A trip to Europe can be full of surprising little differences from what we’re used to in the U.S. Of course, the electric plugs are different, the cities are more pedestrian friendly, and Germans love David Hasselhoff much more than the average American does.
But one of the most surprising differences is that Europeans keep their eggs sitting on the kitchen counter instead of in the refrigerator.
This may strike Americans as wrong, but there’s a simple explanation. To prevent Salmonella and other bacteria from contaminating eggs, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) mandates that facilities involved in the distribution of graded eggs wash and refrigerate them.
Washing ensures that chicken poop and other sources of bacteria are promptly removed from the eggshell, and refrigeration prevents new bacteria from growing on it. However, this egg-washing process also removes the egg’s natural protective coating.
Michael Ruhlman, author of Egg: A Culinary Exploration of the World’s Most Versatile Ingredient, says, “The egg is a marvel in terms of protecting itself, and one of the protections is this coating, which prevents them from being porous.”
When the coating is removed, the egg can no longer protect itself from bacteria that threaten to invade its newly opened pores. That’s why Americans who work and cook with graded eggs have to keep them refrigerated during all parts of the supply chain, including at home.
Most European countries vaccinate their chickens against salmonella.
Because egg sanitization isn’t a requirement for European egg farmers and distributors, their eggs’ protective coatings are still intact and they can leave their eggs unwashed and out of the fridge.
An intact natural coating allows an egg to protect itself from most bacteria without refrigeration (although the egg’s unrefrigerated shelf—or counter—life is only about 21 days, as compared to 50 in a refrigerator).
Much of the world prefers this approach, because eggs left with their naturally protective coating don’t require constant refrigeration.
This is a much cheaper solution to egg storage, which is especially helpful in countries where refrigeration isn’t as heavily relied upon or as accessible as it is in the U.S.
Another advantage of unwashed and unrefrigerated eggs is that they are better for cooking. Room-temperature eggs increase the volume of a batter or dough more than cold eggs do. They also mix into the batter more easily.
Of course, American recipes may call for eggs to be brought to room temperature before being used.
Fortunately, putting them in a bowl of warm water can help achieve this result in just a few minutes.
Both approaches reduce outbreaks of salmonella.
The obvious question is, “Which method works better?” Should we wash and refrigerate eggs or vaccinate chickens?
The answer is not entirely clear, and many experts say that both ways achieve the same goal of reducing salmonella outbreaks.
“They’re different approaches to basically achieve the same result,” Vincent Guyonnet, a poultry veterinarian, told NPR. “We don’t have massive [food safety] issues on either side of the Atlantic. Both methods seem to work.”
A recent spate of salmonella cases in the U.S. may shift opinions on vaccination.
Most of these cases are linked to to contact with live poultry as opposed to egg consumption. Experts believe that backyard chicken coops with poor hygienic conditions are the main culprit for the spike in cases.
Namely, if you choose sanitized, graded eggs, they need to be refrigerated until use. If you choose to rely on the eggs’ natural protective coating, you have to be tolerant of dirt clods and maybe even a little chicken feces—resisting the urge to rinse until right before cooking.
We don’t expect either side of the Atlantic to change their way of handling eggs. Americans like their eggs spotless and long lasting. Europeans prefer a more natural and easier-to-cook egg. Since both methods keep consumers safe from disease, there’s no need for either group to change their ways.