In Cool Hand Luke, Paul Newman bets the guys on his chain-gang that he can eat 50 eggs in an hour. Along with the dinner at the inn in Upton in Tom Jones, it may be one of the best (over)eating scenes in film. But Luke’s face when he finishes—pale, sweaty, semiconscious—should be enough of a warning not to try this at home.
Today, in the dairy aisles of upscale grocery stores, it’s possible to get queasy just considering the 50 varieties of eggs available and trying to figure out which are worth their sometimes exorbitant prices. Organic farms with names like “The Contented Hen” say that their chickens “roam freely in barns” and eat an all-vegetarian diet. But do eggs taste any better when hens are raised on the chicken equivalent of a hippie commune instead of a state penitentiary?
To find out, I convinced two Slate colleagues to do a taste test, promising them that nobody would be required to consume at Cool Hand Luke-like levels. We tasted store-brand eggs, two kinds of organic eggs, and fresh eggs—both chicken and duck, the latter just for kicks. With some reluctance, I also decided that, while we were contemplating a major egg overdose, we should sample egg substitutes, too. I had never tried any, but the cholesterol-phobic and salmonella-phobic have a right to know which is the best. (Click here for details on the egg’s bad rap for cholesterol and salmonella.)
Eggs Price/dozen Safeway large eggs $1.29 Country Hen organic eggs $4.99 Giving Nature organic eggs $4.99 Fresh non-organic chicken eggs from Copps Hill Farm in Esmont, Va. Though these were a gift, another farm in Ohio sells fresh eggs for $1.25/dozen Fresh non-organic duck eggs from same Also a gift, fresh duck eggs
can be purchased at farms for
Egg Substitutes Price Egg Beaters $2.99/12 oz. Safeway Best of the Egg $2.69/16 oz. Nulaid Egg Product $2.29/16 oz.
How It Worked
I decided to leave baking out and focus on straight egg dishes. We tried all the real eggs both hardboiled and scrambled, ranking them and recording comments. The winner would be determined by combining the results of both tests. The tasting was not entirely blind. While I assigned each egg a number and numbered the positions on the plates, in the hardboiled competition it was impossible not to notice how much larger the duck egg was, and how much smaller the puny store-brand egg was.
I boiled the eggs each for the same amount of time (except for the duck egg, which was obviously larger and would have been undercooked). For fairness sake I should mention that the smallness of the Safeway egg meant that in proportion to its size it was cooked slightly more and ended up a little drier than its organic competitors.
How They Did
The Real Thing: Each person ranked the five eggs separately for hardboiled and scrambled. I gave the eggs points from each taster and in each event—5 for first place, 4 for second, 3 for third, etc.—and added up each egg’s total. When a taster declared a tie, I averaged the scores.
Hardboiled Scrambled Totals Safeway $1.29 2-3-2 3-2-1 13 Country Hen $4.99 1-5-1 1-3-5 16 Giving Nature $4.99 3-1-4 4-3-2 17 Chicken ? 5-4-3 2-3-3 20 Duck ? 4-2-5 4-1-4 20 Eggs Hardboiled
Safeway “Tastes like an egg.” “Yolk was kind of pasty.” “Tastes like my grandma’s house.” “Kind of tasteless
but utterly unobjectionable.”
Country Hen “Weird aftertaste.” “Kind of blah.” “Very yellow.” “Smoky? Really buttery.” Giving Nature “Just ordinary. No fireworks.” “Cloying—too rich.” “This is the steak of the egg world. Hearty. Flavorful.” Chicken “Yum yum yum. BEST! (Because no weird aftertaste.)” “Very creamy texture. Good.” “Eggy.” Duck “Whoa, that’s delicious. (But is that a weird aftertaste?) … A starburst of rich magicalness. Weird aftertaste.” “Oooh Mama. Now that’s an egg. I could eat this all night. Wait! I have been eating this all night.”
The Wannabes: All three of us ranked Egg Beaters first. Two tasters ranked Nulaid second and Safeway Best of the Egg last; the third switched these two. Everyone found Nulaid and Best of the Egg to be tasteless. Here, on the other hand, is what they said about Egg Beaters: “Definitely eggy. Surprisingly good. Buttery?” “Indistinguishable from real. Weirdly onion-ey—or is that echoes of my lunch?”
All three of these products are 99 percent egg whites, which are, basically, tasteless. All three also contain color and vegetable gums (for texture). But only Egg Beaters goes all out to put back the taste they’ve taken out, by adding natural flavor, spices, salt, and yes, onion powder. So you can imagine why the tasters doubted themselves. Was it really buttery? Was that really onion? It was like Willy Wonka’s famous gum that tastes like a three-course meal: tomato soup, roast beef, and blueberry pie. All those flavors out of a little piece of gum (or in this case, gum and egg whites).
The consistency of raw Egg Beaters is also very different from that of the other two substitutes. Nulaid and Best of the Egg were pale yellow and rather thin, close to the normal consistency of raw egg about to be scrambled. The Egg Beaters was brighter yellow, much more viscous, and exhibited strange chemical properties in the pan—specifically, it didn’t want to cook. I’d guess that it took twice as long to scramble as the other eggs. Egg Beaters does cook, in the end, but not before giving you the sense that it’s slightly mutant.
As for that “indistinguishable from real” comment: I threw Egg Beaters in with the other scrambled eggs to see how it measured up. Again, it wasn’t a true blind test, because scrambled Egg Beaters looks completely different from scrambled egg. While a scrambled egg has a mottled yellow color with veins of white, and an irregular consistency, scrambled Egg Beaters are a uniform bright yellow and full of tiny air bubbles like yellow Styrofoam. One taster claimed that she didn’t notice the difference until she ate it and recorded: “This is both bland AND tasteless. Wait. It’s bland yet onion-y. Miraculous.” She and one other taster both ranked it behind all the real scrambled eggs. The third recognized it as an impostor and ranked it ahead of two to the real eggs. I determined that, if I ever start to worry about cholesterol, I would rather make an egg-white omelet with my own salt and onions than face off again with this yellow goo.
What We Learned
Fresh eggs scored the highest. The Safeway eggs took a real beating. Some of this was no doubt the flavor of the yolk, but it may also have been that the yolk was smaller than that of the other eggs, which made for a less satisfying hardboiled egg and a pale, bland scramble. “Honey, you bleached the egg!” was one taster’s response.
Yolk-wise, the duck egg was in a class all its own. When it was hardboiled, one taster complained that the white was rubbery, but the yolk was huge and rich. Fresh eggs are the best, if you can get them, and we found organic eggs significantly better than the supermarket kind. Their price, though, may be harder to swallow: Organic eggs cost almost four times as much as the generic kind ($4.99 as opposed to $1.29 for a dozen).
For less than that, you could rent Cool Hand Luke, and the egg-eating scene would probably quell your appetite for a while. If you’re wondering whether a person could actually eat 50 eggs, this Web site on “Hollywood Science” says it’s unlikely. Besides your stomach being too small, you’d run out of saliva, and you’d produce a terrifying amount of gas. There are probably better ways to make friends.