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Egg storage seems pretty straightforward. You head to your local grocery store, pick up a carton in the refrigerated section, and pop those eggs right into your own fridge when you get home. But as common as this scenario is, it isn’t the only way you’ll see eggs stored. Some people keep their eggs in the pantry, right at room temperature. And that can make you wonder – what’s really the right way to store eggs? Is the fridge the only option?
Here’s the short answer: It depends.
Where you’re getting your eggs from, where you live and how the eggs are prepped or cleaned for sale are all factors that influence whether or not you should refrigerate your eggs. To find out whether cold or room-temperature storage is best, you’ll want to take a closer look at them.
Why does egg storage matter so much?
The great debate over whether or not eggs should be refrigerated stems from one issue, and it’s food safety. Just like raw meat, eggs can breed dangerous bacteria if they aren’t stored properly. In fact, raw meat and eggs have one particular illness-causing bacteria in common: Salmonella.
Salmonella, according to the CDC, is responsible for causing more foodborne illnesses each year than any other bacteria. It lives in the digestive tracts of many different animals, but chicken is one of the biggest culprits. It’s so prevalent in chicken that about one in 25 packages of chicken at your local grocery store is contaminated with Salmonella.
And since fresh eggs come from chicken, it kind of makes perfect sense that eggs could also wind up getting contaminated with this dangerous bacteria. Eating a contaminated egg can cause everything from nausea and vomiting to death.
In the 1970s, Salmonella was a huge problem – and eggs were the cause. 77 percent of all Salmonella outbreaks in the US were caused by eggs during this decade. The problem was also rampant throughout Europe. Salmonella can live and be transmitted from exterior eggshells and inside the eggs themselves. So, the governments of countries around the world stepped in and created new standards, regulations and requirements for egg handling and storage.
But different countries and regions have completely opposite standards, which means egg storage really depends on where you live and where you’re buying your eggs.
If you live in North America, you have to refrigerate store-bought eggs
To combat Salmonella, eggs sold in the US are sterilized before they’re sold. All eggs are washed in hot, soapy water and treated with a bacteria-killing disinfectant to eliminate anything that might be hanging onto the shells. The same process happens in Canada, where eggs are sterilized and graded before heading to local markets.
In the course of this sterilization and washing process, eggs lose their cuticles. The cuticle of an egg is a thin layer of protective coating across the shell’s surface. Once it’s gone, eggs become far more sensitive to new bacteria and potential interior contamination. To limit bacteria, eggs are refrigerated in temperatures below 45 degrees Fahrenheit (or 7 degrees Celsius).
Once eggs have been refrigerated to protect them against contamination, you really shouldn’t bring them to room temperature until you’re ready to cook them. When eggs start to warm up, condensation will form on their shells and make it even easier for bacteria to slip inside.
There are a few other countries that also sterilize and refrigerate eggs before they’re sold. If you live in Australia, Japan, Denmark and Sweden, your eggs are just like those in North America – so make sure you’re keeping them refrigerated.
What if you get your eggs fresh from the source?
If you’re raising your own chicken and taking full advantage of the eggs they produce, you don’t actually need to refrigerate them. As long as you aren’t performing any kind of sterilization process (or selling them commercially), then you’re perfectly fine to keep them at room temperature. The cuticle is key – if that stays intact, your eggs will last for weeks.
Just remember to keep your eggs cool wherever they’re stored. Like most foods, high heat and warm weather can lead to faster spoilage. If temperatures get too hot where you live, you may want to stash your eggs in the fridge to keep them fresh longer.
If you live in Europe, you don’t have to refrigerate your eggs
European countries also experienced Salmonella epidemics, fighting a widespread epidemic of their own during the 1980s. But instead of trying to eliminate the bacteria by washing eggs, Europe decided to tackle Salmonella at its source: by vaccinating egg-laying hens.
Countries like the UK undertook efforts to improve sanitation in hens’ living quarters and developed a vaccination program to prevent Salmonella from ever infecting chicken in the first place. Vaccination in particular worked so well that research studies show it can completely prevent contamination in hens’ eggs.
Because eggs aren’t being contaminated, European countries don’t need to wash or sterilize them. This means the eggs’ cuticles are left on the shells, which adds an extra layer of protection against potential bacteria. There’s no reason to refrigerate them – if bacteria are less capable of getting inside the eggs, they’ll do just fine at room temperature.
And the EU doesn’t recommend refrigeration, as that can cause the condensation mentioned above. Instead, eggs are kept cool but not cold. How long do eggs last with this approach? On average, you have about three weeks to use your eggs before they spoil if you live in Europe.