Versatile, accessible and affordable, eggs are as close to perfection as a food can get – elegantly packaged in their own shells, their nutritious interiors just waiting to be beaten, fried, boiled or baked. And "pastured-raised" eggs – those collected from chickens allowed to move around freely, eating feed, grass or grubs as the season dictates – are among the best variety.
"Pasture-raised eggs are higher in protein than conventional eggs," says Kelly Hughes, a chef and food activist who raises her own chicken in Guelph, Ont., "so the albumen is thicker, the yolks keep their shape and, as a result, they stand up much better to cooking treatments like poaching."
As dependable as they are, however, chicken eggs aren't the only ova a creative chef can crack. For some egg variety, try out the following fowl.
A quail egg is barely bigger than a grape tomato and has a pretty, mottled shell. The flavour is similar to a chicken egg but the yolk is milder and the white becomes crisp and lacy when fried. Nutritionally, quail eggs have about double the cholesterol and iron of regular chicken eggs when compared gram to gram. But if you limit yourself to just one or two, you'll get far less of everything, both good and bad. The quail egg's strength lies in its Lilliputian size – soft-boiled, it is an adorable garnish with roasted asparagus. Fry one up, too, for a child who needs to be charmed into eating breakfast.
Once a wild bird native to Africa, the guinea fowl has since been domesticated and dispersed. Its eggs are not common in Canada, but, according to Ellen Weber, who raises a variety of birds with her husband in Paisley, Ont., they're worth the hunt. "Guinea-fowl eggs are the very best," she says. "The flavour is outstanding." Weber attributes this to the guinea hen's diet of grubs and worms and its lifestyle, which is very active compared to a chicken's. About half the size of a large chicken egg and dark brown, you can tell a guinea fowl's egg by its pointed end and hard shell. If you find them, enjoy a simple scramble, then stock up; guinea fowl lay only from May to September and their tough shells keep their eggs fresh for up to two months, Weber says.
Duck eggs are the beauties of the egg world. Slightly bigger than extra-large chicken eggs, their hard shells can be off-white, buff, pale green or blue. Inside, a duck egg's white is whiter than a chicken's and its yolk is larger and more deeply coloured. Poach or fry them to show off their good looks; just take care not to overcook duck eggs, which contain less water than chicken eggs and can become rubbery. The vibrant yolks make beautiful custards and sensational hollandaise sauce, but don't indulge too often: Duck eggs are higher than chicken eggs in calories, cholesterol and sodium, though maybe the extra vitamin A, calcium and iron make up for that.
A hefty goose egg (they're about three times larger than an average chicken egg) has a flavour, texture and nutritional composition similar to a duck's. It looks impressive, but cooking – and eating – a whole one can be challenging. Your best bet is to use it an omelette – one is ideal for a very hungry person or two somewhat peckish individuals – or as an interesting topping, boiled and sliced, on canapés and tartines. According to Weber, who raises this waterfowl on her family farm, geese only lay from March to June, making their season the shortest on the farm. She suggests saving those incredible shells for decorating, especially at this time of year.