Fannie Merritt Farmer offered up a lot of advice about eggs. In various editions of her bestselling Boston Cooking School Cook Book, first published in 1896, Merritt advised readers on the proper methods of preparing eggs (“Eggs cooked in boiling water are tough and horny, difficult of digestion, and should never be served.”), as well as their value both nutritive (“In order that the stomach may have enough to act upon, a certain amount of bulk must be furnished.”), and monetary (“Eggs, at even twenty-five cents per dozen, should not be freely used by the strict economist.”).
She also also had some pre-freon and pasteurization notions about storing eggs, suggesting that they could be washed, packed in sawdust, small end down; kept in lime water; or from July to September, stored small end down in individual compartments in cold storage—like a household icebox—for up to six months. But the business of egg production has expanded and evolved radically in the century-plus since, as has the need for safety precautions.
Though plenty of countries around the world still don’t refrigerate their eggs, in modern-day America, it’s the law. Per USDA rules, egg producers must keep their product in an environment cooler than 45°F after it's been washed, depriving the eggs of the natural barrier or “bloom” that keeps bacteria from entering the shell. Their advice to home consumers is that eggs should be kept at a temperature cooler than 40°F so condensation doesn’t build up and transfer bacteria through the shell. Gotcha—but there’s got to be a belt-and-suspenders method for making extra sure that your eggs stay at their safest.
It starts at the store or farm stand. Look for eggs that are clean and free of cracks, and yes, it’s fine to flip open the lid and inspect because one broken egg can put the rest of the carton at risk. If the eggs crack on the way home, though, the USDA advises that they can be broken into a clean container and used within two days—making sure they’re thoroughly cooked to set or an internal temperature of 160°F, of course. Don’t let eggs remain out of the fridge for longer than two hours.
Eggs should be refrigerated in the coldest part of the fridge as soon as possible, and that means resisting the urge to slip them out to nestle into those cute indentations in the door. That chilliest spot will vary from unit to unit, depending on how the air is introduced, so consult your product manual.
Though it might seem like a fantastic and sanitary idea, do not wash your eggs. If there has been any buildup of bacteria, that may cause it to splash to other surfaces, or enter through the porous shell. Do, however, take extra care and use soap and hot water to scrub your hands and any utensils or surfaces both before and after they come into contact with eggs.
This might all seem like a whole lotta fuss, but salmonella is no joking matter. In 2010, a massive salmonella outbreak resulted on the recall of 550 million eggs and at least 2,000 people across the US were sickened. And in this case “sickened” means diarrhea (sometimes requiring hospitalization), fever, abdominal cramps, and for the elderly, very young, or people with compromised immune systems, even the threat of death.
Enjoy that omelet.