NEW YORK — When I heard that FreshDirect, a New York-based grocery delivery service, had begun selling "small farmer's eggs," I was skeptical. "They are eggs laid by young chickens that are smaller than typical eggs sold in grocery stores, and many farmers say they taste best," read the invitation to a press event at which the eggs would be served. The email went on to explain that these miniature eggs are usually sold to food processors or thrown away, and that buying them from FreshDirect would "create more profit for the farmers, helping to make organic farming more sustainable." It sounded bogus: FreshDirect wanted me to buy something that farmers usually throw away and was claiming this would help support sustainable agriculture?
But when I tasted my first "farmer's egg" - or pullet egg, as they're more traditionally and less poetically known - I found myself also eating crow: It really did taste better than the large eggs I usually buy at the grocery store. The white was less rubbery, and the yolk was far creamier. And it just tasted, well, eggier than most eggs - it was assertively savory on its own, whereas most eggs I've eaten require ample cheese and salt to mask their blandness. Mike Alderfer, the co-owner of the farm that supplies FreshDirect with pullet eggs, told me that young chickens are pickier eaters than older chickens, and their preference for corn results in richer-tasting eggs.
The experience made me wonder. Why, if pullet eggs taste better than bigger eggs, is it impossible to find small eggs at most grocery stores?
Part of the answer has to do with biology. Hens lay eggs for an average of 13 months total, beginning when they're about 18 weeks old. The older they get, the larger their eggs. (Farmers can manipulate egg size by tweaking the hens' feed or environment, but as a rule, egg size correlates with hens' age.) Hens produce small eggs - defined by the USDA as weighing between 18 and 21 ounces per dozen - only during the first month or so of their egg-laying careers. (Very young chickens occasionally lay "peewee eggs," weighing less than 18 ounces per dozen - and yes, "peewee" is the term the USDA uses.) Young chickens lay eggs fairly infrequently, just one every few days or so.