Eggs are one of the most versatile staples you can stock in your kitchen. A good 90 percent of baking projects cannot happen without them. Some of the most delicious sauces begin with them—looking at you, hollandaise and carbonara. They are a classic breakfast scrambled or fried, or omeletted. When they’re hard-boiled, they make for an easy and portable quick jolt of protein. Whether it is an elegant quiche or rustic frittata, they can do dinner quite happily. And who amongst us has not come home in the wee hours of the morning (perhaps after a cocktail or three), and immediately reached for the nonstick skillet to get something egg based down our gullets?

Cooking dinner shouldn't be complicated

Now, Ina Garten might have you believe that, if you don’t have access to fresh eggs in hues of Restoration Hardware from your organic free range rare fluffy Peruvian chickens, you aren’t really eating eggs; however, for most of us, this isn’t really an option. If you are really lucky, you might have access to a local farmer’s market for fresh eggs, but for the most part, the grocery store is the source of these lovely orbs.

But never fear—you don’t need to have a box of eggs in all different sizes, with scraps of hay and random feathers still attached to their unwashed shells to have a good eggsperience. Here are a few tips and tricks for determining the freshness of the eggs in front of you.

At the Supermarket

For starters, let’s decode those numbers on the side of the egg cartons in the store. While you don’t necessarily want to be that person who is pulling all of the cartons out to get at the ones in the back, you do want to be a bit savvy about how to read the packaging.

For me, I care less about the brand on the carton than I do about the freshness of the eggs inside. So, what I am looking for on a package is not the “Sell By” or “Best By” dates, which are labeled clearly—I want to see the packing date. The packing date is listed as a number above the “Sell By,” which turns every day of the year into its corresponding digits. They call it a Julien number, where 365 days a year means that January 1st is 001 and December 31st is 365. You can go from there. A packing date lands between 1-7 days after the eggs were laid, so presume that the eggs are a week old when they hit the carton. So, if the packing date is 221, that is August 9. The “Sell By” day on that carton could be marked as Sept 9. So, if you are buying eggs on September 1, and see that the “Sell By” date is over a week away, you might think that those eggs are a month fresher than they actually are. “Sell By” dates can vary from plant to plant, so doing a quick search on that packing number will give you your best sense of freshness.

In the Kitchen

Do you have one of those lovely ceramic egg holders, or do you transfer your eggs to the plastic one that came with your fridge only to realize that sometimes you have no idea exactly how old your eggs are and if they are still safe to eat? Are you house-sitting and wondering if that bowl of eggs in the fridge is going to make a nice breakfast or give you food poisoning? No worries. A bowl of cold water will tell you. If your egg sinks and lays on its side, it is fresh. Standing up but still touching the bottom, slightly older, but still safe. Floating? No good; toss and go buy new ones.

But let’s say you have some of those older eggs that are standing up in the bottom of the bowl or have hit their “Sell By” date on the package. There are certain applications that actually work better with slightly less fresh eggs.

Ever gone to peel a bunch of hard-boiled beauties with plans for stunning deviled eggs and ended up with a bunch of raggedy chewed-up looking eggs that are better suited for egg salad? Your eggs were too fresh! The little bit of air that is formed within the shell as eggs age and lose some of their water is actually a really good thing when you are hard-boiling. If I am planning on eggs for a crowd, I buy eggs at least a week prior to ensure easy peeling.

Looking for the fluffiest billowiest meringues or the most towering soufflés? Older eggs are your friends, since the whites have less water and will whip up easier and lighter.

If you are making fried eggs? You want as fresh as possible for yolks that sit up proudly atop tight whites. Scrambles? They can be a little older. For custards and applications where you are only using yolks? Fresher is better. Frittatas, cookies, brownies and the like? Older is still fine. Anyplace eggs are used raw or barely cooked, go as fresh as you possibly can.

However you want to use your eggs, you can now be confident that the eggs you choose are at their peak for that application!

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