It's been a weird week at the Food Lab. What started out as a simple fresh egg taste test evolved into a surreal brunch and a surprisingly complex journey into the depths of the human psyche. It's what the Food Lab would be if Rod Serling had created it.
Let me first give you some background:
Meet Misty and Logan
A few months ago, my good friend and former neighbor Joshua Levin got himself a pair of chickens. Misty and Logan roam around his backyard eating bugs, pooping, poking, crowing, and generally doing all the charming and funny things that chickens do. About five days a week, Josh finds a pair of freshly laid eggs inside their coop made from an old converted dresser (It's fantastic: just pull out the second drawer, and eggs magically appear).
I ate them a number of times in those first few weeks. And of course, they were the best eggs ever: ultra-fresh, humanely raised, antibiotic, and pesticide-free, with tight whites and fantastically bright orange, high-standing yolks bolstered by all the insects and worms that the chickens naturally add to their diet. After that initial orgy of egg-cessive* egg-eating, I went a few months without trying them again.
Skip forward to a few weeks ago: Joshua brought over a freshly-laid dozen to a taco party I was hosting. We scrambled six of them and served them to guests wrapped in fresh corn tortillas. The expected rave reviews were delivered.
But before I'd even taken my last bite of egg taco, a nasty thought had entered my mind: There's no denying the darker color and tighter yolks and whites of Misty and Logan's eggs, but the taste? What if all of their greatness was simply in my head?
Is it possible that the fantastic flavor they initially offered was only due to some sort of starry-eyed egg-citement on my own part? How would they fare against regular old store-bought eggs in a blind tasting?
It was then that I hatched a diabolical plan to perform a little social egg-speriment (and I apologize now to anyone who was present at that taco party for this nasty bit of trickery). With the first batch of eggs finished, I slipped back into the kitchen, ostensibly to scramble up the rest. Instead, I covertly exchanged Misty and Logan's eggs for six eggs out of the carton in my fridge (Fairway organic eggs) scrambled them the same way, and brought them out to the table.
The reaction to this batch was exactly the same: The eggs were universally praised for their flavor. Even Joshua, who eats Misty and Logan's eggs on a daily basis didn't call fowl when served with the impostors.
Clearly, when it come to egg flavor, there's more than meets the tongue. A serious taste test was in order.
I wanted to see if my admittedly deceptive and rather unscientific initial results would hold up in a more rigorous setting. My goal was to determine exactly which factors can (or can't) affect the flavor of eggs. Does organic or cage-free make a difference? What about omega-3's or access to pasture? Here's what I had in my line-up:
- Plain old factory farmed eggs
- Eggs with 325 mg Omega-3 Fatty Acid per egg (not organic or cage free)
- Organic Cage Free eggs with 200 mg Omega-3 Fatty Acid per egg
- Cage Free eggs with 100 mg Omega-3 Fatty Acid per egg
- Organic eggs, no other specifications
- Organic eggs from free-roaming, pasture-raised chickens (not from Misty and Logan, who couldn't provide enough eggs for a taste test of this magnitude)
All of the eggs had sell-by dates within a few days of each other, which is not a definite guarantee that they were the same age**, but barring any unusual packaging practices, all the eggs should have been the same age to within a week or so.
For the first test, I served them gently scrambled with butter and salt, weighing everything to ensure that each batch was seasoned and flavored to the same degree. The eggs were all cooked in the same pan for the same amount of time, on the same burner.
The only variable that I couldn't control for was resting time before tasting. I did my best to compensate for this by holding the eggs I cooked first in a warm spot covered with foil. I also cooked the eggs in random order so that should any trends emerge based on cooking order, I'd know that it was skewing my results.
Even before serving the eggs to the tasters, I noticed differences. Color seemed to vary quite a bit, with the pastured eggs on the more intensely orange end of the spectrum. The more omega-3 the eggs contained, the deeper orange the yolk as well. The plain organic eggs and plain standard factory eggs were the palest of the lot.
This difference in pigmentation can be accounted for by the varying diets of the chickens. Pastured hens eat bugs and flowers, both of which contribute color to yolks. Chickens bred for eggs with high omega-3 acids are fed with a diet enriched with flax seeds and sea kelp, which again contribute color (and some say an off-putting fishy aroma). But would these color differences correspond to a related difference in flavor?
A panel of eight tasters (all of the Serious Eats editors along with a few other staff members and interns) tasted the eggs without knowing which were which (they were not blindfolded, so they could see the color difference). I then had them rate the overall flavor of the eggs and comment on their texture, appearance, and anything else of note.
After tallying, the results were split.
Half of the tasters remarked that there was almost no difference at all in the flavor of the eggs. The remaining tasters noted that there were indeed differences: The pastured eggs and the eggs with 325mg of omega-3's per serving sat squarely at the top of their lists, described as having richer flavor, creamier texture, and just being overall "eggier". Next were the 200mg and 100mg omega-3 eggs, with the standard factory and regular organic eggs at the bottom.
Nobody detected any "off" or "fishy" aromas in any of the batches.
So the results were clear: For the best tasting eggs, go for pastured chickens. Barring those, choose whichever eggs have the highest levels of omega-3 fatty acids. Where flavor is concerned, it doesn't matter if the eggs are organic, cage free, or from a cage battery.
But hang on a minute. Is it just coincidence that the eggs that appeared the yellowest also happened to be the tasters' favorites?
Here's what I've got to say to that:
- "I must admit that I'm suspicious
of which eggs were most delicious.
And though it may sound quite abstruse,
I'll take my lead from Dr. Seuss"
Green Eggs Exam
I wanted to find a way to perform a taste test such that the color of the eggs would have no bearing on the final results. Here's what I came up with:
A few drops of green food coloring added to each batch of scrambled eggs should do the trick. Though they varied in shade from "Sour Apple Jolly Rancher" to "Overcooked Asparagus Soup"*** depending on the number of drops I added, the color now had absolutely no bearing on the provenance (or flavor) of the eggs. I re-administered the taste test, rearranging the order of the eggs.
This time, most people could not taste any difference in the eggs. Those who did taste a difference picked a totally different batch of eggs—this time, there was no clear winner, and no discernible trends based on how the eggs were produced or levels of omega-3's.
In fact, only one taster (Serious Eats main site editor Erin Zimmer) actually picked the same egg as her favorite both times.
Well done, Ms. Zimmer. Well done indeed. But not so fast!
Even if every taster picked their favorite totally at random in both batches, there's a good 76.7% chance**** that at least one of the tasters would pick the same egg as their favorite both times. So is Erin a supertaster, or just plain lucky?
I decided to have her put her money where her mouth is and performed one last test.
I cooked the favored pasture-raised eggs side-by-side with the losing factory-farmed standard eggs sunny side-up. I then served them to both head honcho Ed Levine and to Erin. Bear in mind that at this point, neither taster was aware of which eggs were which, which they had preferred the first time around, and whether or not one was "supposed" to be better than the other.
I may or may not have even implied that I was purposely trying to trick them as I served them the eggs.
After careful tasting, examination of yolk and white structure, discussion of what makes an egg taste good, and deep thought, Ed and Erin gave their answers. And guess what?
Both of them picked the standard battery-produced egg as the clear winner in the head-to-head match up. The exact opposite of what Erin had picked in both earlier tastings.
It was pretty clear evidence that as far as eggs go, the mindset of the taster has far more bearing on the flavor of the egg than the egg itself. In fact, if you want your guests to have the best-tasting scrambled eggs possible, all you've got to do is tell them the eggs came fresh out of your pasture-raised chickens that morning and add a couple of drops of orange food coloring before scrambling?
I wouldn't be surprised if some less scrupulous chefs start doing this now.
So What Eggsactly Does This Mean?
But does this mean that all those folks who think one egg tastes better than another are wrong? Absolutely not. You've probably noticed it yourself. Doesn't an ice cold beer taste better when you're drinking it with friends on an outdoor patio on a cold summer day than the exact same beer does on all those lonely nights when you're drinking solo? Doesn't the atmosphere and service in a restaurant affect the flavor of the food in your mind?
Do you really think that your mom's [insert favorite food growing up here] is better than anyone else's? Chances are, the real reason you like it so much is because it's your mom making it. The combination of physical appearance, weather, company, atmosphere, even your mood can affect the flavor of foods.
Back in 1985, the Coca-Cola company inadvertently created what is probably the largest, most well-documented test case on the effects of psychology on flavor in history: In a bid to regain market share from Pepsi, the bigwigs at the Coca-Cola company decided to reformulate their flagship soft drink. They came up with a new formula that in blind taste tests defeated both Pepsi and the original Coke. It seemed like a clear winner, and in April of that year, they made a complete switch, discontinuing the original formula, and marketing the new one as "The New Taste of Coca-Cola."
The drink initially seemed to do alright, but a vocal minority of people (particularly lifetime cola drinkers from the South) felt betrayed and alienated by the switch. Organizations were formed to petition the company to switch back—despite the fact that some of the organizers themselves indicated a preference for New Coca-Cola in blind taste tests. More and more customers gave into the peer pressure as it became fashionable to hate "New Coke." Three months later, the company beat a sheepish retreat, and the original formula was reintroduced as "Coca-Cola Classic." The largely forgotten New Coke eventually evolved into Coca-Cola II in 1992 before finally being completely retired in 2002.
All this despite the fact that the overwhelming majority of tasters preferred New Coke to Coke Classic.
Turns out that the mindset of the people tasting a product have just as much to do with its flavor as the product itself. So what incentive is left to pay the premium for "better eggs? Plenty. Better treatment of chickens. Making sure more of your money goes directly to the farmers. Peace of mind knowing that you aren't putting money into a system in which over half a billion eggs could be recalled.
I like to think of it this way: I'm going to continue eating the freshest eggs I can find produced by the most humanely raised chickens because I care a bit about the chickens' well-being. The fact that my mind tricks me into thinking these eggs are actually better tasting is just the icing on the cake.
I mean, I get to do the right thing, and my eggs will taste better to me? Yes please!
As a final point, I do want to point out that the fact that Misty and Logan's eggs boasted tighter whites and taller-standing yolks when cooked sunny-side up is no psychological trick: It's because their eggs were extremely fresh. There's the real advantage in having chickens in your own backyard. Though the flavor of eggs is only minimally affected by age, the texture of the white and yolk will gradually get thinner. Eggs from the supermarket can be up to 60 days old** by the time they hit their expiration date, making them harder to poach and more likely to spread when frying (it has very little bearing on how they perform in baked goods).
Further Reading: A facebook fan pointed me towards this article in the Washington Post by Tamar Haspel, which covers the same topic, and comes largely to the same conclusion in a less windy, more eloquent way, though I would have preferred her final conclusion to at least mention the other reasons why you should choose better eggs.
*What is it that makes egg puns so darn irresistible?
**Eggs are given a sell-by date that is 30 days after the day they are packaged, but the time spent out of the chicken before they get to the package can be anywhere up to 30 days. In reality, it's usually closer to a week or two.
***Might I suggest these as contenders for new Crayola colors?
****According to my very smart wife: Probability that one person will pick the same egg both times is 1 in 6. Probability that at least one out of eight people will pick the same batch both times = 1 - (probability that a given person will pick the wrong egg)^8 = 1-(5/6)^8 = .767
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