Consumer demand for farm-fresh, free-range eggs has sparked a conversation that's finally made an impact on policy. According to a new law, all eggs sold in California must now come from chickens that live in enclosures twice as spacious. While this is a step in the right direction, many feel that true egg nirvana is only experienced with eggs from pasture-raised hens, such as the ones Maryland farmer Carole Morison - first introduced to us in the Food, Inc. documentary - supplies to stores in the Annapolis/Baltimore/DC area.
For all of us who do judge a yolk by its color, here are five reasons to pledge permanent allegiance to pasture-raised eggs.
Just like us, they are what they eat
When running our Dirt to Dine Adventure camp at Connolly Ranch in Napa, CA, we teach children about healthy hens by asking them one simple question: Would you be healthy if all you ate was French fries? Well, no and neither are hens. The simple fact is that they need a diverse diet just as we do, and while feeding them food from the garden, kitchen scraps, bugs and seeds, the kids picked up that idea very quickly.
Not surprisingly, a healthy hen's diet and lifestyle also leads to nutritional benefits, a point that can be made visible when comparing the color of the yolks from industrially farmed eggs to those of farm-fresh eggs. To explore this point at home around your kitchen table, buy eggs from several different farmers at your farmers market, ask them what their chickens eat, and compare notes on yolk color when you get home along side a mass-farmed egg. The results of a colorful & diverse diet will be readily apparent in the deep orange yolks from those happy hens.
They are a perfect food
Everyone knows that eggs are a rich protein source and contain many essential nutrients. It turns out pasture-raised eggs may even be more nutritious. In fact, Penn State University found that eggs from pasture-raised hens contained higher levels of Vitamins A, D & E, more Omega-3 fatty acids, and up to seven times more beta carotene. Much of this is attributed once again to their diets, which can include Omega-3 rich legumes such as alfalfa and clover, and carotenoids - natural plant pigments found in many fruits and vegetables. More importantly, a well-rounded diet for these omnivores includes bugs, grub and other things found pecking around in the pasture.
The yolk contains the highest concentration of an egg's fat-soluble vitamins and nutrients - it's where the vitamins A, D, E, B and K are stored. Egg yolks also contain the richest form of choline, particularly important for brain function and health and highly recommended during pregnancy.
They require less processing
If the eggs you get from your local farm have not been washed, then they may be stored at room temperature for up to three months. This is due to a protective layer they have called the bloom. As long as the bloom is intact, display those multi-colored eggs with pride on your kitchen's center island, and wash them just before using.
They come from happy animals
Pasture-raised hens are often raised in smaller flocks, have a natural life, and benefit from their ability to hunt and peck among grass and spend time in the sun. And because of the dreaminess of fresh eggs and the adorable nature of hens, the 'backyard chicken' craze has spiked recently, allowing neighbors to feed each other in what may be one of the simplest forms of rebuilding a local food system. If you can't raise your own hens, or don't have inspired neighbors doing so like Garden Betty, request that your supermarket sell certified pasture-raised eggs from farmers like Carole Morison, or use these resources to see who in your area may have them: www.localharvest.org and www.eatwild.com.
They make beautiful food!
As you learn to appreciate the hidden beauty in that gorgeous yolk, some of these dishes that celebrate a perfect egg will play a special role in your appreciation of local foods. Here are but a few of our favorite show-stopping egg recipes, where the yolk takes center stage!
Potato Gnocchi Ravioli A whole egg yolk, surrounded by a wreath of ricotta and chard, makes these ravioli from Chef Michael Chiarello an absolutely stunning dish to serve.
Lyonnaise Salad This simple, mouthwatering salad from The Kitchn features frisée tossed in a warm vinaigrette and layered with a poached egg and crispy bacon pieces.
Asparagus, Ricotta, and Egg Pizza Packed with protein and simple to prepare, this colorful main dish from Cooking Light may just find regular rotation on your home menu.