Something smelled awful in my neighbor Geoff’s kitchen. He caught the first whiff of the rank aroma while washing his dinner dishes. The stench was strong enough to make him shut off his faucet and creep around the room, sniffing his cabinets and drawers. “It smelled like a dead mouse had gone undetected,” he told me. He checked his mousetraps, too, but those were still baited and open. Mystified, he finished the dishes and left.
Yet the next morning, the kitchen reeked with that enigmatic smell. Determined to discover its source, Geoff reached for his egg basket to prepare his morning meal, only to discover that he had literally laid his hands on the problem. Two of the eggs at the bottom of his basket were no longer white but rather a dark mottled gray. One of them had a hairline crack where the albumen had seeped out—and bacteria had zipped in. The pair were the source of the putrid problem.
“I guess I set the basket down too hard on my counter and cracked the one,” Geoff said. “But I thought farm eggs were protected by that bloom thing and could sit out on the counter unwashed.”
Shelf Life Is Conditional
Geoff was right, but only to a certain point. An egg’s bloom—the protective coating that covers the eggshell as it is laid—seals the pores in the shell, preventing bacteria from entering and contaminating the egg. Because of this, unwashed farm eggs with intact blooms can be stored at room temperature for about three weeks. However, certain conditions influence how long an unwashed, room-temperature egg remains “safe” for human consumption:
- The eggshell should not be excessively dirty.
- The room temperature should not fluctuate.
- The eggs should be handled as little as possible.
- The eggshell should not have any cracks.
- Don’t let too much time pass after collecting the eggs.
- The egg should not be stored adjacent to any damaged eggs.
Keep It Clean
As long as your nestbox bedding is kept clean, the eggs laid there will also remain clean. This doesn’t mean the eggs will stay clean, however. Hens and roosters might enter the nest, setting filthy feet and dirty feathers on top of that fresh egg. Some birds might climb in for a nap and poop on the egg as they sleep. Multiple reasons exist for why an initially clean egg might wind up covered with excrement.
For this reason, it’s vital to minimize an egg’s exposure to grungy chicken bottoms. Collecting eggs frequently will help prevent your fowls from fouling their eggs. If some dirt exists on an egg, use fine sandpaper or a soft scrub brush to remove the spots. Do not overscrub the egg as this can remove the bloom. If an egg is excessively dirty, don’t bother trying to clean it. Simply dispose of it in your garbage or compost.
The Heat Is On
Room temperature in the United States usually from 68 degrees F to 72 degrees F, with some thermostats programmed to go even higher when the residents are away or at work. For homes without central air conditioning or with minimal insulation, the outdoor summer temperatures will definitely be felt indoors, affecting not only you but also your eggs. If your kitchen heats up dramatically when you bake or cook, this increase in temperature can also affect your eggs, especially if your home’s interior routinely reaches 90 degrees F, a temperature that can trigger incubation should your unwashed egg be fertilized.
You don’t have to be a “butterfingers” to accidentally set an egg down too strongly on your counter, fracturing the shell. Reaching for an egg inside a basket might cause the remaining eggs to shift and collide, which also can cause cracks. A hairline fracture might not seem like much to our eyes, but to bacteria it’s a wide-open, welcoming entrance. Inspect your eggs carefully as you collect them, because they might already be fractured from the peck of a curious hen. Dispose of any eggs with damaged shells, and store the intact eggs in a clean carton or coated-wire basket.
Breakage is only half the story, however. The more we handle eggs, the greater the chance of accidental contamination. If your hands are oily, greasy, dirty or even just wet, you can accidentally erode the bloom, exposing the shell’s pores and removing the egg’s protective barrier. Exposure to cold causes an egg’s contents to contract, producing a vacuum that can draw bacteria into the egg through the shell’s pores. If you must handle your eggs, do so with clean, dry, warm hands.
A Matter of Time
Even in the most optimal conditions, an unwashed egg will not keep indefinitely. Time causes the quality of the protective bloom and of the egg itself to deteriorate, leaving it open to bacterial contamination and putrefaction. It’s therefore important to keep track of which eggs on your counter or in your storage tray or basket are the oldest. Use a pencil or crayon to visibly note the date of collection on it. Train yourself to store your eggs in their tray in the order they were collected, then use the oldest first.
Know Your Neighbors
Just like a rotten barrel can spoil all its contents, a rotten egg can ruin a whole dozen, or at least, the eggs adjacent to it. A compromised egg, such as one with ooze leaking out through cracks, can contaminate any egg it touches, especially if you don’t yet know about the putrefaction. Should you discover a rotten egg in your basket or tray, dispose of it and its immediate neighbors, just to be safe.
I gave Geoff this very advice, reassuring him about an egg’s bloom and about storing his farm-fresh eggs. He recently reported that the only cracking of eggs in his kitchen was purely intentional, and instead of that dark, mottled gray, the only colors he now sees are orange-gold and white.