As the holidays approach, many people begin to rediscover and experiment with recipes passed down from their mothers or grandmothers, hoping to recreate a little of the magic they remember from childhood. What happens, though, when you realize grandma’s famous chocolate mousse recipe contains — gasp! — raw eggs? That can’t be safe, can it?
Raw eggs are a part of many traditional dishes, as well as many everyday products that we eat, including sunny side up eggs, eggs “over easy,” mayonnaise, Hollandaise sauce, soufflés, and many types of ice cream or custard. But doctors, and even restaurant menus, have been warning us for years that eating any recipe containing raw eggs or undercooked eggs carries a risk of salmonella infection. What’s a home chef to do?
Salmonella enteritidis is a bacterial infection that strikes the digestive system. Symptoms include diarrhea, abdominal pain, nausea, vomiting, fever, and chills. In layman’s terms, these symptoms are better known as food poisoning. While food poisoning is never pleasant, salmonella is relatively benign. In healthy adults, symptoms generally last for a day or two before clearing up on their own. Recovery time can sometimes be shortened with the help of a probiotic supplement or soft cultured foods, such as yogurt.
This danger is more pronounced for some people than for others, though, such as the elderly, pregnant women, very young children, and people with compromised immune systems due to cancer, HIV, or other autoimmune diseases.
What most warnings about raw eggs fail to mention, though, is that the actual risk of contracting salmonella is very minimal. A 2002 study by the U.S. Department of Agriculture indicated that approximately one in every 30,000 eggs is contaminated with salmonella, or about .003% of all commercially produced eggs.
In addition, there are steps you can take to reduce your risk. Salmonella infection is only transmitted by sick chickens, and is most often present in commercially raised hens. By buying eggs locally from a small family farm, or choosing eggs from cage-free, organically fed chickens at your grocery store, you can help to minimize your risk. Other safeguards include refrigerating eggs at or below 40° F, and throwing away any egg if you accidentally drop part of the shell into the yolk or white. Salmonella bacteria are most likely to live on the exterior of the shell.
Of course, you must determine your own comfort level when it comes to consuming recipes containing raw eggs. If you prefer never to eat them, the easiest solution is to use frozen pasteurized eggs. These should be available at any grocery store. If your recipe calls for only egg whites, powdered egg white substitute or meringue powder also make good substitutes. Just follow the instructions on the package.
Another option is to heat the eggs in another liquid from the recipe. You’ll need at least 1/4 cup of liquid per egg to keep from ending up with scrambled eggs. Stir the mixture constantly over low heat, until it reaches 160° F, then combine it with the other ingredients in the recipe. Be aware, though, than any change in a recipe could possibly change the outcome of the recipe.