Upon encountering egg whites on a cocktail menu for the first time, many have the same reaction: “Gross.” Even if you are fully aware that many drinks employ egg whites to produce a fluffy froth, you may still be unsure about throwing raw eggs into your coupe, lest you encounter that classic TV-news spectre, the dreaded salmonella. But fear not, because we’re here to set your heart at ease with the help of two food scientists, Dr. Patricia Curtis, professor and director of the Auburn University Food Systems Institute, and Dr. Deana R. Jones, research food technologist with the Egg Safety and Quality Research Unit at the USDA Agricultural Research Service. According to these two eggsperts (...sorry), here’s everything you need to know about avoiding the risks of using eggs in cocktails.
First of all, chill out. The chances of contracting salmonella or any other illness from eggs are extremely low. “The last published data showed there was about a 1 in 26,000 chance of an egg containing salmonella,” Curtis explains. Jones, who admits to enjoying her fair share of Pisco Sours, agrees with those numbers. “According to all of the research on intact eggs—that is, eggs exactly as they came out of the hen with no cracks or mishandling—it’s very difficult to culture salmonella in a fresh egg,” she says.
Chicken eggs have evolved to protect the offspring growing within. The shell acts as the primary defense, with a coating that keeps out most organisms. Inside the egg, the second line of defense hangs out in the albumin, aka the egg white, which is the most commonly used part of the egg in drinks.
According to Jones, the antimicrobial properties of alcohol also help reduce risk, as does dry shaking egg whites, which breaks down the cell walls and increases the surface area of the albumin, making it even harder for hitchhiking organisms to hide from antimicrobial assets.
Know Your Audience
According to both scientists, susceptible groups—the very young, the very old and the immunocompromised—should not consume raw eggs. Since we’re talking about mixed drinks, we can presumably knock out the first of those groups. But elderly bar patrons and those undergoing medical treatment should probably exercise caution.
Learn How to Spot a Healthy Egg
As Curtis points out, you can’t tell if an egg contains salmonella simply by looking at it. But you can keep your eyes peeled for evidence of mishandling, which is where most of the problems start, no matter whether you’re buying from a factory farm or the farmer's market. Check to make sure the egg shells are intact and the eggs look clean before buying them.
After examining for cracks, check the date the eggs were produced. In a grocery store, a carton will have a Julian Date, which indicates the numbered day of the year (from 1 for January 1 to 365 for December 31) on which an egg was packaged. At the farmer’s market you can ask the vendor when the eggs were packaged if that info isn’t obvious.
“The older an egg is—the longer since it was laid—the more the antimicrobial properties of an egg break down,” Jones says. “As an egg cools, air naturally cleans the egg of its protection to allow gas exchange so that the chick inside can breath as it grows.” In short, the fresher the egg, the better.
Consider Pasteurized Eggs
Curtis and Jones both highly recommend using pasteurized eggs. “Pasteurized products require a five-log reduction of targeted organisms—i.e., from 100,000 down to 1,” Jones explains. “These eggs have a much lower risk level. Nowadays in the grocery store, you can buy lots of pasteurized products, at least in the U.S.”
Store Your Eggs Safely
Once you’ve picked up your carton, there are a few easy ways to treat eggs well. First, refrigerate them quickly. The longer an egg sits out, the more likely infection becomes. Similarly, don’t leave raw eggs on the counter by a hot stove. That’s just asking for microbial incubation.
Crack Your Eggs Correctly
If you’ve taken all the proper precautions, the steps to mixing eggs safely into a drink are relatively simple: Crack eggs on a clean surface—definitely not one on which you’ve just been cutting fresh produce or slicing meat—and practice a proper measuring technique. (You can learn that from us).
Batch With Care
“Resist the urge to crack a bunch of eggs and pool them in a single large container. When you do that, one bad egg can infect the entire batch,” Jones says. If you expect to be shaking a lot of egg whites and want to prep those eggs in advance, she suggests cracking the eggs into individual Dixie cups and keeping them covered in the refrigerator until you’re ready to use them. With expert prep, and all of this info at your fingertips, you’re all set to host your next Gin Fizz festivity.