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Farm Fresh Eggs

A poached fresh-laid egg in a black bean soup, drug Andalucia

Access to truly fresh eggs is one of the great advantages of living on a farm. Every farm we have been on so far has chickens for the family’s use. They are easy to care for, eating leftovers and scraps from the kitchen, and take up little space even with ample room for them to roam. The occasional chicken can be slaughtered for meat, but on a daily basis they are far more valuable for their eggs.

A fresh-laid egg is far superior to anything found in a supermarket. First, by virtue of the chickens’ varied diet on these farms, the yolks are richer in color and flavor. The pale yellow most of us are used to in supermarket eggs can often reach a deep orange depending on the chicken’s diet. Second, egg shells are porous and the egg, which “breathes” by consuming oxygen and expelling carbon dioxide, also takes on any odors from the air around it. An industrial egg that has been sitting for weeks or months in warehouses and supermarket shelves tastes stale and dull.

Eggs, which in terms of spoilage have an incredibly long shelf life, are very delicate in quality. The quality of an egg begins to degrade from the moment it is laid, partly as a result of a buildup of carbon dioxide that isn’t exhaled from the egg as it breathes. The yolk of a fresh laid egg is very round and tight. As the egg ages, the yolk begins to collapse and flatten. The egg whites experience a similar loss of tightness with age. The white of a fresh egg is cloudy in color and won’t run far from the yolk. With time though the white becomes translucent and increasingly loose and runny.

These changes in the egg’s characteristics have a direct effect on the ease of cooking. Older eggs are more difficult to fry or poach: the yolks are more likely to break and the whites spread far from the yolk. A few tricks like adding a dash of vinegar and salt to poaching water help to set the whites faster, but in the end an old egg will never poach as well. I used to have to poach hundreds of eggs every week at a restaurant where I worked. While I had mastered the technique well enough to poach most of the eggs successfully, there was always some loss: broken yolks, over-spread whites. A fresh egg, however, is incredibly easy to poach. Dropped into water at a light boil, the whites set perfectly around the yolk with almost no spreading. The result is a beautiful poached egg every time. It becomes almost impossible to err.

My personal rule is the fresher the egg, the less I generally like to cook it. When I have access to fresh eggs, my preference is to eat them either poached or soft-boiled. Poached eggs are great with toast, salads, or polenta. They are also perfect in hearty soups, poached first and added to the soup at the last minute. If I make an omelet, I stick to the traditional French method and leave the center runny. Scrambled eggs must be soft.

To poach an egg:

Add a small splash of vinegar and some salt to the water to speed up the setting of the whites. The idea isn’t to make the eggs taste like vinegar, so not too much. The water should be at a rapid simmer. If it is boiling too violently the eggs will spread too much in the water. Too slow of a simmer will lead to the egg settling on the bottom of the pot and the result will look something like a boiled sunny-side up egg. Just enough bubbling in the water will spin the egg and keep it off the bottom of the pot, but not break it up. It is necessary to constantly adjust the flame under the pot as you poach the eggs to keep the simmer where you want it. Crack the eggs, one at a time into a cup or saucer. If a yolk breaks, reserve the egg for another use. Lower the cup to the water and carefully slip the egg in. You should be able to poach at least two to four eggs at a time. Remove the egg with a slotted spoon after three or four minutes; the white should have set and the yolk should still be completely runny. Trim off any excess bits of white.

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