Grade AA vs. Grade A Eggs: What's the Difference?

With so many labels on egg cartons, you may not have paid attention to one calling out the eggs' grade. What does it mean, anyway?

a photo of someone looking at an egg from a carton of eggs
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If you thought you had enough choices to make when purchasing a dozen eggs, think again. Many of us already shop for eggs based on a number of qualities. What size do we need? Should we buy eggs with brown or white shells (and does the shell color mean anything anyway?). Sometimes we pick a dozen based on price (it's hard to turn down a good sale nowadays). Or maybe we prefer eggs that are produced close to home. For others, free-range and organic are important factors. So many choices!

To throw another consideration into the mix, did you know that eggs can also be graded from AA to A (and even B)? These grades don't tell us how the eggs performed on their last math test, but let the consumer know the quality of both the interior and exterior of the egg. This grade can help us choose eggs for our next kitchen project, whether it's a perfectly fried egg or a delicious frittata. Let's dig into the real difference between Grade AA versus Grade A eggs so you can pick the best egg for your meal and your wallet.

What Is Egg Grading?

Unlike high school exams, egg grading is a voluntary service. Producers pay a fee to the USDA, an independent third party, to assign grades for the quality and appearance of their eggs. Categorized into three ranks (AA, A and B), the grades are assigned by the USDA based on the eggs' interior and exterior qualities. (The grade has absolutely nothing to do with the eggs' size, nutritional value or safety.)

All eggs are examined carefully for smooth, unbroken shells and an oval shape with one end that is slightly larger than the other. The interior of the egg is even examined, by a method known as candling. This process uses a bright light to look at the yolk, the white and the size of the air cell of each egg, without needing to crack open the egg! The better the quality of both the exterior and interior of the egg, the higher its grade. Only the USDA is certified to grade eggs, so if there is a grade on the carton, make sure it includes the official USDA shield as well.

What Are Grade AA Eggs?

Grade AA eggs are the highest-quality eggs, in both exterior and interior appearance. USDA guidelines stipulate that these egg whites are clear and firm. Their yolks must be practically free from defects such as blood spots or embryo development, and their shells clean and unbroken. These eggs, which cost a bit more than other grades, are a good choice when you want a beautiful presentation, such as fried or poached eggs.

What Are Grade A Eggs?

Grade A eggs are the next highest-quality egg. They share many of the same qualities as Grade AA, but they have a slightly larger air cell or pocket (more on this below), and their whites are not quite as thick. Don't worry, these eggs are perfectly safe to cook and eat, they just aren't quite as perfect as a Grade AA. This means they often have a lower price point, which might be a compelling reason to grab a dozen when planning to mix them into a scramble or a cake. (Grade B eggs, often reserved for commercial baking or liquid eggs, have large air pockets and thin whites, and can have misshapen or flawed exteriors. They are still fine for consumption, they just lack the good looks of Grade AA and A eggs.)

What's the Difference Between Grade AA and Grade A Eggs?

How do you choose between the grades when, in reality, the difference between them is so slight? Let's compare the two:

Shells

Both AA and A eggs must have a clean, unbroken shell with a smooth surface and a uniform shape.

Whites

Grade AA eggs have clear and firm whites that hold the yolk in place, while Grade A eggs have clear and slightly less firm whites.

Yolks

The less definition you have of an egg yolk when held up to the light, the thicker the white. The yolks in a Grade AA egg will have a slightly defined outline, while Grade A egg yolks are slightly more defined, indicating less firm whites.

Air Cells

When an egg is first laid, it starts with hardly any air inside the shell. As the egg cools, the liquid contracts, and the inner membrane separates from the outer membrane, creating the air cell. (If you've noticed a variation in the size of the indent on one end of a peeled hard-boiled egg, this is caused by the air cell.) The fresher the egg, the smaller the air cell, and the higher the grade. Grade AA has an air cell of 1/8 inch or less. A Grade A egg air cell can range from 1/8 to 3/16 inch in depth.

Price

Because Grade AA eggs are considered to have a higher physical quality, they come with a higher price tag, compared to Grade A eggs.

Everything Else

All else being equal (aside from appearances), Grade AA and A eggs taste the same, cook the same and have the same health benefits.

Bottom Line

So, does it really matter what grades your eggs receive? Yes and no. If you are concerned about perfect-looking fried or poached eggs at your next brunch, then it might be well worth it to spend a little extra money on Grade AA eggs. If you typically make scrambled eggs, or whisk your eggs to bake up in muffin tins or a quiche, or mix them into cookies or quick breads, then the lower price point of Grade A eggs may be more attractive. Noah Smith, grocery merchandiser for PCC Community Markets in Seattle, says, "Most of our customers shop for eggs according to either price or attribute (organic, pasture-raised, etc.). I don't think that for most customers grade weighs as heavily into the decision-making process as it once did." Like many things in life, it sometimes comes down to a matter of appearances and if you're willing to pay a little more for beauty.

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