Any American who has traveled to Europe has probably noticed one striking culinary difference—eggs are not refrigerated. Instead, they are left to comfortably rest in bowls on kitchen counters. It’s a phenomenon commonly seen in many other parts of the world as well. As a result, we are left to wonder who is right in this equation. Should eggs always be preserved in refrigerators? Or have we Americans been sorely mistaken for years?
How It Started: Washing Eggs
Roughly a century ago, most people washed their eggs. However, due to the fact they often did so incorrectly, the method gained its fair share of opponents. At one point, British importers received a batch of rotten eggs that had been washed in Australia, and the incident reportedly sparked a shift in egg culture around the world.
Fast forward a few decades to 1970. The U.S. Department of Agriculture had procured a host of fancy machines to wash eggs, and thus began requiring all producers to follow suit. That’s why modern U.S. egg producers who maintain 3,000 or more laying hens in a single area are mandated to wash their eggs in soap, enzymes, or chlorine. Since salmonella tends to spread in large operations where chickens are held close together, the wash is intended to halt the spread of the potentially fatal bacteria which causes about 1.2 million illnesses a year.
Why We Refrigerate
So, what does washing eggs have to do with refrigerating eggs? A lot, as it turns out. Eggs that are washed must be refrigerated; eggs that are unwashed can remain unrefrigerated. The reasoning behind this is that the unwashed eggs have an extra layer protection against bacteria, especially salmonella.
Put another way, egg cleaning methods remove a vital protective coating that shields the shell from bad bacteria, such as salmonella. This is why many European countries prohibit egg washing. Plus, egg-laying hens in European countries tend to be vaccinated against salmonella. As a result, there is little risk of humans getting sick. And since eggs are not washed, they maintain their “safety vest,” and do not need to be chilled in an attempt to keep “microorganisms at bay.”
Meanwhile, the U.S. does wash our eggs and we do not require egg-laying hens to be vaccinated against salmonella. As a result, eggs lose that protective coating and must be refrigerated on the way to the store. But here’s the kicker—once eggs have been refrigerated, it’s best to keep them that way. The main reason being that chilled eggs are more prone to condensation and damage once they’re brought to room temperature.
Refrigeration Makes Eggs Last Longer
So, if you’re wondering who’s right in this argument, you’d be correct to think both. And at the end of the day, both Americans and Europeans will find they aren’t necessarily wrong about how to store eggs. Nevertheless, refrigeration does make eggs last longer. Eggs kept at room temperature can last up to a month; eggs kept in a refrigerator can last up to six months. Granted, most families use up a carton of eggs well within a month, but refrigeration can be handy if your backyard chickens are producing more eggs than you can handle.