Extra! Extra! All eggs taste the same!

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This morning, Kevin scrambled some eggs for our breakfast. What with keeping chickens, we find that we eat a lot more eggs than we used to.

When our hens first started producing (September 22, 2009, that would be), we thought it was utterly miraculous. You’d think that two people who’d known all their lives that eggs come from chickens could take it in stride when their chickens laid eggs, but we didn’t. We carefully preserved the shell of the first egg, having blown out and scrambled the contents (one bite each). We marveled at how the eggs got bigger, commensurate with the chickens, as the months wore on. Every day, it was our little bit of excitement to check the nest boxes and tally the take.

You have to draw the line somewhere

And we ate more eggs. We scrambled them and poached them and fried them. We made omelets and frittatas. I even baked, an activity dangerous to the waistline of someone who can’t resist baked goods.

I had taken it as an article of faith – most of us do – that back-yard eggs from overindulged chickens taste better than the supermarket eggs that are the product of factory farms. But, while I certainly enjoyed our eggs, I couldn’t say for sure that they tasted any different from other kinds.

There was only one way to find out.

Last fall, we hosted an egg tasting. We invited six of our closest friend, several of whom are food professionals. We made them put on blindfolds and we spoon-fed them (and they, us) soft-boiled samples of our eggs, regular supermarket eggs, supermarket organic eggs, and fancy-pants Country Hen organic eggs.

It was not a dignified event, and at least two shirtfronts will never be the same.

The upshot? No one can tell the difference. The tasters’ comments were all over the map – each kind of egg got both good and bad assessments – and the best-in-show vote was split almost evenly among all four.

It made for a good story, and it was on the front page of the food section of yesterday’s Washington Post. From there, it got picked up by Slate and The New York Times.

The comments came pouring in, and the vast majority made one of two points:

1. Tamar, you’re a jackass because the reason you eat eggs from well-treated hens isn’t for the taste, it’s because you want hens to be treated well.

2. Tamar, you’re a jackass because I and all my friends – in fact, everybody in the world except you and your friends – can tell the difference between a backyard egg and a storebought egg.

That first one’s easy. I agree completely. In fact, I wrote an op-ed in the Washington Post to that effect a couple years back. I also made that point in the egg tasting story, but apparently not everybody reads to the end.

That second one is more complicated.

Those of us who keep chickens, and those of us who get eggs from people who keep chickens, know that fresh, backyard eggs certainly look different. They generally have brighter yolks (because the chickens eat greens and bugs, and not just feed), and the yolks and whites hold together better and are harder to beat (because the egg is fresher and hasn’t lost carbon dioxide through its shell).

It would stand to reason that eggs with manifest visual and textural differences would also taste different, but all evidence is that it just isn’t so.

There was our tasting, in which we found that all eggs taste pretty eggy. There was the poultry scientist I interviewed for the article, who confirmed that, if tasters can’t see a difference in the eggs (the industry does tests using lights that mask colors), they don’t taste a difference either. There was also a commenter on the New York Times site who said that they did similar tests in France, with the same result.

That's Kevin spoon-feeding Rick, who's flanked by David and Mary Ann. (Thanks to Doug Langeland for the photo.)

Despite the consistent results in all blind tastings (that I know of), people just don’t want to believe that eggs from the pampered hens in their backyards taste the same as the eggs from the mistreated birds in factory farms. (If you are one of those people, I urge you to try a blind tasting yourself. I think you’ll be surprised.)

I understand why people hold on to that belief. Everyone at my tasting, including Kevin and me, wanted to hold on to that belief. The idea of backyard, free-range eggs is so much more palatable that it’s natural to think that the eggs themselves must also be more palatable.

If people believe their home-grown eggs taste better, even if that’s not true, why disabuse them of the notion? Don’t we just deny them that pleasure, to no real purpose?

There is a real purpose. Many of us who believe livestock should have a decent life are trying to convince American consumers that it’s worth it to spend a little more for eggs, milk, and meat from well-treated animals. One of the arguments, often, is that those products taste better.

If those products don’t taste better, the American consumer who ponies up the extra bucks only to find that the expensive stuff tastes just like the cheap stuff is going to feel, quite rightly, that he’s been sold a bill of goods. It’ll make it very easy for him to tell himself that people advocating sustainable, animal-friendly farms are drinking their own Kool-Aid and needn’t be listened to.

If we’re going to convince people to buy products from farmers and growers who look out for the well-being of their livestock, we have to sell the products on their genuine merits.

In short, if free-range farmyard eggs don’t taste better, it doesn’t do those of us who oppose factory farms any good to go around saying they do. What’s important about eggs has little to do with the eggs themselves, and everything to do with the chickens that lay them. So let’s just say that.

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Comments

  1. Brooke S says:

    I agree 100% with this idea. There have been a few things I’ve witnessed where people will blatantly lie to say something tastes better because it is organic or free range… and it doesn’t. What we need to do is learn to be proud and make habit of what is right and honest. Treating animals better, and taking care of the environment. Simple as that.

  2. I love the scientific approach and congrats on the article!

    I have people show up at my back door and say 1) “have you got any more of those lovely eggs for sale? They taste like a proper egg” always followed by 2) “The yolks are so yellow! Not like store-bought eggs”.

    I think you’re right about the visual clues : they know they’re back yard eggs, they see the chickens free-ranging in the garden when they buy the eggs, note the colour of the yolk and therefore the whole culinary experience is filed under “tastes better”.

    For us, it is most certainly the chickens’ experience of life that matters and I agree that if we are upfront about the reason we produce home reared eggs (and meat), we will still contribute positively towards the buyers’ whole eating experience. And towards a new standard of welfare for the animals (us included).

    Are blindfold dinner parties all the rage on the Cape this year??

  3. I think it’s important to know that your hens are leading a happy life – I can’t stand the thought of those over-packed hen sheds where the birds never get to move , let alone see the light of day and have a varied diet. I stopped buying cheap eggs and meat a long time ago – industrial, mass market practices for livestock sicken me. I would rather pay more and maybe eat it less often to know that my meat / eggs come from well-cared for animals.

    Quite surprised there isn’t a taste difference though!

  4. Excellent article and post. I agree that we need to stress the treatment of the hens as our priority, however, we all know that food that is presented with care does just taste better! The visual cue that fresh eggs give us is one of health and freshness (Firm orange yolk, white that holds together),therefore our tastebuds are ready to receive what our brain is telling us is a superior food experience. It seems to be a package deal…

  5. Amen.

  6. Great article, and it’s good to hear this research. I’ve suspected for a while that there was no real taste difference, but had thought maybe it was just my uneducated palate. I’m reassured that you got some foodies to agree!

    The consistency of our home eggs is very different to store-bought, though. They stay together in the pan, and the yolks sit up nice and tight and high. Store-bought eggs run everywhere in the pan and the yolks sit flat and spread out. Home grown eggs stay together better when poaching, too. This does give nicer food, but it’s because of the eggs’ physical properties and not their actual flavour.

  7. Congrats, Tamar, great article, and WA Post, wow, the big time! This egg issue is so interesting – even after reading your irrefutable proof that all eggs taste the same, I still will BUY cage-free brown eggs whenever I can at the natural food store. And I will not eat or bake with an egg that has a liquid white, or a flat yolk. I do toss quite a few, but the thought of a not-fresh egg turns my stomach faster than the time it takes me to crack one. Conversely, I turn down free-range eggs from friends unless I’ve viewed their production facility, so to speak, fearing I could contract salmonella, ecoli, staph, or clostridium botulinum from those incredibly fresh eggs. This inconsistency bugs me – perhaps i can blame my mom.

  8. Two things:

    I’m still researching this, but this is my hypothesis: I think the taste of the eggs is a product of what the chicken eats. My husband and I have personally enjoyed free-range grass-fed chicken eggs from a local farm, and have found that there is enough of a difference in the taste, even from free-range, GRAIN-fed chicken eggs, never mind grocery store/factory-farmed eggs, that I will go out of my way to hunt them down at the local farmers’ markets, etc. If I’m told that the chickens are both grass and grain-fed, I’ll ask about what percentage of each. I think the more grass/bug-fed the chicken is, the better the egg will taste.

    Joel Saladin of Polyface Farm said it best when he called his chickens (and cows, pigs, etc.) his “co-workers”. The chickens are more than a food source for people… their natural habits add value to the farm: they help develop the grasses that they and other animals feed on by scratching and spreading wild seed, they control the bug population by eating larva before they can develop, and their manure fertilizes the land. The richer the land, the more carbon dioxide gets absorbed from the atmosphere. The richer the land, the cooler the planet. The richer the land, the more balanced the global ecosystem.

    So what if my eggs cost $4-$7 a dozen? Let’s give it up for the chicken and sustainable farming practices. Keep it up, Tamar

    • @Holly, I also think that feed affects the taste of eggs to a greater degree than environment. I remember eggs tasting and smelling a lot more “eggy” when growing up. I grew up in asia, and my thoughts are that in the early 70s and 80s, chickens in Asia were less likely to be grain fed, compared to now a days.

      I currently feed my “girls” a mixture of chicken feed, fish meal and flaxseed. Increasing the fishmeal content will affect the taste of the eggs (making them more fishy), so I assume that if I completely change their diet, I could also affect how the eggs taste completely. Up till now I’ve not considered grass and bugs!

      Do free range grass-fed chickens really just eat grass? Should I grow a particular kind of grass? Will they eat thyme and rosemary!!!

  9. I love the blindfold picture! How funny. Egg flavor is almost completely dependent upon the hen’s diet and, maybe, on the freshness of the egg. Feeding chickens scraps along with their layer ration can make a difference, especially if those scraps include onions. Truly free-range birds eat such a variety of plants and bugs, it’s hard to get a solid fix on a flavor. I would think if there was a plague of stinkbugs, that might make a difference. In any case, there is a difference in flavor between store-bought eggs from chickens on a bland, consistent diet and eggs from true free-range birds with access to a wide and ever-changing variety of food sources. Hopefully, the flavor is in your favor – sometimes it is not.

  10. Actually, that might make an interesting follow up blind taste test- eggs from bird fed layer ration, and eggs from pasture fed birds. I wonder what they (the eggs) would taste like if they (the birds) were fed a lot of herbs?

    I think it’s pretty cool that you have friends good enough to let you blind fold them and then spoon feed them eggs. I have at least one friend I would never let do that, but then, she has a sick sense of humor and a very wide evil streak.

    Anyway, I agree with the notion of giving livestock a decent, no, happy life. We’ve been buying so-called Certified Humane (I wonder if that would make a good investigation topic?) eggs until we can swing having our own back yard chickens. But I will not expect them to taste better, so thanks.

  11. Hi All — I’m glad to see so many people care about eggs! A couple of things about texture and flavor. The high yolks and tight whites (sounds like underwear!) of backyard eggs is a function of freshness. If you were to get your hands on a fresh-laid factory egg, it would be very similar (in texture, not color). As an egg ages, it loses carbon dioxide, and becomes less viscous and easier to beat.

    Flavor-wise, those of you who talk about diet are on the right path. But it takes a very strong flavor — onion, garlic, citrus — to really change the flavor of the egg. Our chickens spend most of their day free-ranging, and eat a lot of grass, clover, bugs, and kitchen scraps. Even so, their eggs taste just like regular old supermarket eggs from birds that just eat conventional feed.

    A number of people who commented on the WaPo article noted that our experience of food is much broader than just taste — it’s smell, and appearance, and other associations. It matters where you are, who you’re with, how you’re feeling, and what you think about the food. That’s why, for me, a scrambled egg breakfast of our eggs, from our free-roaming hens, served at the kitchen table, cooked by and eaten with my husband, is a very fine thing, regardless of egg flavor.

  12. Kristin says:

    Free range eggs are very widely available in UK supermarkets nowadays and battery hen farming will be gone in a couple of years, as a result of UK legislation. And yet lots of people have started keeping hens in their back gardens in the past couple of years. (Mind you the old lady two doors down from me has been keeping hens for 40 years.) I can’t tell the difference in flavour between my friend’s garden chickens’ eggs and free range from the supermarket, but I don’t turn up my nose at the free eggs!

  13. Yikes! I love the idea of doing this and was really disappointed that your friends could not tell the difference. Could it have something to do with the type of hen? My husband and I are convinced some of the free range eggs we buy in Truro DO taste different when soft-boiled, so I found Beth’s comment intriguing. Could the difference be diet, not pampering?

  14. Just read the article and loved that your blog was included in it.

    I finished reading Barbara Kingsolver’s book Animal, Vegetable, Miracle a few months back and knowing her flavor desciption of her backyard eggs I am slightly amused to find that, after your more scientific approach, her description is probably based on emotion rather than true taste. (Although I do find myself still very much wanting to believe there is a noticeable difference!)

    I, too, agree that the true value in backyard/urban coops is in the way the chickens are raised and cared for- even trumping any gains in taste. Animals have the right to live their lives as intended. We have the responsibility to provide chickens with their right to forage, cows to their right to leisurely graze and pigs with their right to dig up roots just as much as we have the responsibility to give our pets love and care. I was pleased that you noted something along this sentiment in the last paragraph of the WAPO article.

    Thanks for your research! I look forward to following your blog.

  15. Thank you for your interesting post, Tamar! I appreciate your honest reporting of your taste test. I’ve never been able to taste a difference between different eggs either.

    No doubt yolk colour has much to do with perception of flavour with the generally held (mis)belief that the darker the yolk the better the flavour. In fact, as you pointed out, what hens eat affects the colour of the yolks. If the base of the feed is wheat, as it typically is in western Canada, the yolks are paler than in other parts of Canada where the hens are fed corn in their diet.

    On the matter of hen housing and welfare, having worked for Egg Farmers of Ontario for 15 years I know these issues are often debated. I have learned there are pros and cons for all systems of housing. I know many farmers in Ontario who care deeply about the health and welfare of their hens kept in conventional housing. If a farmer’s hens are not healthy and their physical needs are not met (no matter what the choice of housing), they will not lay eggs of good quality, and consequently that farmer will not be able to maintain his/her chosen profession for very long.

  16. We probably shouldn’t be surprised at these results. Chicken eggs are the reproduction medium of a very successful species. Unless the bird has been starved or has ingested a lot of toxic substances, chances are all eggs will be pretty similar. They’ve been produced to do a particular job that’s got nothing to do with us and our taste buds. Eggs aren’t about us. They’re about chickens.

  17. Kristin — One of the great things about keeping chickens is spreading the eggs around. We’re very glad to help keep our friends supplied.

    Alexandra — Give it up! It’s not the type of hen, it’s not the diet (within the aforementioned limits). Eggs just taste the same.

    Sugaredmagnolia — You’re right that the emotions connected with food affect our perception of taste. And there’s nothing wrong with that. I just want to understand what’s going on. Kingsolver has a different agenda. Thanks for the kind words — I’m glad to have you here.

    Wendi — Feed definitely affects color much more than flavor, and that’s one of the reasons we’re all so ready to believe that backyard eggs taste different — they look different. As for chicken housing, I’m sure it’s true that all systems have pros and cons, but there are some (like mine, I hope) where the pros vastly outweigh the cons and some others where the reverse is true. I have seen some chicken housing that I believe is absolutely unacceptable, and the only pro is that it produces cheap eggs. There are undoubtedly many farmers who are deeply invested in their animals’ well-being, and I certainly don’t expect all egg-producing chickens to be able to run free the way mine do. But the worst excesses of industrial chicken farming are very bad indeed.

    Mom — It’s easy to forget that it’s in chickens’ best interest, as a species, to produce a consistent egg. We’re just harnessing that ability for our own baked goods.

  18. I don’t know if there’s a taste difference between farm fresh eggs (haven’t had those in forever) and the so-called cage-free, better fed ones in the store. However, I have to say that I still believe that those with better feed do taste different from the regular 99 cent eggs you’d find at your local Mega market. When I made the switch a few years ago, I found them to taste more “eggy” than what I was use to, and I honestly wasn’t expecting a change in flavor (only bought them b/c I was hoping treatment of the bird was better); it took some getting use to. Then again, I’d been buying all my meat and egg products from Walmart at that time. The first time I had pork from a friend’s farm I almost threw up b/c it tasted so strongly of pig.

  19. The reason you tell people that backyard and supermarket eggs taste the same is not that by denying it you make it easier for people who find this out on their own to support a political position that you oppose. The reason you tell people that they taste the same is that it’s true.

  20. Congratulations on getting published in the WP, and I loved reading all of the responses above! While I am totally satisfied with “the results” and will try harder to shop more responsibly, I did want to add a question, for “food for thought”: Do free range chickens produce healthier eggs than factory-restricted ones? I get that some people want to know what tastes better, but I’d love to think that free-range birds are healthier and therefore their eggs have higher nutritional value. Thoughts?

  21. Cape Cod Rose says:

    Hi Tamar,
    I think that Dina has hit the nail on the head.
    They might not taste different, but the nutritional value and/or lack of the added crap is just ANOTHER reason to consume free range chicken eggs.
    A well trusted nutriionist told us to be sure to feed our kids free range, bug eating, chicken egg yokes. She said that they are excellent for brain development in all kids. Hey, every little bit helps so we switched over.
    I think that equally important is the LACK of antibiotics and other drugs found in typical eggs.
    It’s hard to go wrong when it’s what Mother Nature would do herself…….

  22. Perhaps they all taste the same, but the color of the yolk is important in some dishes. Last year I took a few pasta-making classes in Bologna, and the eggs we used to make the sfoglia had yokes that looked like a blazing sun. The color they imparted to the pasta was gorgeous.

  23. Serena K. says:

    Actually, Tamar, there are many other forages besides onions and garlic that can pass on their flavors to eggs. It’s a little silly, to say the least, to base this ‘experiment’ on the unfertilized eggs from your few hens eating forage consisting of what can be found on a tree-shaded, pasture-less lot featuring, primarily, rhododendrons. Many cultivated and wild herbs and plants have very strong flavors that can be easily detected in eggs. Besides the documented nutrition advantages, the free-range egg has the option to taste different, whereas the egg from a hen fed the same grain through their laying year has no chance of tasting different. And, by the way, you haven’t had chickens long enough to know if an egg from an old hen tastes different from a young hen’s egg, or is more susceptible to off-flavors. I think it is. Part of living with the land is replacing overconfidence and inexperience with knowledge and wisdom.

  24. Sandy — Lots of people are in your camp, and believe there’s a difference. You might want to try a blind tasting for yourself, if you’re curious enough.

    Aaron — Can’t I do it for both reasons?

    Dina — Yes, free range eggs do have some nutritional advantages. Betacarotene and omega-3 fats are probably the two biggest. But vegetables and fish, respectively, have those nutrients in much larger quantities, so I think it’s a mistake to look to eggs for their nutritional value. Still, having more of those things is better than having less.

    CCR — I’m afraid I don’t share your confidence in Mother Nature, who has endowed us with all kinds of plants and animals that will do us harm, but there certainly is a nutritional difference among eggs.

    Bruce — Color is absolutely important, and part of our experience of food. I envy you your pasta-making classes in Bologna!

    Serena — I come in peace! It’s certainly true that onions and garlic aren’t the only flavors that can be passed along in eggs — I’m on record as saying that “strong flavors” can be, and only use those as examples. As for my personal chickens, they eat a very wide range of wild plants (not included in your description of my property, which I don’t think you’ve visited), and I don’t think they’re so unlike other free-ranging chickens. As for hen age, I have to take the word of the poultry scientist I interviewed for the article. She says that it doesn’t seem to make a detectable difference. Inexperience, I certainly plead guilty to, but I don’t think it’s accurate to label as “overconfidence” an effort to determine by a combination of an objective test, a survey of other objective tests, and an interview with a scientist, what affects egg flavor. “Overconfidence” might, however, describe hanging on to one’s beliefs about what affects egg flavor in the face of all the evidence.

  25. No, you really can’t. Your conclusion, no matter how you slice and dice it, removes a powerful argument from your political allies. Tough. Sometimes your opponents have good arguments too.

    Incidentally, I give little weight to your own test, with its sample size of six. Ruth Reichl thinks it “proves” that sight is important to taste, which proves only that Ruth Reichl needs a remedial statistics class. However, I give a great deal of weight to the food scientist who testified that the egg industry has been conducting similar tests for years, with similar results. The several New York Times commenters who nitpicked your test somehow all passed that by.

  26. I don’t tell people the eggs from my 10 year olds ‘happy chickens’ taste better, they tell me and I smile. I figure that’s good enough. Plus? I love that the yolks are orange. Now if I could only find a way to afford pastured pork more often I’d be a happy woman.

  27. It’s not the *flavor* that is different, rather, it is the *freshness* of the egg that makes a difference. You aren’t likely to notice any difference between store-bought and backyard eggs if they are of the same age/freshness (the temp they are stored at will affect their freshness).

    Eggs cooking qualities change drastically the older that they are. For example, when I was in culinary school, one of the tests that one must pass is flipping an egg in a frying pan without using utensils. I had a hell of a time accomplishing it with the eggs that they use at school, but it is a breeze with my backyard eggs. This is because the the eggs don’t cook as efficiently and the membrane surrounding the yolk breaks down as the eggs age. So, with old eggs, the you are likely to overcook the bottom of the eggs, and when you go to flip them, the membrane of the yolk breaks–you end up with an overcooked egg. But, with a fresh egg, the egg cooks more thoroughly and when you flip the egg, the membrane surrounding the yolk holds together. With a fresh egg, you get a delicately cooked white and a nice runny egg yolk.

    That is just one example. The freshness of the egg has many implications. Trying to make poached eggs with old eggs is a nightmare. Conversely, hard-cooked eggs are significantly easier to peel the older they are.

    Old eggs also absorb refrigerator odor and they also take on a sulfurous note.