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Don't Fear the Egg White

By Jason Wilson
Wednesday, October 31, 2007

I'll be honest: Sometimes I do not tell the whole truth. For instance, when I introduce friends to two of my favorite cocktails -- the Clover Club and the Pink Lady -- I refuse to let anyone watch me mix them. And when they demand to know what is in those drinks, I fail to mention one important ingredient. I omit only because I care. Raw egg whites make way too many people squeamish.

[See Recipe: Clover Club Cocktail]

Tell people that you're going to use egg whites in their cocktails and one of two things will spring into their minds: a) the image of Rocky Balboa slugging down eight raw eggs before his morning workout or b) salmonella.

All of the wonderful things that call for raw eggs -- real mayonnaise and hollandaise, Caesar salad prepared the right way, traditional mousse -- the dreaded food police have frightened us away from. And the use of raw eggs is just as delicate an issue for cocktail enthusiasts as it is for foodies.

In his 1941 classic, "Cocktail Guide and Ladies' Companion," Crosby Gaige places both the Clover Club and the Pink Lady among his 16 "Hall of Fame" cocktails -- next to the martini, the Manhattan, the Old Fashioned and the Sidecar. "Their composition in most households, restaurants, and grills is as friendly and familiar as the formula for a baby's bottle," he writes.

Sixty-six years later, cocktail historian and blogger Paul Clarke writes: "The Clover Club is little more than a footnote in cocktail history." Meanwhile, ordering the Pink Lady, once the Cosmopolitan of its day, is likely to bring a blank stare in most households, restaurants and grills.

"I can't remember the last time I stepped into a bar and saw a bartender separating eggs," says Jim Hewes, head bartender at the Willard Room at Washington's Willard InterContinental Hotel.

What a shame. For one, it means whole categories of classic cocktails with eggs -- namely fizzes, flips and pickups -- have virtually disappeared for contemporary imbibers. No Morning Glory Fizz. No Ale Flip. No Prairie Oyster. In fact, there may be only two widely made cocktails that still call for egg whites: the Pisco Sour and the Ramos Gin Fizz. (Yes, gentle but squeamish reader, if you are drinking a real Pisco Sour, it should contain egg whites.)

So why use eggs? Egg whites act as a great binding agent and create a wonderful froth on top. Using real egg whites is infinitely better than the packaged "sour mixes" available for similar purposes. Creative bartenders have actually begun to froth and infuse egg whites with fruit syrups and herbs to float atop inventive new concoctions.

But Hewes doesn't use eggs at his bar on a daily basis, either. "Our volume is so high, we can't fool around with egg whites," he says. "It opens up a whole can of worms."

Hewes does make delicious eggnog from scratch -- with fresh eggs -- during the holiday season. And every time he cracks open an egg, it's guaranteed to set off an amateur chemistry debate in the bar. "I always say, 'If you're using, 80-, 90-, 100-proof liquor, it's going to kill all the bugs,' " he says.

As a home bartender, you can enjoy traditional cocktails with egg whites year-round.

Of course, salmonella is no joking matter. But the reality is that since the salmonella scares of previous decades, the danger of encountering the bacteria has become infinitesimal. You're more likely -- about four times more likely -- to choke on a handful of bar nuts than you are to get salmonella poisoning, according to statistics from the National Safety Council. Beyond that, most cocktails that call for raw eggs also call for fresh lemon or lime juice -- and the citric acid, along with the alcohol, further neutralizes salmonella risk.

Still, it should be mentioned that the FDA does not recommend working with raw and/or undercooked eggs. If you do decide to use raw egg whites, I advise buying fresh organic eggs.

Still squeamish? No worries. You can substitute pasteurized egg whites or powdered egg whites in the recipes for the Clover Club and the Pink Lady. However, I find that fresh-cracked egg whites add something special to the consistency and taste.

It's also up to you whether you want to crack an egg into the shaker in front of guests at your next cocktail party. They'll never guess the secret ingredient; they'll be too busy sipping and enjoying.

Jason Wilson can be reached atfood@washpost.com.

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