Monday, December 6, 2010

The Farmers Market Egg Challenge

Have I got a treat for you! I recently got to speak about food blogging at Chef Deborah Schneider's UCSD Extension food writing class and met a wonderful young writer named Erin Smith. She talked about a project she did for Deb that compared eggs from various farms and I was so intrigued I asked her to send it to me. I was thoroughly impressed, and it led me to a first for San Diego Foodstuff; I asked if she would be interested in my publishing it as a guest post. I think you'll agree that this is a hugely useful piece, especially as we head into holiday baking. Enjoy -- and enjoy Erin's blog, Butterbadge.

With the holidays and special meals coming up, it makes sense to seek out the best ingredients, including the eggs that go into our cakes, cookies, and custards. The Farmer’s Markets of San Diego have a diverse selection of eggs ranging from conventionally produced to those raised on small farms on grains, vegetables, or grass. We’ve had our favorites, but this year we decided to do some more formal research to figure out the best eggs for our holidays.



As a child, I knew that the best eggs were the ones in our yard. Our pet chicken Brownie was a small, white, fluffy chicken with a serious attitude. The queen of the yard, she would get into my mother’s vegetable garden to peck the green pepper plants down to the roots, and it paid off in her eggs. We’d search the yard to find her nest, and then Mom would fry them up over-easy in butter with a dash of Lawry’s Seasoning Salt. Brownish-red flecks dotting the bright orange yolks, they were thick and rich with an herbal nuttiness.

Pastured Eggs
Little did I know that Brownie was being raised on our lawn as an enviable “Pastured Poultry” and her eggs as such would now fetch a premium: $8/doz at Whole Foods. Pastured is code for animals that are raised on grassy areas: Brownie received chicken feed, but she spent much of her day outside pecking at grass, peppers, and bugs. This differs from “Free Range” birds that are raised in barns with only minimal required access to the outdoors and “Cage-Free” that aren’t in cages, but have no outdoor access at all.

Pastured poultry is gaining in popularity due in no small part to Joel Salatin’s work at Polyface Farms. Salatin, featured in both The Omnivore’s Dilemma and Food, Inc., pioneered the use of egg mobiles that cart around egg-laying hens to fresh regions of pasture daily. While “Pastured” can imply this ideal, in actual practice the meaning can vary. Often, pastured layers get most of their calories from feed; even Salatin’s birds replace only 30 percent of their feed with bugs and grass.

How good are pastured eggs? Descanso Valley Ranch recently began selling them at the Little Italy Farmer’s Market. We set out to do a series of tests and for comparison and included our usual eggs from Schaner Farms, and two commercial sources: one high-end one, Eben-Haezer Ranch, and some regular eggs from Trader Joe’s.

Schaner Farms
Schaner Farms, located in Valley Center, is run by Peter and Kayne Schaner, and their kids. They grow fruits and vegetables, make fresh-squeezed juices, and sell a variety of eggs including duck, turkey, and guinea hen, as well as chicken ($5/doz). We caught up with their oldest son Luke, who feels that the best tasting eggs come from healthy chickens that have been fed a wide variety of foods. Their diet includes a mix designed for egg layers from a grain mill in Riverside, barley mash left over after brewing beer at the local breweries, vegetables that don’t get sold at the market, and left over rinds and pulp from the juicing operation. In nice weather, are placed outside in pens to run around. The eggs that they bring to market on Saturday have been laid from Wednesday through Friday.

Descanso Valley Ranch
Descanso Valley Ranch has a stall at the same market, just a block down the street. They raise pastured eggs ($6/doz) as well as pastured broilers. The broilers are serious: they are of the French Label Rouge-type breed and are the richest, fattiest, most flavorful chickens we’ve ever had. The layers get about 30 percent  of their nutrition from pasture, which has been seeded with oats and barley, and the rest from a grain mix. They don’t irrigate, so the chickens don’t necessarily eat green grass all year: they eat fresh grass in the spring and have been eating grasshoppers all summer. The eggs were laid during the previous week. They feel that the pasture keeps their chickens healthy and provides them with a lot of vitamins like carotene, making for tasty eggs.

Eben-Haezer Ranch
A few stalls down, Kosta Houdalakis from Lisko Imports carries eggs ($3.25/doz when you bring a carton, $4.25 without) from Eben-Haezer Ranch. Eben-Haezer, with 50,000 birds, has been family run for the last 50 years. Many restaurants in the area feature their eggs even though they come at a premium of three times the wholesale price of commercial eggs ($24 vs. $8 for 15 dozen). It is a commercial operation and while the chickens are fed a high quality feed (Veg-A-Pro), these particular eggs are not Free Range or even Cage-Free. Kosta is particular about getting them fresh and the ones we picked up Saturday were laid on Thursday.

Trader Joe's
Our final selection was from Hidden Villa Ranch under the California Ranch Fresh brand ($1.49) at Trader Joe’s. According to the Julian Pack Date on the side of the carton, they were packed on the 292nd day of the year, or Oct 19th: the Tuesday before we picked up our eggs at the market. Eggs can be held before their pack date, but are often packed within only a few days of being laid. So, all of our eggs have probably been laid within the last week to 10 days.

So what makes a good egg?
We started with the standards set by the USDA, a grading system based primarily on appearance. The highest grade, AA, goes to eggs that have high yolks and whites that stand up when the egg is cracked onto a plate and free from defects like shell stains. AA grade eggs will degrade over time to A grade: the whites will flatten out and become more watery. B grade eggs are generally not seen in markets, but are rather used in processed foods, and have very watery whites that spread out easily.

By these measures, both the Eben-Haezer and the California Ranch Fresh rank AA. The Descanso eggs had slightly weaker whites that formed pockets when we fried them, which we’re guessing puts them into the A category. The Schaner eggs had whites that completely spread out, putting them in the B category.

The USDA doesn’t grade on flavor, though. We tried three preparations and compared the eggs head to head. While my partner Dave was blinded, I knew which eggs were which. We started with a simple preparation: plain hard boiled eggs, the yolk and the whites passed through a strainer to make even fluffy piles. There was some variation in flavor, with some having grassy, lemony, buttery, or sulfery tones, but it was really quite difficult to tell which flavors were better. Pressed, Dave picked the Schaner eggs as the worst of the lot, ranking them Descanso, Eben-Haezer, California Ranch Fresh, and Schaner. We both felt uncertain about the results, though.*



For breakfast on Sunday, we chopped up pastured chicken giblets, fried them in butter and sweet shallots, and spread them over toasted multigrain. Fried eggs perched on top with a splash of parsley. This time, it was a complete switch with the Schaner egg a clear winner with a deep, creamy flavor that rounded out the fried organ meats. It was followed by Eben-Haezer and Descanso. California Ranch Fresh finished a distant last: it just lacked flavor and body.



The final test was a vanilla pots de crème, where egg yolks strongly influence texture and depth of flavor. These thick custards are made with cream, milk, sugar, vanilla, and egg yolks, slow cooked in a water bath. Schaner came out ahead with a very creamy texture, silky mouthfeel, and a light and delicate flavor that integrated the sweet cream with warm Mexican vanilla without being overly cloying. Eben-Hazer was second with a stronger, but slightly eggier flavor, and good texture. Descanso was third with good texture, but unremarkable flavor. California Ranch Fresh was again last with a watery texture, and a sweet flavor that tasted more like Jell-o pudding.



The Result
Across all the comparisons, we felt the overall ranking was Schaner, Eben-Haezer, Descanso, and California Ranch Fresh, with the top three being closer together than the last place. This surprised us. Although we didn’t know whether the pastured eggs would be better or worse than the Schaner’s eggs, we really didn’t expect the commercial, albeit high-end commercial, to beat out pasture. We had expected the pastured pedigree to hold up, especially given the bugs and any grass, even if it is dry autumn grass of San Diego. Could the handful of days between laying have done it? Or were the practiced protocols of industry actually more effective? Different batches of eggs or different times of the year may yield different results, and we will keep testing. We’ve learned that there is a lot more to this than official labels – the Schaner chickens may not be pastured, but their variety of diet is probably wider than many chickens that are.

Ah, but were they Brownie’s eggs? My childhood memory says no, but sadly we’ll never get to try them side by side.

*Note: It turned out that Schaner Farms had recently taken over some new chickens that were still adjusting to farm life. Recent eggs haven’t had the watery white problem.

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