Like most chefs, I crave farm fresh eggs for my professional culinary needs as well as my hungry-belly needs. Have you compared the golden yolk of an organic free-range egg with that of a mass-produced egg? With the proliferation of urban farmers and backyard coops popping up, fresh eggs seem to be everywhere.
For pastry, the egg is my glue. It adds structure, shine, and is a necessity in the creamy bases that make up a great deal of my work. The challenge in the kitchen is that we use a lot of eggs, especially in pastry. Where can I find a large quantity of truly free-range, organic eggs and not have to break into my profits to acquire them?
Most urban farmers seem to be raising enough chickens to cover their egg needs and maybe a sell a few at the farmers markets. How bummed have you been when you show up 10 minutes after the farmers market opens and the egg lady has already sold out of eggs for the day?
The largest local urban farming flock that I know of is that of Lylah and Michael Ledner of The Simple Farm in Scottsdale, clocking in at around 50 hens, give or take. The majority of their eggs go to the public, who will pay $5-6 per dozen for their lovely eggs. I can't blame them, as I'd rather sell to the public too. So what's an egg-less pastry chef to do? Set up my own coop?
I have always wanted to own chickens, but with a gauzy romantic vision of wandering out to my shabby chic coop and pulling eggs out to make fabulous dishes. Worried reality would be a little different, I decided to make sure I have all the facts before hitting send on ordering a box of little egg layers.
I met with Jill Green of Sweet Life Garden, a blog she writes chronicling her backyard farm and orchard, to discuss chickens. Green and her husband have been keeping backyard chickens for 25 years. It started as a way to teach their children responsibility, and morphed into a passion.
"Chicken are easier than dogs," Green explains. They are self sufficient, requiring a little "time, energy, resources and room."
That sounds like a lot. Jill assures that it really isn't. A covered, completely closed coop, so that predators can't get in. Cover from the sun. The chance to run around the yard and forage for bugs. Feeding and watering them daily. Laying hay on the ground of the coop to absorb the droppings, which are gold for your garden. Collect delicious eggs.
When baby chicks first arrive on your doorstep either from mail order or the feed store, they have to be kept under a heat lamp and tended to a bit more than once grown. Don't expect a fully egged-up chicken to start laying like a champion right away, unless you purchase a grown chicken. The chickens will start to lay eggs around five or six months.
Green's chickens are feed a mixture of kitchen scraps, organic feed that runs about $25 for a 50-pound bag, and bugs that they scratch for while roaming her property.
Chickens will produce about one egg a day or, some say, every 26 hours. The typical laying life of a chicken is about three years, and then they start to slow down, laying one egg perhaps every other day. So, I would need about 40 chickens to start with for my pastry business. Yikes!
A large egg company recently proclaimed that their eggs are not touched by human hands. Why is that good? I don't want my food to be a widget on a production line. I want someone who cares about the product they are creating to touch my food, grow my food, care for my food! I don't want to give my money to businesses that aren't looking out for my well-being as their customer.
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Despite all this, I don't think I'll be starting my own coop just yet, unless chickens like apartment living. I haven't yet worked out where to source organic eggs for my business, however, I am definitely researching through some great websites, like Good Food Finder, attempting to piece together how to source such a vital pastry ingredient. We'll all just have to try to be the first person at the egg lady's stand at the farmers market. Last one there
is a rotten egg doesn't get any eggs.
Rachel Miller is a pastry chef and food writer in Phoenix, where she bakes, eats, and single-handedly keeps her local cheese shop in business. You can get more information about her pastry at www.pistolwhippedpastry.com, or on her blog at www.croissantinthecity.com.