Polyface-quality eggs in the Bay Area?
February 21, 2011 4:17 AM   Subscribe

In The Omnivore's Dilemma, Michael Pollan pays a visit to Polyface Farms, where he discovers chicken eggs of an unusual consistency. Please help me find similar eggs in the Bay Area, if they exist!

A few choice quotes about the eggs:

"When [Salatin] first began selling eggs to chefs, he'd crack one right into the palm of his hand, and then flip the yolk back and forth from one hand to another..."

"The yolks were a gorgeous carroty shade of orange and they did seem to possess an unusual integrity..."

I've been looking for eggs with this sort of firmness and color for quite some time, but so far, none of the grocery store or farmer's market varieties have had these qualities. Do they even exist, outside of super-specialized farms like Polyface? Have you seen any eggs like this in the wild? Or was Salatin, perhaps, exaggerating in his yolk story?

Thank you!
posted by archagon to Food & Drink (28 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
As someone who moved from the Bay Area to the UK, I'd say that most of the eggs over here in the UK have the qualities you describe. In general, the yolks are darker and firmer than what I was used to in the US. Don't know if that helps...
posted by vacapinta at 4:28 AM on February 21, 2011

I am lucky enough to live close to Polyface Farms, so I've had their eggs many times as well as other local eggs. I find that all eggs from chickens that eat a similar diet have the same properties as the Polyface eggs in terms of the much more vivid yolk color and texture of the yolk. So I suspect that if you quizzed people about their animal husbandry you would find other folks whose chickens ate bugs and their yolks would have similar properties in the Bay area.

I will say that some of the more rhapsodic praise of Polyface eggs is a bit of hyperbole. They are really really good eggs. But I think other eggs that are equally fresh and from pastured chickens would be unlikely to be differentiated in a blind taste test. I do know that Joel times the egg laying chicken to hit pastures a certain number of days after the cows, to maximize the number of larvae in the field when the chickens get there. So I think that the answer to the egg quality is more bugs and larvae.
posted by Lame_username at 4:48 AM on February 21, 2011 [1 favorite]

I spent a year in rural northern CA, and my landlords kept chickens whose diet was mostly scavenged in the yard. The landlady referred to the eggs as "recycled earwigs," and they were the best eggs I ever had, with rich, intensely colored yolks. Now, in a semi-rural section of Ohio, I can sometimes buy eggs from a guy who keeps chickens in much the same way -- wandering around in the yard, no commercial feed -- and these eggs are almost as good. So I agree w/Lame_username that diet makes the difference.
posted by jon1270 at 5:21 AM on February 21, 2011

That is what eggs from chickens that run around and eat lots of bugs are like. Bonus: they have more flavor, too. I can't tell you where to find them in the Bay Area, but I can tell you that it isn't anything unique to one farm; it's just finding someone who keeps old-style, low-production, outdoor chickens.
posted by Forktine at 5:24 AM on February 21, 2011 [1 favorite]

Not the *best* solution, but I think the Omega-3 eggs from Land-o-lakes have a bit of that going on.
posted by gjc at 5:28 AM on February 21, 2011

Yep, I was going to say you need to find chickens that scratch around outside all day and eat bugs. True, honest free range chickens. I’m lucky enough to work with someone who raises chickens in her back yard and her chickens’ eggs are exactly as you describe.

You might be able to find eggs from chickens like these at a farmer’s market, but more and more I find that farmer’s markets are just another outlet for medium to large commercial outfits whose “free range” eggs will have come from chickens in the same situations as those who lay the ”free range” eggs you find at large groceries - chickens that have probably never actually seen the outdoors or eaten anything other than commercial chicken feed. Current Free Range standards mean thousands upon thousands of chickens in a barn with a single 2’x2’ door leading to a small outdoor concrete slab.
posted by cilantro at 5:35 AM on February 21, 2011

I assume you don't have a yard so chicken-raising is out of the question? Ours don't take up much space, they have a run that's about 7 foot by 3 foot for 2-3 chickens, and we move them around the yard every few days when they start to brown the grass. The eggs are awwesome. They do eat commercial feed, but also scraps of fruit/veggies our toddler mungs up and then refuses to eat.
posted by kpht at 5:48 AM on February 21, 2011 [1 favorite]

Thats funny. My grandmother in Mexico eats eggs from chickens in her backyard. They are delicious but I haven't noticed the yolk is actually darker.

This thread on poultrykeeper produces no definitive answer but a couple people chime in to say that they raise different breeds on the same diet. Some produce light eggs, others dark. So I am tempted to say that breed is a factor (or, breed+diet) rather than just diet.

I mean I've had blue eggs from the Cream Legbar so breed is a huge factor in producing egg variations.
posted by vacapinta at 6:01 AM on February 21, 2011

I live in the North Bay area and I get our eggs in Sebastapol from Mark Felton of Felton Acres. It's kind of a drive but he raises and sells chickens, turkeys, pork, and eggs on a Polyface-style sustainable farm. He's a wonderful guy to deal with and his eggs and chickens are to die for.
posted by compwalla at 8:45 AM on February 21, 2011

Keep it on the DL because I'd hate for demand to exceed supply, but the eggs I get from these guys are pretty close to what you describe, at least in color. I haven't tried flinging the yolks about by hand...
posted by jeffamaphone at 8:48 AM on February 21, 2011

This is where you find Polyfacequality eggs in the Bay Area. If you ever come through Davis, I can give you some from my back yard.
posted by aniola at 9:05 AM on February 21, 2011

I've been looking for eggs with this sort of firmness and color for quite some time, but so far, none of the grocery store or farmer's market varieties have had these qualities

I've found eggs like that at local farmer's markets and agree that it completely depends on husbandry; I expect they have to be free-range chickens. One of the little demos we do for my Slow Food group is to take a grocery store egg and crack it into a dish, and place a good market egg next to it. You can see the difference in color and size and consistency of the yolk.

To be fair, a lot of the difference may be on the surface, and it looks like the bulk of the difference may actually be due to freshness rather than flavor. I have seen a couple versions of this egg-taste study and I still have trouble believing that people can't tell the difference, or that I couldn't tell the difference, because I definitely prefer the farmer's market eggs - they seem meatier to me when cooked. And one major difference I always note is the shell strength - I actually have to kind of bang a farmer's market eggshell onto the edge of a bowl to get it to break, and the shells are a lot more brittle. Grocery store eggs just crumble open easily and the shell is more flimsy. I'm willing to believe some of that is psychological, but I can tell with my senses that some of that is a real difference in quality, perhaps due to freshness, but then the shell thing makes me think that there could be a nutritional difference as well.
posted by Miko at 9:07 AM on February 21, 2011

My grandparents kept chickens when I was growing up, and while they did get some commercial feed, they were free ranging and ate plenty of bugs, too. They were good eggs, to be sure, but I'm not sure I could have picked them out in a blind taste test or anything. I'm pretty sure the Michael Pollan stuff about the Polyface Farm eggs is mostly hyperbole.

The shell strength is something I agree with, though. White supermarket eggs in the old school pink styrofoam containers crack much more easily than eggs from the farmer's market, or even the brown "organic" "free-range" eggs from the same supermarket.
posted by Sara C. at 9:40 AM on February 21, 2011

There is a nutritional difference between eggs from chickens raised on grain and eggs from chickens raised on grass. The balance of fatty acids is very different and pasture-raised birds produce eggs that are healthier to eat. I don't know whether "eggtegrity" and the firmness of the yolk makes a difference but the diet of the chicken most certainly does. Can one pick pastured eggs out of a blind taste test? Maybe or maybe not but when one eats them, the body sure knows the difference.
posted by compwalla at 9:48 AM on February 21, 2011 [1 favorite]

Do you have a back yard, even a tiny urban one? You can keep chickens yourself! My gals laid wonderful eggs with deep yellow, nearly orange, yolks. I live in SF and have the typical postage-stamp back yard but 3 hens were pretty happy out there, scratching around for bugs. They also ate snails and most of the table scraps I offered (they had definite preferences, though - they didn't like Mexican food and wouldn't eat beans in any form. Weirdos.) Also they're fun to watch, especially when you toss their favorite treats in opposite corners of the yard and they dash to and fro to find them, body-checking each other out of the way. It's Chicken Roller Derby!

The eggs were delicious but the shells varied a lot from one bird to the next, even though they all ate the same diet and were supposedly the same breed (although I think the hatchery wasn't too careful since some traits were not right for that breed). One hen made very brittle shells, so I think maybe genetics has a lot to do with it.

Now for the downside: chickens poop everywhere. They'll trash your garden and lawn, since they scratch aggressively. They need some supplemental feed in a small yard where there isn't enough stuff growing to support them, so that means trips to the feed store (the closest one to SF is Half Moon Bay Feed and Fuel) for laying pellets and crushed oyster shells. (They'll also eat birdseed meant for wild birds, if you can't get to a feed store.) In an unheated, unlighted coop they'll only lay eggs in spring and summer, and they only lay for the first 2 or 3 years of their life.

But I enjoyed keeping them for their natural lifespan and I miss their table-scrap-removal service and entertaining antics.

Hey, anybody want my old chicken coop? It's fairly portable, 8' x 8' x 2', big enough for 3 or 4 hens who go out roaming during the day, and it comes with a food dish and waterer. MeMail if you want it!
posted by Quietgal at 10:05 AM on February 21, 2011

It's a combination of both nature and nurture--different breeds of chicken lay different eggs in terms of color and (at least to super-taster me) taste, and all chickens lay darker and denser eggs (along the spectrum of their breed) when they are free-range.

Most commercial egg farms in the US use one of the hybrids descended from Rhode Island Reds, which were bred to produce eggs for volume rather than quality. One way of picking eggs from other breeds of chicken at farmer's markets is to pick eggs whose shells look different from supermarket eggs--dark brown, blue, mottled, and so on.
posted by Sidhedevil at 10:51 AM on February 21, 2011

OK, I hate to share my beloved egg source, but for a fellow Mefite, I'll do it. This is whom I get my eggs from. They are lovely, oh so fresh, and come in different colors: brown, white, green.... Just lovely.
posted by choochoo at 10:55 AM on February 21, 2011

Here in the north bay, Tara Firma Farms just outside of Petaluma uses a lot of the same techniques Salatin espouses (and he came out and spoke at a Tara Firma sponsored dinner), and you can go wander through the herds of chickens in the pasture before you buy your freshly collected eggs. Tours on Sundays, once you're signed up they're happy to have you come out and wander through the pastures whenever.
posted by straw at 11:25 AM on February 21, 2011

If you search on Chowhound.com in the SF Bay Area section for pastured eggs, you'll be able to find out who sells at whichever farmer's market is closest to you. That's probably your best bet. (For me, it's Mountain View, which is a bit of a pain in the neck--but luckily they have Book Buyers and Books Inc., and some nice restaurants.) Just free-range or cage-free is NOT the same thing, either in terms of great eggs--though they're still better than the generic supermarket ones--or in terms of conditions, as I found out to my disappointment about the egg-sellers at my local market (they get their eggs from the same guys being sued over in the Central Valley for their vast lakes of chicken poop).

You may need to get there early, as these farmers typically don't have eggs in huge quantities, and every time there's bad news about eggs or chickens on TV, there's a rush on them.
posted by wintersweet at 11:44 AM on February 21, 2011

Eatwell Farms' eggs are great. They sometimes have them early at Ferry Plaza if you're not a CSA member.
posted by judith at 1:27 PM on February 21, 2011

Eatwell Farms and Marin Sun Farms both sell excellent pastured eggs at the Ferry Plaza farmer's market. Both Rainbow Grocery in SoMa and BiRite Market in the Mission have charts that show you which of their eggs are pastured and how they're raised. My very best secret source though is Mission Pie, which sells Pie Ranch eggs from their farm in by subscription (or by the carton if they have extra).
posted by cali at 3:49 PM on February 21, 2011

You're also remembering the part where he said that eggs are seasonal though, right?
posted by cali at 4:15 PM on February 21, 2011

A bunch of people have already made this point, but I'll nth that it's almost entirely diet and freshness. Diet radically affects the colour of the yoke and the thickness of the shell (you can give backyard chooks calcium supplements in their water if the shell is too thin and brittle). Freshness can be seen most vividly in the consistency of the egg white – if you crack a very fresh egg into a pan, the white will hold a bit of its form, and will not run out thinly over the pan. This is especially useful when poaching eggs.

The colour of the shell is due to the breed of chicken, and shouldn't really affect how the egg tastes. Most of the eggs you get in Australia are brownish because somehow someone managed to convince people they're healthier. They aren't.

Pretty much any well looked after, free ranging chook should give you the sort of eggs you want. Note, however, that there are some seasonal effects – chooks that aren't bred solely for laying will moult and stop laying for a few weeks, and they don't like laying if it's too hot. So supplies may be inconsistent.

Finally, if you really want a great egg experience, try duck eggs. They're not radically different to good chook eggs, but because nobody has battery ducks laying eggs, they're more likely to be like good chook eggs.
posted by damonism at 4:18 PM on February 21, 2011

Crap, coop is 8' x 2' x 2', a long skinny box, not a short square one. Can be carried easily by 2 people.
posted by Quietgal at 4:56 PM on February 21, 2011

We have had three Hyline Brown laying hens for about a year now, and I often find myself thinking we should have done it much earlier.

We collect our three eggs every day, write the date on them in pencil, and stick them in the fridge. The least fresh egg I've eaten at home for months now has been five days old.

Today's eggs always taste better than older eggs, and the older they are the more noticeable the difference is.

We spend about a quarter as much on layer pellets and shellgrit as we used to spend on eggs, and I have yet to buy an egg from elsewhere that tastes anywhere near as good as a five-day-old egg from my own back yard.

Don't get a rooster.
posted by flabdablet at 11:04 PM on February 21, 2011

Since people are suggesting that you get your own chickens, I'll just point out that chickens only lay heavily for a few years. After that, you can expect egg production to drop off. I know someone who has five hens because they're somehow different than the canned soup he buys, and he's only getting one egg a day (from the one bird who still lays regularly) right now. It's a lovely shade of green, though, and all the lawn and bugs contribute to a nice, orange yolk.

I'm vegetarian, but ironically, getting chickens helped me to see the happy medium somewhere between our all-meat-any-time culture and vegetarianism: there's a ton of old literature that talks about killing your own hens after a few years of a happy life and eating them (a Sunday-Dinner-at-most sort of thing). Roosters (eggless, noisy, and beautiful) tend to be a seasonal sort of food as well.

Anyway, I suggested Craigslist because you say you haven't found what you're looking for at the farmer's market. I agree with others who have suggested that you do have good options available at the farmer's market, and the person who suggested duck eggs (I hear they take a little getting used to). However, Craigslist will hook you up with local people who have enough chickens that they have too many eggs, and not enough chickens that they need to be going to the farmer's market all the time.

Talk to your egg providers. Ask them how they raise their chickens. Ask for details. Find folks you like based on that. If you also like their eggs, then don't worry about the details what Salatin says; it's just a guideline to get you to realize how very different the quality of eggs can be, and the reasons for the difference.
posted by aniola at 9:35 AM on February 22, 2011

Response by poster: Thank you everyone for the tips and suggestions!

I don't have a backyard, so no chickens for me. Out of curiosity, though: if you really don't like killing animals, are there any options for your chickens after they stop laying eggs, aside from taking care of them for the rest of their lives?
posted by archagon at 2:00 PM on February 22, 2011

Out of curiosity, though: if you really don't like killing animals, are there any options for your chickens after they stop laying eggs, aside from taking care of them for the rest of their lives?

Chickens are actually surprisingly entertaining, so keeping non-laying chickens as pets isn't actually a ridiculous idea. Even when they're not laying, they're still good for turning over the garden and creating compost. Giving them away to someone who wants them for their compost contributions is also an option.

You can also give them to someone else to kill and eat if (like me) you're too squeamish to do it yourself. We have a friend who is a chef who is happy to take any off our hands. Old chickens are not particularly good to eat (especially back-yard chooks, as they get plenty of exercise and as a result can be quite tough and gamey), but a friend makes stock with hers once they are done laying.

Depending on what breed you get, however, they may not stop, they may just slow right down. Commercial layers are bred to have a short, but very productive, laying life. So they'll lay heaps of eggs for maybe two or three years, and then stop completely. You're much more likely to encounter the problem of a non-laying older bird if you go for one of these breeds (in Australia the Isa Brown is notorious for doing this).

The other factor is that chooks actually do die at the drop of a hat. There are all sorts of diseases they can get, particularly from wild birds if they're free-ranging. They also get taken by foxes if they're not carefully locked up. We're very careful with ours and have lost about 50% of the birds we've ever had to disease. So the bird who lives to a ripe old age and stops laying completely is probably reasonably rare.
posted by damonism at 4:10 PM on February 22, 2011

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