and the elderly are more susceptible to foodborne illnesses than most healthy adults and extra care should be taken to protect their developing immune systems.
Preparing to Handle Your Eggs
Before taking the eggs out of the fridge:
- Wash your hands.
- Clean your work surfaces, including cutting boards.
Preparing the Eggs
Some recipes call for eggs to be room temperature. That may take an hour in a cool house, less time in a warmer house, especially in summer. That is okay. As I said, the United States is unique in refrigerating eggs because of the way they come to us. Any modern recipe should have the safety instructions correct.
While most people don’t wash their eggs, it’s not a bad idea. When you buy them from the store, don’t you open them up and look? Do you touch the eggs? I often wonder if a store takes cartons that have broken eggs and makes a good dozen out of the many cartons that have cracked eggs. That means someone was touching the eggs and you don’t know what was on their hands. Eww…
Decorating Your Eggs
After preparing your hard boiled eggs, follow the instructions for dying. Some are dyed while being cooked (natural dyes) and some afterward. Just make sure the dyes are safe. If I had a young child today, I don’t know that I’d trust many of the fancy egg dyes on the market. I would go natural (cabbage, beets, etc.) or get an organic dye, but that’s me. Remember, eggshells are porous. The dye can transfer through. While the risk is probably minimal, again, do what you’re comfortable doing.
Refrigerate After Dying until Easter Morning
Once your eggs have been decorated/dyed, refrigerate them. If you hide them, take them out just before the kids get up and hide them.
Where You Hide Them Matters
My parents never hid the eggs in the grass (We had three dogs – EWW!!). But even if you don’t have dogs, do you use pesticides and fertilizers? If so, wash the eggs after the hunt before consuming. If you hide them in the house, can your pets come in contact with them? Were the hiding places sanitized? Be safe, after the kids find the eggs, give them a quick wipe or wash.
Refrigerate, refrigerate, refrigerate. Refrigerate before you cook them, after you cook and decorate them, and after the Easter morning ritual. Just be safe. I know I sound paranoid, but if you knew how many times I’ve had food poisoning you’d be wary, too.
How Long Do Hard Boiled Eggs Keep?
Hard boiled eggs keep about one week under refrigeration. I know that’s a lot less than before they were cooked. But now they have been cooked and should be treated as a cooked food. Once the shell has been cracked, put them in an enclosed container or plastic bag and plan to use within 3-4 days, not a week.
Is there any other way?
Yes, there are three.
One, buy really cheap eggs you plan to just throw away if not eaten immediately. It’s a waste, but cheap eggs aren’t as nutritious as good eggs. I buy organic eggs from hens that free-range, pasture raised. They are $5 a dozen. I take care of those eggs and don’t want to lose a single one to carelessness.
Or you could blow out the contents and decorate the shell. No, you can’t use these for hiding and little children would destroy them in a second. But if you want your eggs to sit in your Easter basket all week, this is an option.
Finally, the third option is to use fake eggs. Be they plastic or wood ones from the craft store that you could actually paint, you aren’t taking any chances with foodborne illnesses. No, you can’t dye them in the traditional methods, but they would be safe for Easter hunts.
For More Information
If you’d like more information on egg safety, please visit the FDA egg safety site.
Have fun decorating the eggs. Enjoy eating the eggs after the festivities are over – eggs are a very nutritious food and are no longer linked to high cholesterol. Watch for the recipe links I’ll be posting Sunday. Some look really, really yummy and even upscale.