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[Photographs: Jennifer Hess]

You ever flip for a fizz? Are you sweet on sours? Eggnog aside, the cocktail world has three classes of drinks that traditionally call for the use of eggs, used either whole or in part.

This week and next, we'll look at how to use eggs in cocktail making. We'll start, today, with a look at egg safety and the dreaded salmonella. Next week, we'll consider specific classes of eggy cocktails: the flip (which uses a whole egg), the fizz (which can use whites, yolks, or both) and the sour (which can, but doesn't always, use an egg white).

But first, let's make sure our eggs are safe and germ-free. I'm devoting a fair amount of time and space to this topic because it seems to arise fairly often. Even large-city health departments find themselves confused about egg safety, so it's natural that consumers are unclear on the subject as well.

What Is Salmonella?

Salmonella is in the headlines again this week, thanks to an outbreak in ground turkey. Salmonella poisoning is caused by bacteria that infect meat, dairy products, vegetables, and other foodstuffs. Because we're interested in cocktails here, we'll forget the turkey and all the other stuff and focus on eggs.

How does salmonella enter an egg, and why does that matter to the home or professional bartender? I think it's important to understand the basic science, so that you know the risks and how to prevent them becoming a problem.

Salmonella can get into an egg two ways, according to Discovery News: first, an infected hen can deposit it into the egg's sac as the egg is forming. In this case, the bacteria is inside the egg itself, but at very low levels—usually about two to five bacteria per egg. In contrast, Discovery News reports, it takes about 100 bacteria to make a person sick. But this doesn't mean the egg will still be safe when you consume it, as I'll explain in a bit.

The other way an egg can become infected is through pores in the shell. If an egg encounters salmonella bacteria at any point in processing, the bacteria can enter the egg through the shell.

Once the bacteria's in the egg, it resides mainly in the white, where it doesn't find enough nutrients to thrive. In older eggs, though, the yolk membrane weakens, allowing the bacteria inside the yolk, where it can find loads of stuff to snack on, especially if the egg is stored at warm temperatures.

What's the Risk? Numbers, Please!

An egg with only two to five bacteria is, as noted, perfectly safe for most people (more on who's susceptible in a bit). But if you leave an egg at room temperature, you increase the risk that the bacteria inside the egg will multiply to unsafe levels. A raw egg yolk provides a perfect growth medium for bacteria: a moist environment and a Vegas buffet of nutrients. And, unless the egg is kept cool from hen to table, it provides a compact and warm environment for micro-critters. The longer an egg sits before you use it, the more time that bacteria have to thrive. So to ensure safety, farmers, processors, and consumers need to keep eggs cool and fresh.

Before you light up the comments, I realize that the French and other alien lifeforms store eggs at room temperature as a matter of course. I'm not saying the risk is high that bacteria will multiply to unsafe levels in room-temp eggs. I just mean to say that if you choose to reduce the risk, you might want to refrigerate your eggs until you're ready for them.

In fact, the American Egg Board (AEB) estimates that on average, only one in every 20,000 eggs might be infected. Now, the AEB represents the interests of egg producers, so it's in their interest to promote the idea that eggs are healthy and safe. It's up to you to determine how skeptical you might want to be of those numbers, but generally speaking, I think it's safe to say, the odds are against you getting sick from raw eggs.

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Purchasing Eggs

One of the first things you hear when people talk about egg safety: "I get organic, free-range eggs at my local farmers' market, so I know they're safe." Is that true? You should still use your brain and your eyes when buying them:

  • Look for clean eggs that show no signs of dirt or (ICK) feces.
  • Choose unbroken or uncracked eggs.
  • Ask whether the eggs were washed or disinfected before being placed in cartons.

I can't find any indication that food scientists have specifically compared the safety of farmers market, free-range, or organic eggs to that of industrially processed eggs, but salmonella can infect any hen anywhere, whether on an industrial farm or in a backyard coop. And because chickens don't actually show outward signs of infection, you have no way of knowing whether a hen is producing infected eggs.

The biggest advantage to buying from the farmers' market is not that the hens are necessarily any healthier. (They may well be; I just can't find the science to demonstrate it. If any of you readers can, you're welcome to post links in the comments.) Instead, the biggest advantage is that farmers' market eggs are usually much fresher, often anywhere from one day to one week old. Eggs from large farms can be several weeks old before they reach your supermarket.

Remember what I said earlier: The longer an egg sits before you use it, the more time that bacteria have to thrive. The corollary: The fresher an egg, the safer it's likely to be.

Storing Eggs Safely

The only real question about egg storage is whether to refrigerate your eggs. I'm going to err on the side of caution and urge you to stash them in a very cold part of your fridge as soon as you get them home.

Also, make sure you keep them from cracking before you're ready to use them.

Finally, if you want to take the extra precaution, you can wash them yourself before storing them. Michele Jay-Russell, a food safety specialist at the Western Institute for Food Safety and Security at UC Davis, told the LA Times last year that backyard eggs should be washed in water between 90º and 120º F, dried immediately, and stored in the fridge. The warm water, she says, expands the egg's contents and thus keeps dirt from entering through the shell's pores.

I never wash eggs, and I doubt you do either, but if you choose to, this might be the best way.

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Serving Eggs Safely

First, wash your grubby hands. It should go without saying, but I'll say it anyway: Your eggs may be perfectly fine, but if you're carrying around germs on your hands, and those then make it into your cocktail, you're a dope.

For that matter, make sure any surfaces or utensils that will make contact with your eggs are also clean. This includes cocktail shakers, glassware, cutting boards, strainers, and measuring cups or jiggers.

Don't count on the booze to sterilize the eggs. A 1999 paper in the journal Clinical Microbiology Reviews examined the use of antiseptics and disinfectants in hospital and health-care settings. The paper's author studied the use of alcohol-based antimicrobial agents—including ethyl alcohol (which is the type we drink). He reports that, "[g]enerally, the antimicrobial activity of alcohols is significantly lower at concentrations below 50% and is optimal in the 60 to 90% range."

So, in order for an eggy cocktail to be self-sterilizing, the entire contents of your shaker—spirits, liqueurs, juices, eggs, and all—would have to combine to form a liquid in that 60 to 90% range. In other words, you'd be looking a cocktail of somewhere near 120 to 180 proof. Not likely to happen.

But what about citrus juice? Many of the drinks that use eggs also employ citrus (more on that next week), so won't the acids in citrus juice inhibit the bacteria? Unclear. Scientists have studied the use of citrus to inhibit Salmonella in egg-based sauces and dressing and shellfish. They achieved some success, but in the case of sauces, they also either applied heat or left the citrus juice in contact with a beaten egg for 10 minutes (neither of which is practical for cocktail making).

Don't just take my word for it, though. When Audrey Saunders, of Pegu Club, was battling New York's health inspectors over her use of eggs in cocktails, the New York Times sought out Dave Arnold, director of culinary technology at the French Culinary Institute in Manhattan, on the subject. Here's what he had to say:

Neither alcohol nor acidity kill salmonella right away. Even if you make mayonnaise with raw eggs and let it sit around long enough, the salmonella will die eventually—but not instantly. And the problem with drinks is that people consume them right away.

High-volume cocktail bars that use eggs generally buy them fresh daily from nearby farms and use them immediately, and that's my advice to you. Buy them fresh, use them quickly, and don't assume that booze or citrus will kill the bugs that might lurk inside.

Danger! Raw Eggs! Stay Away!

Who should stay away from consuming raw eggs in cocktails? Two groups include the very same people who should probably stay away from cocktails that don't have eggs in them: children and pregnant women. (Some would add nursing mothers to that list.)

Otherwise, the immune-compromised and the very elderly need to be wary of eggy cocktails. Everyone else, generally speaking, should be fine.

Mon Ami Louis

One last thing. If you're still squicked out by the idea of using raw eggs in cocktails, you have another option: pasteurized eggs. These eggs can be consumed raw with no fear of illness. However, many bartenders and chefs find them somewhat lacking in flavor when compared to raw eggs. Audrey Saunders, interviewed in the New York Times, said, "Pasteurized eggs impart this really funky wet-diaper nose."

Snooze! Give Me the Lowdown!

I know this has all been a little tl;dr, so here are my tips for using raw eggs in cocktails:

  • Start with the freshest eggs you can find.
  • Ensure they're clean (even if you wash them yourself) and uncracked.
  • Store them in a very cold place in your fridge.
  • Ensure your hands and all your equipment are scrupulously clean before making your cocktail.
  • When in doubt, use pasteurized eggs instead.

About the Author: Michael Dietsch writes A Dash of Bitters. He is an accidental bartender, boozologist, and cocktail curmudgeon. He lives with a spirited female and crazy felines in Providence.

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