How do you know your eggs are fresh?

Not all eggs are equal. The nutritional value of an egg is very different based on the diet of the bird that they come from. The size of an egg differs based on both the age and the breed of the chicken that laid it. Plus the freshness of the egg is dependant on how long ago it was laid.

Lets start with egg size…

I’ve touched on this in an earlier post (https://littlefieldmice.com.au/blogs/all-things-chicken/18495555-eggs-are-truly-amazing). The first eggs that a bird lays are called “pullet eggs”. They are smaller than “normal” and are more yolk than white to begin with. Here is a size comparison for you against a 50c piece…

The light blue egg is a pullet egg from our Araucana breed. In a few weeks time, she will be laying eggs similar in size to the buff coloured egg in the middle. The blue egg only weighs 35g. It is still perfectly good to eat but if you are using it in a recipe, you would need to use 2 of this size to make up a “standard” egg size.

The buff coloured egg was laid by one of our smaller Plymouth Rock girls. The larger the bird generally the larger the egg. This egg weighs 50 grams.

The brown egg is a “normal” supermarket weight at 61 grams. It was laid by one of our Barnevelder girls.

But what about egg colour? …

I’m not concerned here about egg shell colour. The colour of the shell is strictly based on the breed of the bird. I am more concerned about the colour of the yolk.

Generally, store bought eggs have a yellow yolk and a slightly cloudy white. To us, this is an indication of a poorly cared for bird. A yolk should be almost orange in colour, indicating that the bird had access to excellent feed. This could be in the form of a balanced grain diet, access to pasture and/or vegetable matter or even access to foraged protein such as insects.

Believe it or not, but chickens are NOT vegetarian. Given the choice between insects and grain, chickens will take insects any day! Slugs, crickets, caterpillars, moths, mice … anything that is not quick enough to get past the quick dart of a chickens’ head is immediately dinner. It is amazing to watch a chicken corner a mouse … they are quicker than cats once they have a taste for the little critters.

Finally, freshness…

Those of you who poach eggs, may notice that some eggs simply fall apart when you poach them directly into boiling water. This is because the egg is older than 7 days from being laid. The internal membrane that protects any potential embryo in fertile eggs, is present in normal store bought eggs. This membrane breaks down and stops the egg being able to “stick together” when poached.

You can also check how fresh an egg is by submerging it in water. Inside each egg is an air sac. As the egg gets older, the air sack gets bigger as the yolk and egg white shrink as they deteriorate. When submerged, a fresh egg will lay down flat on its side. If an egg starts to lift up and stand on one end, it is still edible but not very fresh. NEVER try to eat an egg that floats. The air sac in a floating egg is essentially filled with “rotten egg gas” … get rid of it!

Creating your own home made sultanas is easier than you think.

As a child, I used to always get confused between the difference of raisins and sultanas. They are essentially made form the same fruit (white grapes) but it is the process that changes the end result.

There is always conjecture around what makes the difference between a raisin and a sultana. The answer really depends on where you come from. I was taught that sultanas are made from seedless grapes and raisins made from non-seedless varieties and take longer to dry out. I’m not going to argue the naming convention differences in this post but I am going to show you how to create these tasty morsels at home, with little more than what you find in your own kitchen.

From the middle of Summer, grapes are abundant and cheep as they are in peak season. This is the best time to buy them. They are sweet and delicious. But we always tend to have a few bunches too many. When this happens, we dry them out. You can use a dehydrator, but with Sydney Summer weather being what it is, we sun dry ours. The method is quite simple…

Tools needed: Grapes (obviously), sharp knife, plate or platter, netted food cover, insect surface spray (optional).

Method:

1) Clean your grapes and let them dry. We fill a small tub or sink then add a splash of vinegar to the water before submerging the grapes for 10 mins. Vinegar acts as a fungicide, killing off those nasty moulds.

2) Pick your grapes off the vine

3) Cut each grape in half. If you are using a seeded variety, you can remove the seeds at this point too.

4) Arrange the grapes fleshy side up on a plate or platter. Ensure that they are closely packed but not stacked on each other. The grapes will shrink when drying to about a third of their original size.

5) Find a sunny position and if you have ants nearby, spray a small area with surface spray. Place the plate/platter on the sprayed surface then put the netted food cover over the plate/platter. The net is to ensure that no insects can access the fruit while drying and the surface spray stops crawling insects from accessing under the netting. Keep an eye on the plate/platter throughout the day and move it if it gets shaded.

On a 35 degree day, it should take about one to one and a half days to dry out the grapes. Longer if it is colder.

You can also use a dehydrator, but why use electricity when the sun can do the work for you!

Enjoy your sultanas!

Making tomato sauce … the italian way!

There are several things that scream “Italian Heritage” loud and clear. One of those things is “Tomato Sauce Day”.

For the un-initiated, this is essentially the act of turning many kilos of glorious, sun ripened summer tomatoes into a paste, bottling them then preserving them.

This is normally a family affair, and most families do this at the peak of the tomato season. It takes a full day and becomes a crazy day of story telling, kids running rampant and more food than you can eat. Our last “Sauce Day” was a low key affair with just myself, my parents and my mother-in-law. We churned through around 350kg of tomatoes in one day. It was epic!

Anyone can do this at home, but you will need a few things. Most of these will be things you already have in the kitchen. Here is a short rundown of equipment…

  • Tomatoes (see the section below about “Choosing your tomatoes”
  • a large pot (or two)
  • a large sieve/colander
  • bottles and bottle tops (see the section below about “Collecting bottles”
  • a bottle capping machine
  • olive oil
  • rags (to protect the bottles while preserving)
  • basil or parsley (optional)
  • a mouille/vegetable grinder
  • funnel
  • bottle brush, cleaning sponge, detergent and nail brush (optional)

Any family who does their version of “Sauce Day” does so no more than once per year. Some families share equipment, ensuring that they do not plan on doing things on the same weekend, and other families store their equipment in the back of their garage or shed until needed. Either way, they equipment need not be expensive in the least. Start small if you want to try this. Each year, we only pay for bottle tops, a few extra boxes of tomatoes and gas for the gas burner. Everything else is our time (and experience of course).

When we get a large crop of tomatoes in our “pantry” garden, then we do a small, single pot of sauce. Here is a pic of all the ingredients for that .. the colours are a real symbol of Summer for us.

Choosing your tomatoes for “Sauce Day”

There is an art to choosing tomatoes for sauce. They key factors are time of year, fruit type and fruit quality.

You want to use a fruit that is at its peak of sweetness, has lots of flavour but not much in the way of seed pulp. The classic Roma or egg shaped tomato is perfect. Many of your round tomatoes have a very high seed to flesh ratio. You want to make sure that the tomato you use is as close to being seed free as possible. We use the Apollo variety of egg tomato. It is a commercially grown variety that resembles the classic Roma (which is its parent actually) but is larger and matures quicker.

The flavour of tomatoes changes throughout the season. Tomatoes that you get in store always taste the same because they are probably grown in a poly tunnel (plastic green house). Poly tunnels are great for reducing pest infestation and controlling the climate for seasonal crops. But  find that the flavour of a sun ripened fruit is superior to one grown in a poly tunnel. The best tomatoes used for sauce are those that are at the top of the plant (nearing the end of the season) and grown outside of a poly tunnel. This is because the plant is well established and the fruit is exposed to sunlight through it’s entire growing period. Tomatoes grown in this way are amazing in flavour … sometimes a little sun burnt (especially during hot summers when >40 degrees C is reached on consecutive days) … but the flavour of the flesh is unaffected.

If you have a grower near by, you can approach them and ask if they grow Roma style tomatoes and ask them when they think the top crop will be ready. This is usually around the end of January in Sydney regions. This is perfect because you can turn your Australia Day celebration break into a “Sauce Day” family gathering! 😉

Most growers are happy to sell direct to the public because that way they don’t have to take their produce to market. Some growers though do have existing clients and quotas to fill, but they will be able to let you know how much they will have available and at what times. For reference, a large box of tomatoes is around 15kg.

Collecting bottles

Making sure that you have enough bottles for preserving your tomato sauce is necessary to ensure that your hard work does not go to waste. You can use any preserving bottles or even good old beer bottles (750mL bottles have a long narrow neck where as 500mL have a short narrow neck, making it easier to get the preserved sauce out).

If you don’t regularly collect bottles, you can approach your local pub or club. Talk to one of the bar managers and ask them to collect any 500mL bottles for you. It is best that bottles with a pop-top cap are collected rather than twist top caps. Most bars are happy to collect them as they won’t need to pay for disposal of the glass. Win-win!

If you have organised for a collection, make sure you pick them up promptly, otherwise other staff members may not realise that they are for you and send them off for recycling.

Prep work for “Sauce Day”

There are several tasks that need to be done before starting. The most time consuming is cleaning your bottles.

Ensure that, at the latest, you have all your bottles washed and dried the day before. Good hygiene is paramount when it comes to preserving your own produce. Regardless of how our bottles have been stored during the year, we always wash ours the day before. In the two decades or so that we have been preserving our own tomato sauce, we have not had to throw away contaminated bottles of sauce. Some bottles have been in storage for 4 years, with no degradation. So when you get it right, it feels fantastic and lasts for years.

Another task is ensuring that your tomatoes are clean and sorted. This can be done in the early morning beforehand or the night before. The fruit needs to be rinsed in water. We also add around a cup of vinegar to each tub of water. Vinegar is perfect for killing fungus which thrives on moist fruit, like tomatoes. When you clean your tomatoes, some will be a bit squashed or their skin split. Avoid using these ones as they will not taste right.

If you intend to do all your work outdoors … because it is a messy job … then make sure you have a place to cook the tomatoes. We have a large gas burner for this purpose. It is a good idea to check that you have enough gas so you don’t run out!

Making tomato sauce

There are a few steps in making tomato sauce. In summary, they are:

Step 1: Boil the tomatoes whole

Some families don’t do this step. We like to as we feel it kills off bacteria before bottling and also reduces the time taken to bring the Preserving step to the boil.

Essentially, you fill a large pot with whole tomatoes then fill it with water. If you are using a large pot, it is best to place the pot on the burner, then fill it with tomatoes and water in situ. That way you don’t have to lift the heavy pot and hurt your back.

Bring the pot to the boil and leave to boil for 5 minutes.

Step 2: Drain the cooked tomatoes

Once the tomatoes have cooked for a few minutes, you will need to drain them of as much water as possible. You want to ensure that there is only pulp left. Pour the cooked tomatoes into a large colander and using a spatula or spoon, gently fold the tomatoes around in the colander to remove excess liquid.

When the bulk of the water has been removed, leave it to stand for about 10 minutes before folding the tomatoes again and removing even more liquid. Any liquid from the second fold is seriously tomato flavoured. If you are frugal (like we are), this is the perfect time to capture some tomato flavoured water to start a risotto or some pasta cooking for lunch!

Step 3: Mince the cooked tomatoes

The drained tomatoes now need to be minced. There are some pretty serious mincing machines out there. The one pictured above is driven by an electric motor, but you can also use a mouille (see below).

When we mince our tomatoes, we also add at this point a few handfuls of herbs; mainly basil and/or parsley. When added during the mincing process, the flavour is infused throughout the entire sauce and you don’t need to add any herbs when cooking. Some families also add salt at this point but we tend not to as the amount of salt you use in a dish when cooking is variable.

Step 4: Bottle the cooked tomatoes

Once enough tomatoes have been pureed into a paste, it is time for bottling.

Using a funnel in the top of a bottle, scoop in the paste. Ensure that the funnel does not have a seal around the bottle lip as this will stop the sauce from flowing in smoothly. You may need to encourage the sauce in if it is very thick. A skewer or the handle of some cutlery usually does the trick.

Once the bottle is filled to around 4cm from the top, add a round 1-2cm of olive oil to the top of the bottle. This will help preserve the sauce in storage by preventing oxygen from reacting with the sauce.

Next, you will need to cap the bottles. There are many different ways to do this and simple machines you can use also. The cap needs to seal the bottle completely.

Step 5: Preserve the bottled tomatoes

Now comes the fun part … boiling the bottled sauce. You will need to boil your bottles in a large pot for around 2-3 hours. The base of the pot needs to be lined with old rags before you pack your bottles in, this will ensure that the heat from the cooking element will not heat the bottles at the bottom too much. We wrap our bottles in old socks (sexy I know!) to stop them from rattling against each other when being boiled. Also, we wedge other rags between bottles for the same reason.

Once all the bottles of sauce have been cooked, store them in a dark and cool place. They should be provide you with some awesome sauce in the years to come!

Hope you have fun at your next “Sauce Day”.

 

Fertile Eggs and Incubation Preparation

Egg Fertility Basics

Most people don’t realise that you need fertile eggs to hatch a chick.

Eggs are laid by female chickens. You need a rooster (male chicken) with your hens to be able to hatch your own eggs. And to ensure you have a high fertility rate, it is best to have one rooster for every 3-8 hens. The best ratio I have found is having 2 roosters covering ten to twelve hens.

Diet is also important. You need to ensure that your flock has a well balanced diet and has plenty of water. Any stress to your chickens will result in poor quality eggs and low fertility rates. Regular layer pellets provide a good balanced diet. But chickens LOVE scraps and fresh leaves. So anything from your table that you don’t eat (this includes small cuts of meat too) are perfect for chickens. Any weeds you pull from your garden are also excellent supplements for your flock, especially all the slugs and snails!

Chickens do not lay eggs all year round. They have a “break” over the winter months and stop laying daily. When daylight hours start to lengthen (after June 22nd in the Southern Hemisphere), chickens begin to lay more eggs again. The last month of winter is considered by most to be the start of the breeding season for chickens. The eggs laid during the last month of Winter and through Spring are the best used for hatching.

Here is an image of some of our Plymouth Rock flock chowing down on some scattered feed and fresh leaves.

Checking Fertility

A fertile egg is one that has a sperm bundle with it. If you grow your own chickens and use their eggs, you will notice this as an extra yellowish bundle attached to the egg yolk when it is cracked open.

You cannot check for fertility immediately after laying. This is especially true for eggs that have a thick shell or dark colour. The best time to check for fertility is around 5 days after incubating starts. This is done using a technique called candling. Essentially, you shine a bright light through an egg to determine if the embryo has started to develop. A developing embryo is one where you can clearly identify blood vessels traversing through the egg white from the embryo (egg yolk). Any egg that is not fertile needs to be discarded. Nothing smells worse than a rotten egg exploding in an incubator. Blech!

Collecting eggs for incubation

Eggs that you collect for incubating need to be treated a little differently to those you use in the kitchen. Here is a list of pointers…

Do not wash your eggs
A chicken has only one “out hole” … for everything! (Yes, this means that every egg laid comes out of the same place where its’ excrement come from.) This is why eggs used in the kitchen need to be washed to ensure that pests and diseases are not transferred to us. But when you are collecting eggs for incubation, do not wash them. If the eggs are particularly dirty, you can scrape it off or quickly wash it under running water.
There is a thin membrane on the outside of every egg which protects the contents of an egg from pathogens. Washing your egg will break and/or remove this membrane, leading to a greater potential of infection to a developing chick.
Use your cleanest eggs
Egg shells are porous. It is through the small holes in the shell that a developing chick will breath. You get a better hatching rate from clean eggs than from dirty eggs as they are exposed to fewer potential pathogens.
Turn your eggs at least once per day (twice is better)
Store the eggs you collect in an egg carton and mark them with a pencil or thin marker (so no one will eat them!). At least once per day, rotate the egg carton. I find it easiest to remember doing this at breakfast and at dinner.
Rotating your eggs daily ensures that the egg yolk does not stick to the inside of the egg shell. This causes deformity as the chick developed if it occurs.
Use your freshest eggs (unto 7 days old is best. Up to 10 days old can still work)
The freshest eggs develop the best. This is because the embryo deteriorates over time. From 1-7 days, the embryo is at its optimum performance. Between days 7-10, the membrane around the yolk starts to break down. An egg will not start to develop until you start to incubate it.
When you collect your eggs, write the date on them. Just the day is fine (e.g. 22/09/2014 only needs “22” written on it). That way, you will always know how fresh your eggs are.
Keep them at room temperature
To ensure that an embryo does not die before you start to incubate it, keep it at room temperature. You can refrigerate them, but as most fridges internal temperatures vary and a lot of modern fridges are “frost free”, it will kill the embryo before incubation. An egg shell is porous, so fluid will slowly evaporate through the shell quicker in a “frost free” fridge than at room temperature.

 

Check out our other post about incubation for more info on hatching your own chicks.

Simple home made bread.

There is a myth that bread is hard to make. But if you can measure ingredients and use an oven … you can bake your own bread! It’s cheaper than store bought bread (around $0.45 per loaf) and tastes soooo much better to boot.

The following loaves were baked using the first recipe. From left to right, they are Salt and Caraway, Linseed and Chia then Sesame. Truly scrumptious.

There are numerous recipes out there, but the simplest ones are the best. So here are two tried and true methods for you …

Recipe #1: Knead and bake Homemade Bread/Pizza dough recipe.

This recipe can be used to make a fresh bread loaf, 6 large bread rolls or 2 pizza bases. It is very easy to make and versatile too.

Ingredients:

2  1/2 cups of plain flour (you can use wholemeal if you want)
1 teaspoon salt 3/4 tablespoon dry yeast 250mL warm water

Optional Ingredients:

Seeds for flavour (sesame, sunflower, poppy, linseed, etc)
1 tablespoon of milk or egg (to stick seeds to top of loaf)

Duration:

Measuring ingredients – 1 min
Mixing ingredients – 1 min
Kneading – 6 to 10 mins
First Rise – 45 mins
Shape – 1 to 5 mins
Second Rise – 30 mins
Bake – 35 mins (fan forced oven)
Rest – 10 mins

Method:

  1. Measure all dry ingredients and place them into a large bowl. If you want seeds throughout the bread, add 2 tablespoons here. Mix together well.
  2. Add the warm water and mix together until a dough ball forms.
  3. If you intend to use a machine, put the dough ball into the machine with a dough hook and kneed for 6 mins. If you intend to do a little exercise and reduce the “flabby arms” (as was my original goal with bread making!) then turn the dough out onto a lightly floured surface and knead it for 10 mins.
  4. The dough should be soft and pliable. Form the dough into a ball and place it in a warm (not hot) area, covered with a tea towel or similar cloth (to stop it drying out on a hot day – moisten the cloth). I put mine in a bowl on the espresso machine, make myself a coffee and relax if the kids aren’t around! Let the dough rest for 40-45 mins. It will double in size.
  5. If you’re making pizza dough, you can start shaping the pizza bases and ignore the remaining steps, otherwise get a loaf tin and line it with baking paper (if you’re not as lazy as me, you can grease the tin … I like baking paper as there is no need to clean the tin afterwards if you’re careful!).
  6. Take the dough ball out of the bowl and shove it into the lined tin. No need to be too gentle. Mush it into the corners to fill the tin. Leave to stand for 30 mins. It will rise back up.
  7. If you want seeds on the top of your loaf, spread some milk over your loaf surface with a pastry brush and then liberally sprinkle the loaf. If you are lactose intolerant, use egg instead. Water does not work as it will evaporate while baking.
  8. Place the loaf into a cold, fan forced oven. Turn it on to 180 degrees C. Bake for 35 mins (or until the house smells heavenly and it feels like to have to eat one NOW!).
  9. THIS STEP IS IMPORTANT! Bread will keep cooking AFTER taking it out of the oven. You must remove the bread from the oven and put it onto a cooling rack and leave it for 10 mins …. this is the hard part. If you decide to eat it too early, besides potentially burning yourself, the dough will still be slightly wet inside. After about 10 mins … it’s ready to eat!

If you want to make bread rolls instead, use a baking tray instead of a loaf tin and at step 6, divide the dough into equal portions. 110 grams is the best size. You’ll get 6 large rolls.

NOTE: This bread has no preservatives, so in 24 hours, it starts to go hard and stale. Always store any cut loaf in a plastic bag to reduce moisture loss. In our household though … the bread doesn’t last until the afternoon!

Recipe #2: No-knead bread.

This recipe uses slow rise techniques. It is the laziest recipe we use and is regularly used in Summer when the early morning chores mean that we are up and about with time to spare for the second rise and bake. Nothing is nicer for breakfast than fresh bread with jam, bacon or an omelette … maybe even a combination of each!

This is the recipe you use when you are lazy at night and know you can do the baking in the morning. Or maybe you have a few extra mins in the morning and want to serve fresh hot bread with dinner that night. You get the idea!

Ingredients:

3 cups of plain flour (you can use wholemeal if you want)
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon dry yeast
1  1/2 cups water (room temp NOT warm)

Optional Ingredients:

Seeds for flavour (sesame, sunflower, poppy, linseed, etc)

Duration:

Measuring ingredients – 1 min
Mixing ingredients – 2 mins
Kneading – 0 mins
First Rise – 9-12 hours
Shape – <1 min
Second Rise – 1-2hours
Bake – 45 mins (fan forced oven)
Rest – 10 mins

Method:

  1. Measure all dry ingredients and place them into a large bowl. If you want seeds throughout the bread, add 2 tablespoons here. Mix together well.
  2. Add the room temperature water and mix together with a spoon. It will form a wet dough ball.
  3. Get a cloth and moisten it. Cover the bowl of dough with the moist cloth and leave it somewhere to stand for 9 – 12 hours. A slow rise occurs and the gluten developed slowly with kneading. A huge win actually!
  4. After at least 9 hours, the dough will have doubled in size and be soft and pliable. Grab a handful of flour and place it onto your bench surface. Scrape the wet dough out of the bowl and onto the floured surface.
  5. Liberally sprinkle the wet dough with flour and shape into a loaf then place it on a baking tray.
  6. Leave it to proof for 1-2 hours. If you want a hard crust, preheat your over to 200 degrees C. Place the tray into the oven at cook for 45mins at 200 degrees C.
  7. THIS STEP IS IMPORTANT! Bread will keep cooking AFTER taking it out of the oven. You must remove the bread from the oven and put it onto a cooling rack and leave it for 10 mins …. this is the hard part. If you decide to eat it too early, besides potentially burning yourself, the doughwill still be slightly wet inside. After about 10 mins … it’s ready to eat!