Putting Broken Eggshells Back in the Carton: Great or Gross?

I encountered a confusing phenomenon recently, and I need your help to sort it out: broken eggshells left in the carton, then put back into the refrigerator alongside the still-intact eggs.

My buddy who does this -- whose egg carton I found filled with ten empty eggshells, almost lovingly reconstructed, and only two unbroken eggs -- assures me this is quite normal. It was like discovering that everyone else has nightly dreams about Liberace riding a bedazzled Stegosaurus and I've been missing out with my boring, non-sparkly dreams.

But it also admittedly grossed me out. The rather disgusting idea of "trash" inhabiting the same space in the small, enclosed carton with fresh food has been gnawing at me. Couldn't this result in some sort of cross-contamination? I already get panicky when I have to touch raw chicken; the thought of albumen leaking across the egg carton into other compartments -- no matter how far-fetched -- was making me itchy.

Curious as to why my buddy was doing this -- his only response was, "Why not?" -- I looked to Google.

It turns out that this is a more common habit than I'd expected, and typically one passed down in families.

"The carton is right there and the trash can is way over there!," explained one friend on Twitter. "Plus it's how my grandpa did it, and his breakfast was the best."

This makes sense; learned behavior is the same reason I salt my coffee grounds before brewing and thicken my eggs with cream before cooking. But while the merits of either of those activities can be debated, I can't understand why anyone would put trash back into its original container and then store it alongside all the other non-trash food in one's refrigerator. This doesn't seem up for any kind of debate at all.

I am not alone in thinking this, at least.

Food blog This Week For Dinner debated the merits of storing broken eggshells in the carton, coming to the conclusion that while it probably isn't harmful, the mere plausibility of cross-contamination is reason enough to avoid the practice. "Putting broken shells back in the carton just doesn't seem clean or safe," blogger Jane Maynard wrote.

And over at The Straight Dope forums, one of the posters perfectly captured my baffled reaction to first finding broken eggshells stored in the carton: "Do you put empty soup cans back in the cupboard?" he asked. "Then why would you put empty eggshells back in the carton?"

My point exactly. When something is spent, throw it away or compost it. Why keep it hanging around, like some creepy reminder to the other eggs in the carton that this is the fate which awaits all of them?

As a final piece of evidence, I found this compelling argument on a Web site that seemed only slightly more credible than Yahoo! Answers (GOOD ENOUGH FOR ME):

This is probably a tradition that should be ended. There are as many as 8,000 microscporic pores in eggshells. Bacteria and mold can easily find a path into cracked eggs. It may spread bacteria to other eggs, there are natural barriers that protect egg nutrients yet can provide nutrients for bacteria, these protector are (cuticle, shell, shell membrane and albumen or egg whites). So those old cracked eggs that are still moist are waiting for bacteria to attack this wetness.

I was ready to feel quite full of myself about this whole broken egg shell business, when pastry chef and Fluff Bake Bar owner Rebecca Masson appeared to side with my buddy.

"Back in the egg carton," Masson told me of her spent eggs. "I do it for speed, I guess, but we are cracking 12-plus eggs at a time." I was crestfallen. If a professional pastry chef was employing this practice, then I'd been doing it wrong all along. But then she quickly clarified.

"We don't put [the empty egg shells] back in the fridge, though," Masson said. "We toss."

Readers, what do you do with your spent egg shells?

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Katharine Shilcutt