‘Cage-free,’ ‘Free-range,’ organic or pasture-raised? Which types of eggs are best for Easter and every other day of the year?

Eggs are perfect packets of proteins. From hard-boiled to scrambled and poached, up your egg game, and try making this delicious Asian congee with a soft-in-the-center 8-minute egg.
March 20, 2024
One of several possible garnishes for congee, the Asian rice porridge, is an egg cooked for precisely 8 minutes so that its yolk still slightly runs. Photo by Bill St. John, for UCHealth.
One of several possible garnishes for congee, the Asian rice porridge, is an egg cooked for precisely 8 minutes so that its yolk still slightly runs. Photo by Bill St. John, for UCHealth.

For those cooking and eating eggs, those incredibly perfect packets of protein, the many sorts of eggs available at market can be more than a bit bewildering. “Cage-free,” “Free-range,” “Organic,” “Pasture-raised”—what are the differences, and do the differences matter?

In short, the differences are significant and, yes, they do matter. For example, we picture a “cage-free” hen living outside, pecking at grubs on the ground. The truth is, she spends time outside of her cage only during the laying cycle and, that, on the dirt (not grassy) floor of an enormous shed, not en plein air.

The Colorado-based grocery group Natural Grocers estimates that 95% of all eggs from the approximately 300 million U.S. laying hens come from enclosed, battery-cage operations where hens never leave their wired enclosures. So, even the restrictive “cage-free” is by far the exception rather than the rule.

Also, “organic” merely means that the hens’ diets, not their living environments, are “organic.” Their feed might contain organic mammalian and avian by-products, no less.

Most of the declensions on eggs’ naming have less to do with nutrition—even battery-caged eggs are nutritious—more with taste. The absolutely best-tasting eggs are those guaranteed by third parties, that state “Certified Humane,” for example, or “Animal Welfare Approved.” They are also as rare as, well, hen’s teeth.

For cooking any egg, I’ve learned at least one factor more important than any other given a certain cooking method. Let me share with you what I’ve learned to be most important for at least three egg-cooking ways.


Always whisk the eggs to be scrambled at least 15 minutes before cooking them and with 1/4- to 1/2-teaspoon measure of salt, to taste. The salt breaks down the protein in the whites and, consequently, when scrambled over heat, those proteins will not “seize up” and squeeze out the eggs’ moisture, drying up the scrambled eggs. The salt and the 15 minutes, in other words, help guarantee creamy scrambled eggs—what you want.


A thin membrane separates and protects the interior of the egg from its porous shell. This same membrane is the bain of all those who try to peel a hard-cooked egg, even one merely “firm-cooked,” such as the 8-minute egg in the recipe here.

Knowing about and how to deal with the membrane can help peeling immeasurably. Shock the egg to be hard-cooked into its boiling water immediately after taking the egg from the refrigerator. That is, cook cold eggs. When the timing ends on the cooking, plunge the egg into an ice water bath. That is, make the egg cold again very quickly.

This method help keep the membrane looser, less “clingy,” than it otherwise would be and makes for easier peeling.


There are two sorts of whites in an egg, especially noticeable in the freshest eggs: a firmer, thicker white that immediately surrounds the yolk in, essentially, an oval shape, and a runnier, far less firm white surrounding those both.

Let the runny egg white slip through the fingers of your palm (or the slots of a spoon) after cracking open the egg and poach only the firmer white and the yolk in barely simmering water. This makes for a very pretty, less “raggy” poached egg. (For more poaching tips, check out How to Cook Eggs.)

About cracking an egg, do so on a firm, flat surface such as a counterspace, not the edge of a bowl or skillet. Doing so lessens the chance of a piece of shell entering the mass of cracked egg or eggs. If a piece of shell does fall into the bowl or pan, use a large piece of shell to scoop it out. Shell attracts shell; you know how a fingertip does not!

Congee with 8-Minute Egg

I learned about congee, the Asian rice porridge, in the bitter heart of a Chicago winter. Plus, I had a cold; I was as congested as that same city’s freeways.

A friend took me to Chicago’s Chinatown for a bowl of congee, swirled with searingly spicy chili oil. That congee opened the dampers—and stoked the furnace.

My evergreen recommendation against colds inside and out is congee. It is as simple as two-plus-two and has a millennia-rich history of working its magic on folk frozen or ill.

Other great tips and recipes from Bill St. John.

The word “congee” is originally Tamil (kanji) and the dish goes by many names throughout southeast Asia and, as a result, may be known as such in restaurants hereabouts owned by cooks from these same places.

It’s called “juk” or “jook” by the Cantonese and Koreans; “zhou” in Mandarin; “khao tom” by the Thai; and, of course, “kanji” at some Indian eateries that might offer it.

The key to cooking congee is to use both regular as well as sticky rices, to leave them be atop the stove for a couple of hours so that their kernels very much break down, then to offer add-ins or toppings from a huge raft of possibilities, each dependent on its purpose at table: hot and spicy things to clear passageways and spark spirits; leftovers to use up foods asking for one last go-around; and green and other colorful and crunchy things for the way that they both lift flavor as well as sparkle eyes.

Congee with 8-Minute Egg recipe

Serve 4-6.

Also enjoy these other egg and Easter recipes from Bill St. John: 

A Vegetarian Mediterranean Easter

Shakshuka Eggs


4 large eggs, refrigerated (not room temperature)

3/4 cup jasmine or other white rice

1/2 cup glutinous, “sweet” or “sushi” rice

8 cups water or thin chicken stock, or combination of both

1 small to medium head Napa cabbage or Romaine lettuce, cored and outer leaves removed, and sliced as if into coleslaw, about 3 cups lightly packed

2 teaspoons soy sauce

1 teaspoon fish sauce

1-2 teaspoons Kosher or other non-iodized salt, to taste

Good pinch freshly ground white pepper

1 2-inch knob ginger, peeled and sliced and cut into matchsticks

Garnishes: scallions, thinly sliced; Sriracha sauce or other spicy chili sauces, crisps or oils; roasted peanuts, crushed; medium-firm tofu, cubed; leftover cooked shellfish, fish, pork or chicken, cubed or shredded


Start the congee: Put both the rices into a large pot or bowl and rinse them in at least three changes of water, using your hands to slush them around, until the water runs mostly clear.

Put the rice into a large pot and add the water or stock. Cover, bring to a boil and then lower the heat to low or medium-low, leaving the lid on a crack, and cook very slowly for 2 hours, stirring once in a while to keep the rice from adhering to the bottom of the pot. The cooked, broken-up rice should come to resemble a thick porridge.

Meanwhile, make the eggs: Gently lower the eggs into a pot of boiling water to cover them by 1 inch. Lower the heat to the barest simmer and cook for precisely 8 minutes. In the meantime, prepare an ice bath with a large bowlful of ice cubes and just enough water to allow the cubes to move. At the 8-minute mark, remove the eggs from the pot using a “spider” or slotted spoon and immediately place them in the ice bath. After a minute or 2, gently crack the shells with the back of a spoon, replacing the eggs in the ice bath so that a bit of water can seep in under the shells.

When the eggs are way cold, peel them gently (under slowly running water if that helps), placing them in a bowl of tepid or room temperature water to hold.

To serve, bring the congee back to a good bubbly boil, add the cabbage or lettuce, soy and fish sauces, salt and pepper, and the ginger matchsticks, and cook, stirring occasionally, for 3-4 minutes.

To serve, slice each egg in half longways with a very sharp, thin knife (such as a filet knife) and place 1-2 halves atop each bowl, yolk side up, along with any garnishes.

Note: The congee also may be prepared in an electric pressure cooker (such as an Instant Pot) in the same steps as the recipe indicates (that is, rinsing the rices, etc.). Cook on High Pressure for 30 minutes, with “natural release” (about 20 additional minutes, covered and sealed).

Easter and The Egg

Easter is the Christian celebration of the resurrection from the dead of Jesus of Nazareth, three days after his crucifixion. Long, long ago, Easter came to be associated with eggs because, like Jesus, a chick emerges into life from its “tomb” of the shell, the egg already being, for pre-Christians, a symbol of regeneration come springtime.

Dying or coloring eggs also became associated with Easter because Christians, fasting during the Lenten period ahead of Easter, were disallowed from eating eggs during Holy Week, the few days preceding Easter. Hens didn’t know this and kept laying eggs, so “Holy Week Eggs” became even more special and often were decorated for eating on Easter and the days after.

For example, Orthodox Christians painted or dyed eggs red, symbolic of the blood that Jesus shed on the cross. In time, chocolate or jellybean “eggs” were substituted for hen eggs, again as a relief of the Lenten strictures against eating sweets.

Reach Bill St. John at [email protected]

About the author

For more than 40 years, Bill St. John’s specialties have been as varied as they are cultured. He writes and teaches about restaurants, wine, food & wine, the history of the cuisines of several countries (France, Italy, Spain, Belgium, and the USA), about religion and its nexus with food, culture, history, or philosophy, and on books, travel, food writing, op-ed, and language.

Bill has lent (and lends) his subject matter expertise to such outlets as The Rocky Mountain News, The Denver Post, The Chicago Tribune, 5280 Magazine, and for various entities such as food markets, wine shops, schools & hospitals, and, for its brief life, Microsoft’s sidewalk.com. In 2001 he was nominated for a James Beard Award in Journalism for his 12 years of writing for Wine & Spirits Magazine.

Bill's experience also includes teaching at Regis University and the University of Chicago and in classrooms of his own devising; working as on-air talent with Denver's KCNC-TV, where he scripted and presented a travel & lifestyle program called "Wine at 45"; a one-week stint as a Trappist monk; and offering his shoulder as a headrest for Julia Child for 20 minutes.

Bill has also visited 54 countries, 42 of the United States, and all 10 Canadian provinces.