Monday, May 18, 2009

I've Been Thinking about Chickens

A Minneapolis chicken from Slow Food Minnesota's Urban Coop Tour.


Not too long ago I wrote about doing more butchering. Not slaughtering. Not working in the back of the supermarket, just doing more of my own trimming. Eliminating "value added" at the grocery store meant more savings at the cash register and making me more knowledgeable about meat. I've been buying whole chickens for some time. My thinking was -- could I extend this to beef? Buy large hunks and trim them down and use and freeze as needed?

Recently I've begun to wonder if I might go back a little further on the chicken supply chain. A friend of the Mini Chef deals with whole chickens too, but hers are LIVE CHICKENS. This is St. Paul, small urban to some, but not rural either. My wife was fetching our little one from a birthday party and walked into the friend's backyard, which happened to be the hens' living room. After the initial surprise and a bit of Q&A about small scale chicken ranching (3 birds), the idea started to tickle her fancy. By coincidence, Slow Food Minnesota sponsored a tour of urban chicken coops the next day so I could see how others are handling it. The ten urban coops on the tour represented a small number of local, urban coops. We even discovered a neighbor less than three blocks away with a backyard coop. If the internet activity about urban chicken raising (e.g. Backyard Chickens, Urban Chickens) and the attendance at a "driveway class" by local urban chicken proponents Peat Willcutt and Rocky Gordon are any indication, its becoming more than a fad. We've evaluated coop plans, and I've got a lead on some salvage lumber. My wife and I have started calling each other Mr. and Mrs. Brown.

Our backyard cannot support raising birds as a steady meat source, but is suitable for layers. I eat a lot of eggs. I love eggs. I was employed briefly as a breakfast cook in a busy university hospital cafeteria. At the time, I was cooking a few hundred eggs a day and though I got a lot of practice, it wasn't there that I learned the most about eggs. Despite the heavy exposure, I continue to love them and make them a part of most breakfasts.

How Much Do You Know about Eggs?

I don't know if its a true story or not, but I heard that for a final in a class on evolutionary biology, one of the essay questions was, "which came first the chicken or the egg? Explain." As long as the question is not "which came first the chicken or the chicken egg," it isn't a conundrum. Eggs have been around a lot longer than chickens. But how much do you know about eggs?
  1. It might be hot outside, but is it hot enough to fry an egg? How hot is that?
  2. What's the difference between a large and an extra large egg?
  3. Are brown eggs healthier?
  4. How long does an egg need to incubate?
  5. When does an egg go bad?
  6. Do you know a trick for peeling hard boiled eggs?
  7. Why do hard boiled eggs have a gap or pocket?
  8. How many eggs do Americans eat annually?
  9. What state is the number one egg producer?
  10. If you want a soft boiled egg (creamy, almost runny, not yet crumbly), how long do you cook it?

Answers:

  1. The temperature egg protein cooks at is not a single number. The whites cook start to coagulate at around 140 F, the yolks at a much higher temp. - around 180 F.
  2. An extra large egg is about a quarter of an ounce heavier. Eggs are weighed and sold by the dozen. A dozen large eggs should weigh 24 ounces -- 2 ounces/egg. Each grade up (extra large => jumbo) or down (medium => small) is a 3 ounce difference, i.e. an average of a quarter of an ounce an egg.
  3. No. Egg color is determined by the chicken breed. The quality or healthfulness of an egg is influenced more by the health and diet of the hen that laid it than by her genetics.
  4. A chicken's average gestation is 3 weeks.
  5. If a chicken's average gestation is 3 weeks, the egg should be viable for 3 weeks. The egg has a protective coating outside the shell. Once washed off (eggs from the store will almost certainly be washed), the time it can be safely used is reduced. After the outside coating is gone, it needs to be refrigerated. Eggs are surrounded by alkaline whites and lysozyme - unfavorable environments for bacterial growth. However, any egg that is cracked, smells bad or you just don't know how old it is should be chucked.
  6. The only tricks I know for peeling eggs is to cook the bejeebers out of them. The more rubbery the easier -- unfortunately I like a soft boiled egg that is a pain to peel. The other pointer I hear is to use older eggs, the theory being that washed eggs start to separate from the shell over time.
  7. The gap in a hard boiled egg comes from washing the egg and allowing gas to escape. As the egg ages, more gas escapes and the egg will start to float.
  8. According to the National Agricultural Statistical Service, total egg production in US from Dec '07 - Nov '08 was over 90 billion eggs. There is some egg export, but man!
  9. Iowa is the hands down winner. California isn't even close.
  10. If you are on a perfect egg mission, there are numerous recipes, but the real trick is to not boil the water. If the water is kept just below 180 F, eventually you will get there. I start with a gentle boil of just enough water to cover the eggs. I put in the eggs and lower to a simmer. After 13 minutes they come out nicely.

3 comments:

Erik said...

Eggsactly!

(sorry, had to)

Chickens are illegal in Saint Paul, but the city probably handles it like everything else - only act on complaints. As long as your neighbors don't hate 'em, I guess this is fine.

I didn't hear how you like your eggs! Perhaps your experience gave you a wider appreciation of what can be done with them. Once of the things we do for a cheap dinner is fry up some onion and then scramble some eggs on top (with a bit of chili powder and basil) for tacos huevos. It's light and cheap - and can be very good!

Bruce Harrington said...

Having one chicken in St.Paul is perfectly legal without a permit (see St. Paul legislative codes 198 and 200.15). If you want to have more than one, chickens are social so you should, you must obtain written approval from 75% of your neighbors within 150 feet of your property.

Bruce Harrington said...

I really like quiche, how much better can things get than melted cheese, eggs and pie crust?