An egg yolk is precious; a hundred are terrifying. In an Instagram reel from last year, a pair of disembodied hands tips a large metal bowl full of neon-orange yolks into a well of flour, an act whose ostensible purpose is to make fresh pasta but whose effect is to freak me out. The wet yolks cluster densely as if just emancipated from a sac, the sort of potential life form that portends doom in a sci-fi movie: When all of these hatch, we’re fucked. Without this shock of near-unnatural color — which ranges from clementine to cadmium — the video would lose its effect; the yolks are so dark and so plentiful you worry they might fight back. But with the whisk of a fork, their borders disappear, and they become a thick, placid pool of goo. The video ends before they get the chance to become dough.
In recent years, these shockingly orange yolks have infiltrated America’s supermarket shelves, boasting virtue and vitamins. At your local upscale grocer you might find a robin’s-egg blue carton of “heritage free range” eggs from the Happy Egg Co., six of them blue and six of them brown. The label is a dusty cobalt, interrupted by a bright orange circle: a yolk, naked and flashing you from its cracked-open shell, no white in sight.
Last spring, my boyfriend brought a dozen of these eggs into my kitchen. They seemed harmless at first, but when he scrambled them, I found myself eating a plate of eggs closer in color to Bugs Bunny’s carrot than a simple French omelette. Later, I fried one next to my last CSA (community-supported agriculture) egg, laid in the Catskills by a pasture-raised hen. Once transferred to a bowl of rice, they looked like a clone experiment gone wrong. The CSA yolk was a deep goldenrod, fat and happy-looking. The Happy Egg yolk was such an aggressive reddish orange it looked like a pustule.
The specter of those radioactive yolks haunted me. Clearly they were meant to make me feel good about myself, but their effect was uncanny. We have become so desperate for the all-natural, I realized, that we will pay a premium for its simulacra. And in an effort to appease us by proving the natural, healthy habitats of their hens, egg companies will supplement their feed with things like marigolds, turmeric, and beets to greenwash a perfectly suitable yellow yolk. According to a spokesperson for Happy Egg, their proprietary corn-and-soybean chicken feed includes “micro ingredients like marigold that provide additional nutrients to ensure the health of our hens.”
As we have boomeranged back from the egg white omelet’s late-20th-century tyranny, the egg has become the poster child for all-natural, accessible, “whole” foods ready to prove their virtue once you crack them open. And as the last decade’s farm-to-table and locavore movements (and, importantly, their aesthetics) have gone mainstream, the “farm egg” has become ubiquitous, its yolk an object of our undivided attention. We want it jammy, that sludgy midway between soft- and medium-boiled. We want it over easy, its yolk sploojing across the plate. And we want its color to convince us that it was not hatched in some animal welfare hellscape.
Egg carton marketing, which is at best opaque and at worst a pernicious lie, would have us believe that the hens who imparted these eggs to the bourgeois grocery shopping class are twirling through pastoral fields like Maria in The Sound of Music. The yolk is the purest representation of this dream, a bright orange ball of flavor and “good” fat that dazzles the eye, fills the belly, and soothes the conscience. Earlier this year the high-end egg purveyor Vital Farms launched an ad campaign in which couples propose to each other not with diamonds, but Vital Farms eggs. Inside these shells, if you follow this swell of marketing logic, lies not just the secret to happiness and virtue, but life itself. The state of the yolk today tells us more about ourselves and our desires than it does about the egg that laid it.
While egg white omelets seem outre in our current era of virtuous fats, America’s relationship with yolks has a deep and complex history. The yolk phobia of the late 20th century arguably began in the 1950s, when the biologist and physiologist Ancel Keys popularized the idea that high levels of cholesterol increase the risk of heart disease, an idea further reinforced by the landmark Framingham Heart Study. By the 1960s, the relationship between cholesterol and cardiovascular disease had been established; in the ensuing decades, scientists and farmers alike created low-cholesterol eggs. Egg whites sold in a carton boomed. But by 1959, the American Heart Association was insisting that villainizing cholesterol in eggs “is unjustified from existing scientific evidence and is depriving persons of a ‘very good product.’”
It took almost 50 years for this idea to catch on. The origins of our recent yolk worship can be traced to the late ’90s, when a few influential chefs were buying ingredients from local farms and educating their diners about it. As the farm-to-table movement and the locavore movement and the slow food movement swelled throughout the aughts, the egg was freed not just from nutritional jail but also the dogmatic strictures of breakfast: “Put an egg on it” became a popular way to level up a dish. In 2008, it even spawned a zine with the same (though purposely misspelled) name.
Four years before that, Momofuku Noodle Bar opened and began serving bowls of ramen topped with poached eggs. Thanks to the restaurant’s runaway popularity, “the soft egg became a ubiquitous hipster entity,” explains the food writer Charlotte Druckman. By the late aughts, the egg had been been given a bespoke agrarian rebranding: In 2008, Frank Bruni lamented the redundancy of a “hen egg” on the menu at Momofuku Ko; the following year, Eleven Madison Park was serving a poached “farm egg with Parmesan foam,” topped also with brown butter hollandaise and asparagus. The egg’s luxury came as much from its implied provenance as it did from garnishes like caviar and hollandaise: The diner might assume that the chef had sourced the egg from a farm where the chickens’ asses were being wiped with non-GMO Charmin.
The rise of the farm egg on fine dining menus also coincided with the Great Recession, an era when “a lot of fine dining chefs started looking into ingredients that had been considered trashy or ugly,” says Druckman. “They would make the ingredients ‘refined,’ and charge more but pay less.” As chefs like Momofuku’s David Chang moved towards a more casual aesthetic, eggs began to colonize menus along with offal, bacon, and doughnuts. A sous vide egg, popularized in the States by the late-aughts ramen boom, “is something that’s snobby in its technique, but it’s a staple food for everyone,” Druckman points out.
With those sous vide eggs, the popularity of ramen also laid the groundwork for the future of the now-ubiquitous jammy egg, which, with its molten, sludgy, ideally deep-orange yolk, has since become its own object of desire. It’s difficult to locate the first use of the phrase “jammy egg,” but Bon Appétit certainly vaulted it into the lexicon of the masses. A 2017 spread in the magazine called “Put an Egg On It,” written by Chris Morocco and Amiel Stanek, put forth a primer on fried, poached, and boiled eggs to suit the modern “egg-topped age.” Last in the package was “the jammy soft boil,” which instructed a strict six-and-a-half-minute boil and an ice bath plunge for “exactly the egg we want luxuriating in our ramen or getting cozy with soft grits.”
“There was this collective feeling that eggs were just everywhere,” Morocco remembers of the package. The egg “becomes this visual language that is a gateway to so many things,” he says. The jammy egg in particular is “a preparation that crosses all kinds of culinary boundaries and is so readily adaptable to virtually any type of dish.” The fact that it takes under 10 minutes to cook helped smooth the jammy egg’s transition from restaurant fetish object to home cook favorite.
The spread of the farm-to-table movement also endowed the jammy egg with more virtuous undertones. “The orangey, burnished, reddish yolk also became its own kind of signifier for this ‘better egg,’” Morocco says. “That color became synonymous with free-range, free-running hens that have access to the outdoors and are able to actually eat the foods that they’re most naturally geared towards.”
That color played to our subconscious appetites: In the world of food marketing psychology, yellow and orange make people hungry; red makes them feel passion. Add some messaging that claims color as a signal of farm-to-table virtue, and you have a product so appealing you could sell it to hens. The ease with which companies can obfuscate the origins of these eggs — and convince us of their virtue — further deepens the divide between animal and cook. As consumers grow ever more alienated from the animals, crops, and laborers involved in producing the ingredients we buy, more and more producers have made an effort to remind us that they come from farms, creating a strange feedback loop of ignorance. We have been taught to equate color with better treatment and better nutrition, whether it’s true or not.
Consider the 15 different egg options at Mr. Mango, a Brooklyn grocer near my yoga studio. One comes in styrofoam, but still claims its eggs are “sourced from family owned farms” and encourages shoppers to “meet the family farmer whose hens laid your eggs.” Next to it are Happy Egg Heritage eggs, and eight more free-range or pasture-raised brands, almost all with labels that show a few (not too many!) hens, pecking their way through rolling hills or pastures.
The labels on the egg cartons contain more disclaimers and promises than a Notes app apology: Tended by hand; small family farms; happy hens; ethical eggs; no hormones; no antibiotics; no animal fat; all-natural; certified organic; 300mg omega-3s; lutein + ZEA [zeaxanthin]; non-GMO; certified humane raised + handled; fresh air and sunshine; freedom to forage outdoors year-round. Vital Farms even publishes a faux newspaper (one page) about their “outdoorsy girls” that’s tucked into their $12 cartons.
All of this copywriting is telling the same story, which can be summed up as “We’re not like them!” Them being the industrial farms whose eggs turn up at lower price points — I recently saw a dozen sold for $2.19 — in styrofoam containers at your local grocery store. These are the farms that often stack chickens on top of each other and stuff them with GMO feed, breed disease, wash their eggs with bleach to sanitize them, and squeeze out as many eggs as possible from bedraggled hens who must lay in view of their comrades’ corpses. These farms turn the chicken, as authors Page Smith and Charles Daniel explain in The Chicken Book, into “an industrial process whose product [is] the egg.”
If you walk the aisles of Mr. Mango or just about any feel-good grocery store, a binary narrative might appear in your brain. There are the bad farms — styrofoam carton, diseased hens shitting on each other — and then there are the good ones, whose hens are happy and free to roam, and lay eggs abundant with nutrients and vibrant color.
In reality, that binary is a spectrum, and a muddy one. Yes, factory farms wreak environmental and ethical havoc. And it is possible to buy eggs from hens who have lived a much more humane and carefree life than you have. (The easiest way to do this is to buy directly from a small farm whose practices you’ve researched or asked them about.) But the middle ground between those places is far wider, and more common, than egg labels would like us to think. And where the question of flavor is concerned, the equation becomes even jammier.
The flavor of an egg — watery and wan or rich and lively — owes itself to the choices of a farmer. So too does the color of its yolk. Those choices begin with the breed of hen purchased and the living conditions provided for those hens; they end with variables like washing, refrigeration, and distribution.
At Ramble Bramble farm in Huntington, Vermont, Jamie Skye Bianco raises chickens for both slaughter and laying, as well as dairy goats, sheep, and lamb. All of the farm’s products are certified organic, and its laying hens are heritage breeds including the black copper Marans, which can lay copper-colored eggs with such a striking and sought-after hue that they have their own color charts. Their yolks, too, are a deep golden orange.
The black copper Marans are some of the most expensive hens to raise per laid egg: While hybrid breeds used by industrial farms lay six to seven eggs a week, Marans lay anywhere from zero to four times a week, a rate that gradually decreases to zero before the end of the hen’s average eight-year lifespan. Marans take up to 30 weeks to mature; industrial hens can take as little as 14.
“Raising that type of bird, you can’t sell enough eggs unless you’re selling to a really niche market,” Bianco says. “From the position of a market farmer, you might be able to get twice as much selling Marans eggs, but you’re really only getting about a quarter of the eggs in a given season.” The Marans, though, is prized not just for its egg color, but the rich flavor hiding inside.
Throughout the year at Ramble Bramble, the hens graze on the refuse from the farm’s other operations. In the fall, they peck at fallen apples that have been turned to a sweet mulch by the tractors that drive over them, which creates a marginally higher sugar level in the eggs that lightens the yolk. Some farms with heavy composting operations or lots of pigs will raise chickens atop compost and manure piles, “and that has its own flavor” that it imparts on the eggs, Bianco says. “It obviously doesn’t taste like shit, but it does have a particular flavor because it’s predigested pasture, so to speak, and they’re picking out both the bugs in the compost and the predigested stuff. But your ordinary person is not going to pick up differences like this.”
What happens after the egg exits the chicken also has an effect on flavor. At Ramble Bramble, Bianco waits as long as possible to wash their eggs, in an effort to stave off degradation. In the U.S., farmers must wash eggs before selling them to remove the “bloom,” a protective coating added in the cloaca just before laying that keeps the egg safe from bacteria. Immediately after the wash, an egg begins to dehydrate, and the inner membrane lining — the thin white clingy stuff that can make peeling a freshly boiled egg such a pain — begins to degrade. This process leads to a breakdown of the protein and fat bonds inside the egg that keep a yolk delicious, vibrant, and jammy. Refrigeration also affects the chemical composition of an egg, decreasing its viscosity and increasing its wateriness. Crack a freshly laid, healthy egg onto a plate or pan, and you’ll see the yolk sit proudly above the white, like a napping Gudetama; the white, too, will have a clear demarcation between the firmer inner white and the looser outer white. An old, long-washed, long-refrigerated egg will spread out in the pan.
And what about color? What about the molten red yolk that once terrified me but so many people chase in a Marans? According to their website, the Happy Egg company’s contracted “family farmers” raise copper Marans for the orange-yolked heritage eggs and speckled Legbars for the blue-shelled eggs, and give them “a specialized and more premium feed.” The Happy Egg website points out how “spoiled” their “egg-laying queens” are, roaming and eating “tasty bugs” near play kits and swings. If you’re unsure of the results this environment creates, you can visit a page titled “9 Pictures of Heritage Egg Yolks That Are Undeniably Sexy.”
I asked Bianco about the likelihood of a mass-market egg producer using supplements to turn their yolks orange. “If you are a larger seller,” they said, “or a market seller using hybrid birds that make watery eggs with no interesting color, the only way you’re going to get the results you’re looking for is some kind of coloration through diet.”
Of course, there’s no health risk to consumers if farmers are sprinkling marigolds into their chickens’ feeds. But this tinkering still leads consumers to conflate yolk color with health benefits and increased flavor that they’re not likely enjoying — some anonymous taste tests have shown little difference between the flavor of “farm eggs” and factory-farmed eggs. Yolk color preference varies between countries; egg farmers can use Yolk Fan, which looks like a deck of paint colors, to calibrate their feed to consumer preferences. Shoppers pay for the idea of the benefit, not the benefit itself, a discrepancy that the color of the yolk further obscures. Scientists have found that visual cues can affect the flavors we taste even more persuasively than what we smell or taste. A darker yolk might taste more delicious if only because of its rich color, not the protein and omega-3s it hides.
The mass-marketing of amber yolks serves only to further distance the consumer from the farm. Such greenwashing gives the well-intentioned shopper the illusion that they are making choices in line with their own beliefs — and saves them the trouble of going to a farmers market and asking an actual human farmer how they raise their eggs — but obfuscates the specific choices carried out by producers and farmers.
For Happy Egg, those choices have resulted in a class-action lawsuit claiming that its eggs should be labeled as “free-range” instead of “pasture-raised.” In the U.K., PETA has allegedly filmed inside a number of farms owned by the identically named but entirely unaffiliated Happy Egg Co. and found overcrowding, large swaths of muddy dirt instead of peckable grass, and dead birds left to rot among those who survive them. While the animal welfare nonprofit can skew militant and sensationalist, its alleged footage underscores the often stark differences between what people expect from their feel-good supermarket eggs and the way those eggs are actually produced. Keeping farm animals always entails a bit of control: Even at the microfarming level, animals are there primarily to produce food. But the great scam of industrial greenwashing is convincing consumers that the animal welfare and sustainability that smaller farms often prioritize is easily scalable, without sacrifice.
In recent years, this conflation of health and flavor with yolk color (and even shell color) has granted eggs, and particularly their yolks, a sheen of wellness that was unheard of two decades ago, when the country was still under the spell of the egg white omelet. The egg yolk is now sexy in the way that selectively placed body fat and over-hydrated skin are sexy — it promises an abundance of life. The egg has long represented fertility, but now it has a proprietary money shot: Breaking into the seven-minute egg sitting regally atop a composed salad offers a safe-for-work form of ejaculation that feels decidedly wholesome.
On social media, the egg yolk has become a matinee idol. At the now-shuttered Konbi in Los Angeles, the menu’s star was an egg salad sandwich which, when split open, offered a centerfold of jammy yolk. At Manhattan’s 4 Charles Prime Rib, if you add the $3.99 “farm egg” to your $36.99 double wagyu cheeseburger, you receive tableside service wherein a white-gloved server pierces the egg’s yolk and pours it over the burger, raising it up for a long and dramatic stream as if it’s Basque cider. The VIP List girlies claim this bit of theater changed their lives. It has, predictably, become a TikTok sensation.
For home cooks, eggs remain the ultimate Instagram bait: They’re cheap to buy (inflation notwithstanding) and easy to make, and even a luddite with an iPhone 4 can get a nice shot of a fried egg. Eggs are easily recognizable and easily broken: See an intact yolk on a TikTok and you already know what’s coming, like the 12th kill shot in a John Wick movie. Despite all that repetition, it’s still fun to watch someone’s knife cut into a fried or soft-boiled egg and watch the yolk conquer the rest of the plate.
Dan Pelosi, who shares recipes and cooking videos on Instagram under the name @grossypelosi, has posted countless egg photos, which means he has years of data on the ways in which a yolk can drive us crazy. Aside from pasta, “eggs are the thing people talk to me about the most,” he says. “The orange yolk is huge — they think that you have to go to some special place that’s on a different plane to get an orange-yolked egg.” In reality, he gets his Vital Farms eggs from the bodega. “I’m a sucker for it,” he says of the orange yolk. “It doesn’t taste better, but it’s pretty, and I care about aesthetics.”
Many people, Pelosi says, are still nervous about cooking an egg — they think they’ll mess it up, or get salmonella from undercooking it, or gross themselves out by overcooking it. Eggs are accessible and familiar, but require finesse, a perfect foil for our neuroses.
Seeing them on a screen, however, turns eggs into an idea, a consumer product to coo at. When I ask Pelosi about why the piercing of a yolk is so appealing — even after we’ve been seeing it for a decade — he offers a little giggle, but his explanation is more chaste than the one I’m imagining: “I mean, have you ever popped a pimple?”
Orange yolks have become a useful tool in professional food photography, too. Susan Spungen, a cookbook author and food stylist, has used Happy Eggs for photo shoots. “I do think that getting that shot where the yolk is running has always been a food styling moment,” she says. “Those dark amber eggs really do look good on camera — there it looks natural. If the yolk is really pale yellow, it just doesn’t have the same impact. But I made pate sucree with [Happy Eggs], and I couldn’t even use it; it looked dyed.” She thinks that the farmers may feed their hens turmeric for that extra glow.
Spungen was the founding food editor at Martha Stewart Living when it launched in the early ’90s, and believes that it was none other than the magazine — and its eponymous founder — who planted the seeds of our current egg enthusiasm. “She was an early adopter of keeping [heritage breed] chickens,” Spungen says of Stewart. “Martha would bring her eggs from her farm in Westport to the test kitchen.” The magazine even ran a multipage showcase of heritage breeds, with a dissertation on the joys of keeping them.
Backyard chickens became a foundational part of Stewart’s DIY-luxe ethos, in which she turned homesteading into class performance for the upper crust. To wit: In 1995, she launched a collection of paint colors inspired by the shells of her Araucana hens’ eggs. Although they were discontinued in 2012, they continue to loom large in the cultural memory. When I mentioned to my boyfriend’s mother that I was writing about egg yolks and Martha’s influence in the world of egg worship, she let out a gasp of recognition and exclaimed, “Araucanas!” Stewart’s strategy — to expose those interested in homemaking and cooking to the luxury and aesthetics of good eggs — both echoes and inverts their promise: While the egg is cheap luxury, she turns it into luxury-luxury. Almost 30 years ago, her paint sold for over $100 a gallon. (More recently, she wrote about the trays of wheatgrass she grows in her greenhouse especially for her “happy, healthy chickens.”)
Like a yellow yolk, a blue shell doesn’t say much about the life of the chicken who laid it, or how flavorful its interior goo might be. But from a consumer perspective, it appears as precious as a gem that begs to be shown off. And consumers are all too willing to comply: At Gohar World, a recently launched tableware company from chef and artist Laila Gohar and her artist sister, Nadia, you can buy a $328 wrought-iron “egg chandelier” to display your brown and ecru and blue eggs, regardless of whether you plan to cook them. (Does one remove the eggs, one by one for cooking, until the chandelier is finally bare?) The piece’s impressive frivolity underscores the egg’s new role as status symbol: Martha may have placed hers in a handwoven basket, but Gohar World insists on elevating them — literally — as design objects. To finish the look, you can purchase a set of six lace “egg dresses,” complete with black ribbon. “Why just eat your eggs,” the product description reads, “when you can dress them up, too?”
I have had spotty luck perfecting the jammy egg. Bon Appétit’s six and a half minutes leave me with a loose, snotty white near the yolk; seven minutes and about 20 seconds usually gets me closer to the ideal, but the edges of the yolk begin to set and turn pale, an aesthetic sin that evokes the specter of the hard-boiled yolk, whose chalky texture has yet to find its resurgence.
But some people hope that moment is nigh, including Moonlynn Tsai, the co-founder of Heart of Dinner and a former partner at the Malaysian restaurant Kopitiam in Manhattan. When Kopitiam opened in 2015, she remembers, someone on Instagram shared a photo of the restaurant’s nasi lemak, a dish topped with a halved hard-boiled egg. “Everybody was like, ‘How dare they cook it to that point? That’s disrespectful to the egg — do they not even know how to cook a proper egg?’” Tsai says of the comments. “And I just remember sitting there like, This is a literal direct attack on our culture and upbringing. Just because you’re seeing a different style of egg [than what’s] popular nowadays, it doesn’t mean that this is a bad egg.”
Tsai, who is Taiwanese, grew up eating her mother’s tea eggs, and would crumble the seasoned yolk, using it “almost as a topping on my rice.” Unlike a runny yolk, which can evade you once it’s exposed, a hard-cooked yolk is willing to be put into service. It can be seasoned, turned into a condiment for rice or even steak tartare. “It’s like a sponge,” Tsai explains, eager to soak up whatever flavor we want to assign it.
Tsai recently ate a hard-boiled egg that may be a bellwether of things to come. Lingo, a new Japanese American restaurant in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, serves a smoked tamago sando, which arrives as delicate rectangles of egg salad sandwich topped with bold lines of salmon roe. Chef Emily Yuen hard-boils the eggs for 10 minutes before marinating them in mirin and soy and then smoking them; finally, she mashes them with Kewpie mayonnaise, seaweed, and Sichuan pepper. A hard boil is essential, Yuen says, for a sturdy and flavorful egg salad; a runny yolk would get lost in the mess of dressing.
Perhaps if recession-style cooking brings us back the deviled egg and egg salad, it might also revive that single-use kitchen tool, the egg slicer. Can’t you picture Great Jones, foremost purveyor of What if it was the ’50s again? aesthetics, making one in “broccoli” or “taffy”?
If you are one of the millions of civilians who still fear the egg, do this: Boil it until each cell of its yolk can be held between the fingers without running away. Find yourself an egg slicer, and watch as the firm white bends to its wires, succumbing to the soothing regularity of pattern. A soft, calming yellow will appear between the cracks. You’ll realize it was never so complicated after all.
Marian Bull is a writer and potter living in Brooklyn, New York. She writes a cooking newsletter called Mess Hall and is at work on her first book.
Dingding Hu is a New York-based illustrator who has worked on projects for Google, MIT Media Lab, and DOT NYC, and whose work has appeared in HuffPost, the New York Times, and TED.
Fact-checked by Kelsey Lannin