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Spirits: Will a cocktail's froth make you sick?


The Aperol Flip depends on raw egg white. (James Thresher for The Washington Post)

The massive egg recall due to salmonella has, unsurprisingly, caused me to think about the use of egg whites in cocktails. Back in 2007, I was very dismissive of claims that raw eggs in cocktails are dangerous and quoted statistics from the National Safety Council that say you're more likely -- about four times more likely -- to choke on a handful of pretzels or bar nuts than you are to get salmonella poisoning. Salmonella is found in only one out of every 20,000 eggs, according to the American Egg Board.

Over the past three years, egg whites have become prevalent as an ingredient on many drink menus as the popular revival of classic cocktails emerged. Age-old recipes like fizzes or the Clover Club or the pisco sour or the Millionaire, and new-wave cocktails like the Aperol Flip or the Prado are unthinkable without using fresh raw egg whites.

Earlier this year, the New York City Department of Health caused a stir by banning raw egg whites in cocktails, and handing out citations to bars that used them. The move was, of course, widely deplored by bartenders. They wondered why the city wasn't also cracking down on chefs, who use also raw eggs. “They use raw eggs in béarnaise sauce and steak tartare,” said Pegu Club's Audrey Saunders in the New York Times. “Is it that they think chefs are O.K., but bartenders don’t know what they’re doing?”

So why use eggs in cocktails? Egg whites act as a great binding agent and create a wonderful froth on top, which gives the drink a richer mouthfeel. Using real egg whites is infinitely better than the packaged "sour mixes" available for similar purposes. Fresh eggs are superior to pasteurized eggs, which often give off a stinky, nasty aroma in the glass. Many believe that high-proof liquors and citrus neutralize any potential contaminants in raw eggs. While food scientists say there is no conclusive proof of this, the Times quoted one who suggested the cocktail shaker was "not a hospitable medium for salmonella to grow".

Still, anytime there's a salmonella scare on such a large scale, it certainly gives one pause. What do you think? Would you still order a cocktail made with raw egg whites?

-- Jason Wilson
(Follow him on Twitter, and watch for his book, "Boozehound," coming from Ten Speed Press in September.)

By The Food Section  |  August 27, 2010; 7:00 AM ET
Categories:  Spirits  | Tags: Jason Wilson, spirits  
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