By Tamar Haspel
Special to The Washington Post
Wednesday, June 2, 2010; E01
Fresh eggs from well-treated chickens taste better than supermarket eggs. Ask anyone who raises chickens, or anyone who's thinking about raising chickens, or anyone who gets eggs from anyone who raises chickens. Ask anyone, actually.
Well, as of about a year ago, I raise chickens. And I wanted to believe.
When my husband, Kevin, and I made the move two years ago from Manhattan to two wooded acres on Cape Cod, we were determined to do all the things we couldn't do in the city. We garden, of course. We also fish and hunt, shellfish and lobster. We grow mushrooms and make sea salt. We brew root beer and dandelion wine.
And we raise chickens. Apparently, so does everybody and his brother. There aren't any official stats: Backyard chickens fly under the Department of Agriculture's radar. But they seem to be all the rage.
"When the economy is bad, poultry is good," says Bud Wood, president of Iowa's Murray McMurray Hatchery, a major supplier of backyard chicks. "We've been operating at capacity for three years." He also has seen his call volume increase and transaction size decrease; those are indicators of more, smaller flocks, he says.
Once folks get their chicks from Wood, many of them turn to Rob Ludlow, co-author of "Raising Chickens for Dummies" and the owner of BackYardChickens.com (motto: a chicken in every yard!), the largest online forum for noncommercial chicken keepers. He has seen his membership double in the past year, to 50,000.
The trend is easy to understand. Chickens don't cost much to feed. They are also funny, and you should never underestimate the value of livestock that makes you laugh. And, of course, there's that steady stream of eggs.
We collected our first egg last Sept. 22 (we made book on it). Although it was a runty thing, a scant two inches high, I rushed to my husband's office to show him. We have both known all our lives that chickens lay eggs, but we held it in our hands and marveled at the miraculousness of it, as though our chicken had laid a fig, or maybe a truffle. That evening, to keep the shell intact, we carefully poked holes in both ends and blew out the contents, which we scrambled in a little bit of butter. There was just enough for each of us to have a bite.
It was, of course, delicious. But it got me wondering. How much of the deliciousness came from the idea of it, and how much came from the actual yolk and white of it?
I kept wondering, for two egg-rich months. Then I got tired of wondering. There was only one thing to do, and it involved blindfolds and spoon-feeding. I recruited six friends who were willing to check their dignity at the door, and I scheduled an egg tasting.
I was lucky to enlist some blue-ribbon food professionals to give my tasting credibility. Doug and Dianne Langeland, the publishers of Edible Cape Cod magazine, didn't even have to be persuaded. "We're in," Doug said immediately when I told him my plan. Florence Lowell, owner of an excellent local restaurant called the Naked Oyster, can't resist anything that involves chickens. The rest of us were merely avocationally culinary, with some highly critical palates among the group.
I put four kinds of eggs in the lineup: ordinary supermarket-brand eggs, organic supermarket eggs, high-end organic Country Hen brand eggs and ours. To prepare, I practiced soft-cooking them to make sure they'd all have firm whites and runny yolks. I rummaged through drawers to find any scarf, bandanna or dish towel that could double as a blindfold. I stocked up on lox and bagels for apres-tasting.
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.Recipes
Haspel lives in Marston Mills, Mass., and blogs at http://StarvingOfftheLand.com.