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The pick of the henhouse

March 14, 2007|Betty Hallock

PERUSING the refrigerated egg section at many markets is kind of like looking up at the steps of Machu Picchu. You're standing there in front of rows and rows of eggs and wondering how to begin -- eggs with omega-3, organic eggs, cage-free eggs, brown eggs, jumbo eggs, fertile eggs.

The Times' tasting panel met to find the best-tasting eggs among a wide sampling. Joining me on the panel were columnist Russ Parsons, staff writer Charles Perry and restaurant critic S. Irene Virbila. Included in the tasting were organic eggs, cage-free eggs, free-range eggs, eggs from vegetarian-fed hens, eggs with omega-3 (some including DHA fatty acids as well). Some of these categories overlapped. There were also eggs labeled "dark yolks" and half a dozen free-range air-freighted eggs from New Zealand.

The goal of this informal tasting, which included 12 kinds of supermarket eggs (from Whole Foods, Trader Joe's, Ralphs and Japanese market Mitsuwa) and eggs from two farmers market stands, was to find the standouts. The eggs were prepared by The Times' test kitchen, all fried sunny side up with a little canola oil. This method highlighted the color and flavor of the yolks; it also let us see how much the whites spread (little spreading is an indication of freshness and quality). All the eggs were purchased the day of the tasting, a sampling of what was available at stores and farmers markets on any given day; thus, they had different sell-by dates.

Conventional wisdom dictates that the freshest, best-quality eggs have high orange-gold yolks and whites that are firm and thick. In our taste test, freshness and quality varied, but we found that freshness alone didn't mean tastier eggs. That's because much of the flavor is determined by what the chickens are fed.

THERE were few surprises. Hands down, the tastiest eggs were the farmers market eggs. They had rich, creamy yolks that were also deeply flavorful. But among the store-purchased eggs, a couple stood out. One was Organic Valley's organic large brown eggs from free-range hens fed an organic vegetarian diet (about $3.50). They tasted a little "eggier," despite not being the freshest of the tasting, according to the sell-by date on the package. Organic Valley eggs are available at Whole Foods, Wild Oats and select Albertsons.

The jidori fertile eggs (marked "jidori no tamago" on the package), with luscious yolks, purchased from Mitsuwa market in West Los Angeles ($3.99 per dozen; also available at Nijiya stores) were another favorite.

"I can tell it's good because I really want to keep eating it," Virbila said.

In general, the eggs with omega-3 didn't taste noticeably better or worse than those without omega-3. But the Organic Valley eggs without omega-3 were preferred over the Organic Valley eggs with omega-3 (the hens are fed flaxseed, which are high in omega-3 fatty acids).

Eggs labeled "dark yolks" had yolks that were disconcertingly dark-bright orange -- and they were as bland as many of the rest.

The eggs from New Zealand Free Range Egg Co., available at Whole Foods stores, Nijiya stores and select health food markets, were better-tasting than many of the eggs, but not so much so that they were worth the $4.99 for half a dozen.

-- Betty Hallock

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