This is the eleventh in a series of weekly farm reports from our own Tom Hirschfeld, complete with recipes, cooking and gardening tips, and wisdom dispensed.
Tom's gone pheasant-hunting! So today we're sharing an essay from his blog Bona Fide Farm Food (with new photos!)
The quality of an egg depends on so many things. While I am not a poultry farmer and I haven’t been doing this for very long, there are some things I have noticed. I think I have been able to notice them because I am a chef. In other words, I want the best quality eggs and if I am going to take the time to raise them I want them to be hands down, no questions asked, the best eggs ever. For me it is no different than raising pristine, tasty and wonderful tomatoes, apples or anything that I am going to ingest. If I start out with the best product I can find, my food is going to reflect that, period.
The beautiful thing about eggs is they give you a lot of answers that you can see plainly with the naked eye. If you are concerned about the egg's age you can simply drop the egg into a pot of water and watch what it does. If it is a fresh egg it will lay flat; if it is one week old the fat end of the egg will float up to about 3 o’clock. If it is really old it will raise up to noon or even possibly float. You see as an egg ages the moisture from the interior evaporates, creating a bubble at the fat end. This happens because an egg shell is porous and allows the albumen to lose moisture and shrink. This it what causes the dimple in the fat end of a hard-boiled egg.
Cracking the egg will tell you some more. If you put the shell-less egg on a plate you should notice a thin band of outer white (albumen) and then there should be a raised white. Inside the raised albumen is the egg yolk. The raised albumen lets you know the egg is fresh and the less of the flat albumen the better.
The yolk can tell you what the chicken has been eating by its color, but I also think you can tell a chicken's age by this too. I have noticed that when a chicken first starts laying eggs the yolks are much more orange than my older hens, even though their diets are the same. The younger hens' yolks also seem a thicker consistency and richer in taste. I have to add the newly laying hen lays really small eggs, so maybe this has something to do with it.
I think it is important to rotate out the flock every year. What I want to try to do is let the older hens molt once. Molting is when they stop laying and lose feathers and when they come back into laying they lay higher quality eggs. Once they have gone through a molt, the next spring they go to the processor to become stewing hens. I want to keep my laying flock young simply because I want the best eggs and I believe the younger birds lay better eggs.
If I were buying eggs I would think about a couple of things. One would be if the eggs have a lot of chicken poop stuck to them. This means that the owner doesn’t have enough nesting boxes or no nesting boxes. A hen will get down to poop, she will not poop on her eggs. If the eggs are heavily soiled, they should be going into the trash bin. Ask if they wash the eggs -- they will happily tell you if they are. You do not want eggs that have been washed. It pushes the bacteria into the egg (remember the shell is porous). While there are methods for washing eggs in commercial circumstances that are safe I am guessing the small flock owner doesn’t have access to these.
I believe there are different levels of raising, caring and knowing how the get the best eggs. When I say levels I am talking about the actual owner and how the birds are cared for. There are the owners who buy a few birds and throw them into the backyard thinking they have a carefree, free range flock that will give them eggs, then there are those that couldn’t control themselves and overbought chicks and now have more than they want or more than their hen house can handle. When I hear someone say they raise chickens because they are vegetarians and they want to know their hens are being treated well, that to me means they are old birds. While all these are great none of these would be where I would buy my eggs.
Don’t get me wrong, all these folks have the best of intentions. I just think they aren’t that interested in the quality of the eggs as long as they are getting eggs. At the same time I am not sure these eggs would be better than storebought.
In the end, just because someone raises chickens doesn’t mean their product is superior to what you would find in the store, but at the same time there are also lots of people raising top notch eggs for sale. It is just like anything -- you need to know your source otherwise what “is” the difference does become the question. Personally, I will always take the small eggs from the newly laying hens.
A Tip from Tom on Raising Your Own Chickens (and Eggs)
You don’t need a rooster for your hens to lay eggs. The hen’s eggs just won’t be fertile. No crowing is the very reason a lot of cities, yes cities, allow people to have hens inside the city limits. Check your local ordinances -- you may be surprised.
If you want fertile eggs, you need a rooster -- but they are feisty and don't like little kids or the timid.
Want more Tom? See where he learned how to make food look delicious: Plating Real Food