Spoiler alert: one of next month’s cocktail recipes calls for an ingredient that some may consider unusual—a raw egg white. How eggs-actly should you feel about this? Are your thoughts on the issue scrambled? I mean, personal health is no yolk, but is there really a huge whisk in using raw eggs in cocktails? Omelette you decide for yourself, but if you’re looking to break out of your shell and take a crack at sipping on something new, let me help lay out the facts.
Eggs in cocktails can be traced back to the Middle Ages with a hot drink called posset, a cold and flu remedy that combined hot milk with wine or ale and spices. An egg was eventually added—possibly as early as the thirteenth century, but certainly by the sixteenth. Posset was a precursor to eggnog, which is a mix of booze, eggs, sugar, spice, and cream whose exact origins aren’t known for sure, but whose etymology can be traced back to 1775.
Today, eggs show up in a few other drink categories. Flips (booze, eggs, sugar, and spice, typically sans cream) use a whole egg; sours (which mix a base spirit with citrus juice and a sweetener) often include egg whites; and fizzes (defined by the inclusion of carbonated water and an acidic juice) can use the white, the yolk, or both.
If a cocktail calls for an egg yolk, it’s likely going to end up with a nog-like taste, but egg whites alone typically don’t add much flavor. They do, however, help mellow sharp flavors, and provide a frothy texture; shaking an egg white causes the main protein in it (ovalbumin) to unravel and trap air, forming a foam that can rest on top of a cocktail like the milky head of a freshly made cappuccino. Eggs, then, have the ability to contribute a creamy and rich consistency to a cocktail without the addition of dairy.
But, hey, isn’t the consumption of raw eggs generally discouraged (you may ask)? Well, kind of. Let’s talk about salmonella for a second: bacteria can enter an egg through pores in its shell, and leaving an egg at room temperature can encourage bacteria inside an egg to multiply to unsafe levels. But buying fresh eggs, storing them properly, and using them quickly helps to reduce any risk of bacterial contamination. Children (who probably shouldn’t be drinking cocktails anyway), older adults, pregnant women, and those with impaired immune systems are at greater risk than the general population for being affected by salmonella, but the American Egg Board suggests that only one in every 20,000 eggs might be contaminated with it.
Adding an egg white to a drink every now and then is no more risky than occasionally eating raw cookie dough, or hollandaise sauce, or authentic caesar salad dressing. While perhaps in these examples, pasteurized eggs (which are heated to slow the growth of microbes) could be a reasonable substitute—this isn’t really the case with an egg-inclusive cocktail: pasteurization thickens a raw egg’s texture to the point where it won’t fully emulsify in a shaken cocktail, thereby defeating the purpose behind adding the egg in the first place. And pasteurized eggs may also contribute to a funky aftertaste in a drink. If you choose to take the (very small) risk and go for a more adventurous cocktail, just take the precautions you normally would to ensure food safety—both in terms of how the eggs are handled and stored, and in making sure that your equipment and hands are clean.