The Science of Hard-Boiled Eggs
- by KitchenPantryScientist
You can’t judge an egg by its shell, but you can use science to figure out whether or not it’s fresh.
Imagine an egg. It can be white or brown, since they’re identical except for shell color. There are two membranes inside an eggshell, separating it from the inside of the egg and helping to keep it safe from microbial invaders.
Under the membranes is the egg white, made up of proteins and water, and the yolk, which also contains fat and is enclosed in a sac. Tiny rope-like structures anchor the yolk between either end of the egg. The egg white contains a substance called lysosyme, which is a potent antibacterial. Eleven percent of an egg’s weight is made up by shell, 58% by white and 31% by yolk.
When a hen first lays an egg, the raw egg white contains carbon dioxide, making it look cloudy, and the proteins in the egg white are freshly folded into their correct protein shapes, so it will hold a nice shape in a pan. However, egg shells contain thousands of tiny pores, some big enough to see with the naked eye, and as an egg sits, it changes.
The contents begin to slowly shrink, and a small air pocket forms between the two membranes, usually at the large end. The egg’s pH, about 7.6 when first laid, rises as the egg ages and loses carbon dioxide. In just a few days, the pH may reach 9.7, causing the egg white to look clear and spread out more in a pan when the egg is broken.
The nicer shape and centered yolk of fresh eggs is why they’re recommended for frying. But why are older eggs better for boiling, and why does the yolk turn green sometimes?
Fresh eggs are harder to peel. When you boil an egg, it cooks from the outside to the inside, and its proteins become unfolded, or denatured. The denatured proteins are more likely to stick to the membranes on the eggshell of a fresh egg because the pH is lower. According to “FOODS, A Scientific Approach” by Charley and Weaver, eggs are easier to peel if their pH is greater than 8.7. In other words, old eggs that have lost carbon dioxide have a higher pH (are less acidic) and are easier to peel.
Sometimes, when you boil eggs, you see a greenish/gray/blue layer on the outside of the yolk. It’s the harmless product of a chemical reaction between the iron in the egg yolk and sulfer-containing proteins in the white. You can try to avoid it by using fresh eggs, using hot (not boiling water) to cook the eggs, by plunging eggs into ice water immediately after cooking, and by promptly removing the shells.
If you’ve heard of candling eggs, it involves shining a strong light through a raw egg to look at yolk position, air sac size and white clarity. You can also tell that an egg is older if it floats in water, due to the enlarged air sac.
Ideally, to cook perfect hard boiled (large) eggs, you put them in cold water, bring the water to a boil, remove the heat and let the pan stand with the lid on for 17 minutes before removing the eggs and plunging them into cold water. Alternately, boil large eggs for eleven minutes and put them in ice water to stop the cooking. For perfect eggs, prick the large end of your eggs with a pin to release the air in the air sac.