Locavores beware! The Washington Post's Tamar Haspel conducted an unscientific-though-sobering blind taste test to try to get to the bottom of whether or not eggs from pampered chickens actually taste better than those from mistreated, mass-produced birds.
Haspel, a New York transplant to Cape Cod, decided she'd take advantage of her new rural digs by living the locavore dream: gardening, hunting, foraging, brewing root beer, and, of course, raising chickens. However, her lofty dreams were dashed when she invited over her local-food-adoring friends for a blind taste test where she compared four egg types: ordinary supermarket-brand eggs, organic supermarket eggs, high-end organic Country Hen brand eggs, and her own from her own birds.
The results? No one could tell the difference between any of the eggs. Sorry, Alice Waters!
Pat Curtis, a poultry scientist at Auburn University, told Haspel that her results made sense:
"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."
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.
After consulting with Pat Curtis, the poultry scientist mentioned above, Haspel found that there are slight qualitative differences among eggs that vary in freshness. Newer eggs cook up slightly differently than older ones.
UPDATE, 6/3/2010, 5:13pm:
No less than three of the first four HuffPost Food commenters to this story have questioned Haspel's findings from her taste test:
I raise chickens and sell eggs and I can promise you that the bright orange yolks and density of the eggs I produce are far superior to store bought eggs! Even the shells are different. They are harder and crack without falling to pieces. I would take a farm fresh egg over a long.dated, shipped store egg any day!
Contrary to what they found, we have done a similar blind experiment with eggs from our chickens (who are very pampered free range chickens that get lots of bugs and veggies) vs conventional eggs, organic eggs, and local free range eggs, and the differences were quite pronounced.
I wonder what this person fed her chickens. We did a similar test ourselves and everyone could easily tell the difference, much preferring the home grown ones. And, we only compared store bought organic free range to what a friend produced on his farm.
Other than the obvious difference between the environments of the chickens, there were two main differences between the egg batches we tasted: feed and breed. Our friend's chickens eat pretty much anything, including all kinds of vegetable scraps, bugs, whatever; their diet is quite varied, as compared to the store bought eggs where I'm sure even the organic free range birds have a pretty bland and consistent diet. And, breed -- our friend's were different heirloom birds like Rhode Island Reds and Araukanas.
What do you think?