The demand for duck eggs is growing, but farmers and their flocks may not be able to keep up
Among the dozens of fresh brown, pink, and blue eggs piled into a basket on farmer Elizabeth Fichter’s front porch, several white eggs stand out for not just for their color, but for their size. They are nearly twice the size of some of the others, and are among the most sought-after products she offers. These are duck eggs, which have become increasingly popular with chefs, bakers and consumers, not just here in the St. Louis area, but around the country.
“Duck eggs are the pinnacle of the egg experience,” said Fichter, who has been raising ducks since 2009.he began to bring Kuhs Estate and Farm, built by her great-grandfather in 1915, back to life after decades of dormancy. “They make everything moister, richer, just into a better version of itself, from cakes to omelets. And chefs just love this over-the-top experience that duck eggs provide.”
It is mainly their larger size and a proportionally larger yolk-to-white ratio that sets duck eggs apart from chicken eggs. They also contain higher concentrations of iron, potassium, and cholesterol than chicken eggs, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
“People like something that is different,” said John Metzer of California-based Metzer Farms, a 45-year-old duck, goose, and game bird hatchery that ships birds and fertilized eggs to farmers around the country, and has seen a sharp increase in orders for starting up duck-egg operations in recent years.
The St. Louis restaurant Juniper started incorporating duck eggs into some dishes, both in support of local agriculture and to try something out of the ordinary. A current popular dish is grilled asparagus topped with whipped duck egg foam, which is made by blending duck eggs with green garlic, creme fraiche, then cooking it sous vide in a water bath before whipping it.
“The duck eggs foam very nicely,” said Juniper chef Jeff Friesen. “It’s a pretty simple dish, but the duck eggs make it much richer, and a little different, but not so different that it’s too crazy to eat. And it tastes just like spring.”
Bakers have also become more interested in using duck eggs. Tim Kutterer, baker at The Sweet Divine in St. Louis, recently began to make cakes and gluten-free baked doughnuts with duck eggs.
“You get a little more lift out of the cakes with duck eggs,” said Kutterer.
With few grocery stores carrying duck eggs, chefs and other consumers seek them out at farmers markets and from individual farms.
“People are really going for them these days, all kinds of people,” said Eric Harr, owner of Harr Family Farms, which has sold live ducks as well as their eggs at the city’s Soulard Farmers Market since 1925. Harr’s farm in nearby Columbia, Illinois, currently has about 200 ducks and can’t always meet customers’ demand for eggs, even though many are willing to pay a premium.
“If the ducks aren’t laying a lot, a dozen eggs could go for $9,” Harr said.
Humans have been raising ducks for their meat for at least 4,000 years, with the most popular modern breed, the Pekin Duck, emerging out of China during the Yuan dynasty in the 13th century, according to the Duck Research Laboratory at Cornell University. Consumption of duck eggs is a more recent development, only gaining traction in the last few hundred years. Popular in Asian cuisine, duck eggs are also more widely consumed in England than in the United States.
But, with the current dining trends of fusion cuisine and locally-produced food, as well as the increasing awareness about health, duck eggs are growing in popularity across the United States. However, only about 2% of pastured flocks contain ducks, estimated Mike Badger, executive director of the American Pastured Poultry Producers Association. And although he sees more potential for increased duck egg consumption, he said they have a long way to go before they become mainstream. This is because ducks typically lay fewer eggs per year than chickens do, Badger said. And, ultimately, the market for duck meat would need to grow to make duck eggs scalable, Badger said.
Fichter never imagined that St. Louis chefs would be seeking her out for duck eggs. Even though she grew up on the farm where she now lives, she had never tasted a duck egg until 2009, when she found herself leaving a local agricultural market with several chickens, ducks and a goat to re-populate the farm she had recently moved back to after living in the city for years. Now, her flock includes about 150 birds, including several white Pekin ducks, Rouen ducks, and a red-billed Muscovy duck. “I just really wanted to bring this place back to life,” she said, scattering breadcrumbs, on a recent morning.