I don’t recall eating store-bought eggs growing up. Surely there must have been times when we did, but I never really remember anyone buying them. What I mostly remember is my father coming home late from work every few weeks with a couple dozen eggs procured from a farm just outside the Halifax city limits. There wasn’t a lot of debate about why we went directly to a farm for eggs, and if there had been, I’m not sure it would have been of the “support local farmers” ilk. I suspect it was more that the eggs were cheaper than supermarket eggs, although, in retrospect, the gasoline used to go and get the things probably negated any savings.
And as a kid, I would have been hard-pressed to be able to tell the difference between farm and factory eggs, although the farm eggs (that never went to a grading station) occasionally turned out messy half-fertilized chicks that grossed out my brother and I.
As a grown-up, I buy supermarket eggs because they’re more convenient and because all three of the stores within walking distance of me carry some version of organic, free-run eggs. These are obviously not ideal in that the chickens are not free-range (aka. let outside to eat bugs and run in the sunshine) but are definitely superior in both flavour and ethics to the battery-caged industrial eggs that are more readily available.
At an event recently in which guests got to try meat from different types of heritage breed chickens, part of the lecture included a demonstration of different eggs. Each table had a bowl of 3 or 4 eggs; some blue, some purple and some large and speckled. Mark Trealout of Kawartha Ecological Growers, who was the farmer involved with the event, listened to me beg and plead and agreed to sell me a dozen of the things. I came home with an assortment of eggs from various birds, including the blue-shelled eggs from Ameraucana chickens, and even some turkey eggs.
At first I didn’t want to use them, they were so gorgeous, but eventually started cooking them up. The first thing I noticed was how much harder the shells of the organic, free-range heritage breed eggs were. They needed a really hard whallop to crack. Even moreso for the turkey eggs, which took 2 or 3 tries to crack, and then I needed to get my thumbs in to pull the shell apart. The yolks were a really bright, marigold colour, and the whites were much thicker than my regular organic free-run eggs.
Flavour-wise, they knocked the supermarket eggs out of the park. Even though the supermarket eggs are from birds fed organic feed and that are allowed to run free in a shed, the shells are weak, the yolks pale, the whites thin. In terms of cooking things that rely on a certain amount of chemical reaction from the eggs (meringues, for instance, or souffle) it would be really interesting to compare the quality of the end product between a free-range, free-run and conventional egg. I see lots of people griping about products like macaron cookies not being as good as the ones they’ve had in Paris, and it intriques me to wonder what the differences are in the quality of eggs that have been used.
Convenience and scheduling require that more often than not, I buy my eggs from the supermarket. And I always buy the free-run organic ones, just out of principle. Laws in Ontario are such that it’s really difficult for small-scale farmers to sell free-range eggs, even at farmers’ markets, so there’s little chance of finding them at grocery stores (I could get into the complicated quota system that hugely favours factory farms, but it’s too frustrating). But for quality and taste, nothing beats a free-range egg from a chicken that’s been allowed to be a chicken, not a machine.