Bartender Basics: What Really Happens to Raw Eggs in Cocktails?

Animation of an egg white being dropped into a cocktail and shaken
Animation by Eric DeFreitas

Despite being a common inclusion in drinks dating back to at least the Middle Ages, cocktails that involve raw eggs can evoke fascination or revulsion in modern drinkers. Salmonella scares in the 1980s and ’90s caused much of the globe to reevaluate their relationship with eggs—particularly raw eggs.

However, as regulations relating to hygiene and poultry vaccination efforts helped to ease risk of the bacteria in the last 20 years, bartenders began to again incorporate eggs into cocktails, bringing back popular egg classics like the Ramos Gin Fizz, Pink Lady, Pisco Sour and the New York Flip.

To pacify those uneasy at seeing a raw egg dropped into their drinks, many bartenders became accustomed to throwing out lines of dubious accuracy to ease the fears of customers.

“Don’t worry, the alcohol ‘cooks’ the egg in the shaker.”

“The ice in the shaker freezes and kills bacteria.”

“The acid in the lemon and lime juice will kill any salmonella.”

“Dry-shaking it basically pasteurizes the eggs.”

So, what actually happens when you add raw egg to cocktails? And should you feel comfortable drinking them?

Are raw eggs in cocktails safe?

Eggs contain many dense proteins. When you shake an egg white in a cocktail, proteins realign and stretch out to create new links, capturing air bubbles in the process. This changes its color from clear to white and causes it to expand in volume. It’s like the protein realignment that happens when you cook an egg, minus the heat.

This is why saying “the alcohol ‘cooks’ the egg” is misleading. Shaking an egg in alcohol and citrus may accomplish a similar molecular result as cracking one into a warm frying pan, but the temperature doesn’t rise to levels that would kill harmful bacteria if present. Similarly, while citric acid and alcohol could theoretically kill bacteria, in cocktails they’re usually not present in strong enough concentrations to accomplish the task without unrealistically prolonged exposure.

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The truth is, it’s never going to be 100% safe to consume raw eggs. However, if you order a cocktail at a reasonably clean bar that follows good hygiene and uses pasteurized or fresh washed eggs, there isn’t any more risk than ordering eggs Benedict at a restaurant, and is statistically much less likely to kill you than crossing a busy street to get to a bar. (That said, maybe skip ordering a Clover Club at your beer-and-shot dive with the Velcro-stick floors.)

Your primary safeguard in egg cocktails isn’t anything the bartender does when mixing your drink, but rather good hygiene before you arrive, along with the FDA’s stringent guidelines on the immunization of chickens and handling of poultry products.

Reasons to use eggs in cocktails

Eggs are primarily used in cocktails for mouthfeel and texture, rather than taste. Egg whites create a creamier texture and thick layer of foam on top of your drink.

Shaking eggs in cocktails is akin to making a meringue. In fact, the ingredients in most meringues—egg whites, sugar and sometimes a touch of acid like lemon or lime—also happen to be those used in many cocktails.

The difference, of course, is cocktails have more liquid, which creates foam with less structure than what you’d see topping a lemon meringue pie.

It’s also one reason you may see bartenders performing what’s called a “dry shake.” This involves shaking all the ingredients without ice, to create a foam without the dilution of ice, and then chilling the drink with ice before straining.

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Bartenders have come up with a variety of techniques over the years to accomplish this delicate balancing act of foam-vs-ice, and all remain hotly debated. Some employ the “reverse dry shake,” in which egged ingredients are shaken with ice first then given an iceless dry shake after. Some dry shake but then swirl or stir the drink gently with ice, rather than shaking it a second time, to avoid overly diluting the foam with water. Some even use handheld immersion blenders to power-froth a mixture.

Whichever technique is employed, eggs can add a fun, interesting dimension to an otherwise basic cocktail like a whiskey sour or gin fizz, and provide a touch of showmanship when mixing drinks at home for guests.

Just take it easy on how many you consume in a single evening. Salmonella in eggs may be comparatively rare these days, but indigestion is very real.

Published on September 4, 2020
Topics: Bartending Basics