Bartender: Who's Afraid of the Big Bad Egg?

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To try Derek's recipe for a frothy Pisco Sour, click here.

In today's world of shock media, health advice comes and goes like texting teenagers on a Tokyo street. It's nearly impossible to stare at a raw egg without facing fear and fatuity, despite the Salmonella scare coming from peanut butter, potato chips, and many other sources. This has lead to perhaps an "unhealthy" aversion to the ivory orb. In some frightened minds, that thin shell is the last bastion between health and festering bacteria.

The scare has reached such frenzy that "cocktail cops" from the New York City health department busted New York cocktail hotspot the Pegu Club for using raw eggs in a fizz earlier this year. This was "[despite] warnings printed on the menu, and raw egg white listed in the ingredients," according to Reason. Apparently the bartender neglected to issue a verbal warning.

Is this a new form of Prohibition: busting mustachioed bartenders for flips, nogs, and sours? Probably not, and maybe Salmonella in eggs poses enough of a threat to children, the elderly, and those with weakened immune systems that an initial warning is eminently reasonable. Otherwise, if you're somewhat healthy and willing to drive a car, fly, or smoke, then you're not really taking a tremendous leap by consuming raw eggs that have been properly handled, meaning kept fresh and refrigerated.

There is a smidgen of good news for those who consume more than a few drinks, as research shows that consuming alcohol may reduce the effects of food poisoning, including Salmonella. The idea that citrus reduces the risk of Salmonella by "cooking" the eggs, however, which I have heard on occasion, is bunk, since citrus doesn't actually cook anything (although it does change the properties of the egg, as with fish in ceviche).

So what then are the positive effects of using raw egg whites, and why bother if there is any risk at all? Harold McGee writes in On Food and Cooking, "Thanks to egg whites we're able to harvest the air." The cloud-like puff of a Pisco Sour or Silver Gin Fizz, with the help of egg whites, has a beautiful texture and lifts the aromatic properties of the drink while lightening the impending booze. It is ethereal and pleasant, the meringue of the cocktail world.

The main thing to keep in mind when using eggs is the freshness of the eggs and some details of technique. Buying fresh eggs means not just that they have been obtained before the expiration date but that they have been bought as soon as possible after harvesting from the source. Farmers' markets are a great place to obtain fresh eggs because you can ask vendors exactly how old their eggs are.

If you're worried that your egg may be too old, two tests can help. First, if it floats in water, it's old—really old. Discard immediately. Secondly, a fresh egg's white should maintain some viscosity. Over time, the white becomes clear, watery, and runny. If it is cloudy and thick, then it's fresh.

To get the best results out of your egg whites, shake the egg whites before adding additional ingredients, including ice. This is known as a dry shake. Sugar and liquid will interfere to some degree with foaming. I've also learned a trick from bartender Todd Thrasher whereby you remove the coil from a Hawthorne shaker and add it to the eggs. The coil acts as a kind of whisk. Todd should know, as his Pisco Sour remains the benchmark for Pisco Sours.

Lastly, using too much egg white can make your drink overly frothy and add a sulfur aroma. Most recipes call for a small egg white, which is two thirds of the usual large egg white. Carefully discard the additional white.

Don't fear the egg; its power to transform texture is worth the minute chance you'll be heaving before night's end. Below is a recipe for the Pisco Sour, one of the finest examples of the egg's handiwork.

Recipe: Pisco Sour

Presented by

Derek Brown is a writer, illustrator, bartender, and co-owner of acclaimed bars The Passenger and Columbia Room in Washington, D.C. He sits on the board of directors for the Museum of the American Cocktail. More

Derek Brown is a writer, illustrator, bartender, and co-owner of acclaimed bars The Passenger and Columbia Room in Washington, D.C. He travels throughout the country and around the world in search of great drinks, and the stories behind them. Derek's methodical approach to cocktails was profiled in the Wall Street Journal's "A Master of Mixological Science" and his martini lauded as the best in America by GQ. He's been in numerous media outlets featuring his approach to better drinking, including CNN, The Rachel Maddow Show and FOX. Derek is a founding member of the D.C. Craft Bartender's Guild and on the board of directors for the Museum of the American Cocktail.

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