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Backyard eggs vs. store-bought: They taste the same
My panel arrived, and we got down to business. We took turns spoon-feeding and being spoon-fed, scribbling notes in between. We tried to keep audible comments to a minimum so as not to influence the opinions of the others.
Doug couldn't resist: "Tastes like an egg," he said of his first sample. It was a harbinger of comments to come. We found that they all tasted like eggs, and we struggled to find differences among them.
One hour, two yolk-stained shirtfronts and eight exhausted palates later, we were all coming to grips with the idea that, tastewise, there was very little to distinguish between the eggs from the factory chickens and the eggs from the overindulged hens who were marauding in our window boxes and peering into the kitchen, observing the proceedings. Every egg got both good and bad comments, and the votes for the best-tasting were split almost evenly.
Had Pat Curtis, a poultry scientist at Auburn University, been at the tasting, she wouldn't have been at all surprised. "People's perception of egg flavor is mostly psychological," she told me in a phone interview. "If you ask them what tastes best, they'll choose whatever they grew up with, whatever they buy at the market. When you have them actually taste, there's not enough difference to tell."
The egg industry has been conducting blind tastings for years. The only difference is that they don't use dish-towel blindfolds; they have special lights that mask the color of the yolks. "If people can see the difference in the eggs, they also find flavor differences," Curtis says. "But if they have no visual cues, they don't."
Only one factor can markedly affect an egg's taste, and that is the presence of strong flavors in the feed. "Omega-3 eggs can sometimes have a fishy taste if the hens are fed marine oils," Curtis says. Garlic and citrus might also be detectable. Egg producers, though, don't give their chickens garlic or citrus. They give them mostly soy and corn. "Chicken feed has neutral flavors, so you don't taste a difference in the eggs," she says.
My chickens' free-roaming ways, their clover and bugs, their psychic well-being, none of it makes a taste bud's worth of difference. Neither, surprisingly, does refrigeration or freshness. "The only flavor difference refrigeration can make is if an egg, with its porous shell, absorbs flavors from foods it's put next to," says Curtis. "And as an egg ages, it loses carbon dioxide and water, but that doesn't really affect the flavor."
But can age affect texture? Eggs straight out of the nest box have stand-up yolks, and whites that hold together and resist beating. Older eggs have flatter yolks and less-viscous whites and are more easily beaten. Although those differences were undetectable in our tasting -- each soft-cooked egg we sampled was described as "creamy" by somebody -- I thought they might be noticeable in other applications.
Curtis confirmed that there can be discernible differences. For starters, a hard-cooked egg is easier to peel if it's over five days old, when the egg has lost its acidity and the membrane releases readily from the white. She also has found that whites from older eggs make for a slightly denser angel food cake, and she suspects that other applications that are heavily dependent on egg whites, such as meringues or souffles, might be affected. The difference, though, is small. "I'm not sure if it's enough that consumers would really notice unless they had a fresh-egg comparison setting beside it," she says.
For those of us who wanted to believe that homegrown eggs just taste better, that wasn't much of a consolation prize. Okay, there's a difference, but it's small, and it isn't even lifestyle-related. Any super-fresh egg would outperform any older egg, cage or no cage.
To see how far that difference would carry, I tried one more test. I made two versions of a simple spice cake: one with our eggs, laid within 36 hours, and one with ordinary supermarket eggs, presumably a few weeks old. Sure enough, the batters looked different. Our version was a brighter color and held together better than its supermarket counterpart. Once the cakes were cooked and cooled, though, they were absolutely indistinguishable in flavor, in texture, in appearance.
The egg industry has known all along that all chicken eggs taste the same and, with very few exceptions, even bake the same. But although a poultry scientist can say that with perfect equanimity, my panel had a hard time with it.
"We should have tasted only the yolks!"
"They weren't all the same temperature!"
"Some eggs were more cooked than others!"
But there's no getting around it. Eggs from my chickens are still my first choice, but only because I want the hens who serve me to live well. Those eggs just taste like eggs, and don't let anyone tell you different.
Haspel lives in Marston Mills, Mass., and blogs at http:/