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How safe should you be with eggs today?

How safe should you be with eggs today? One of nature's most effectively packaged foods, the egg, has taken a lot of hard cracks oflate. It has been pinpointed as the source of outbreaks of salmonella poisoning and has been the subject of much discussion in the press.

What is salmonella? How does it get into foods? Must we avoid eggs to avoid it? Are there ways to safeguard foods?

In a months-long research project, both in our kitchens and in an independent research laboratory, we have cracked and cooked a lot of eggs to come up with some answers to the big question: can you still use eggs raw or lightly cooked in your favorite dishes?

What is salmonella?

Very common and widely present, salmonella bacteria (of which there are numerous strains) can cause food poisoning and gastrointestinal distress. Under certain conditions--including a combination of time and temperature--salmonella can thrive in many foods, most typically those that contain protein--not only eggs but also others such as fish, meat, and poultry. The bacteria can also multiply on less obvious foods like fruits and vegetables if they come in contact with the bacteria and are held under conditions that are sufficiently warm and moist.

Cooking to sufficient heat levels destroys salmonella. Acid is another way to control salmonella; see details on page 88.

If salmonella-free solid meat, like beef steak or chicken breast, comes in contact with the bacteria, only the surface will be contaminated. When cooked enough to be browned and flavorful, these foods will be much hotter on the surface than needed to kill salmonella.

Until the last few years, home cooks had little cause to worry about the safety of well-handled eggs. But serious outbreaks of salmonella illness in the Eastern states were traced to eggs. (So far, no comparable incidents have occurred in the West.)

How does salmonella get into eggs?

How do you deal with it?

How eggs become contaminated is at the center of the widespread alarm. Some salmonella found in eggs got there before the shell formed; the current concern is that this appears to be happening more often in some areas of the country.

Yolks are most susceptible to salmonella growth. According to current research, egg whites have antural defenses against salmonella; they're designed to protect the nutrient-rich yolk in which bacteria, given opportunity, can thrive. Even though egg whites are less vulnerable, however, contamination is still a possibility.

Avian (poultry and egg) scientists are divided about how to deal with eggs. Some recommend that eggs be totally cooked or that pasteurized eggs (not readily available to consumers) be used. Others feel that properly handled eggs can be enjoyed in recipes even without cooking.

Bear in mind that raw and lightly cooked eggs have never been advised for certain people: young children; the aged; and individuals taking medications that alter the immune system, such as treatments for cancer.

Unfortunately, unless your kitchen is equipped with laboratory tools (rare in homes) needed to spot salmonella, you can't tell if it is present.

The basic rule of food safety:

proceed as if a problem exists

The following procedures--recommended by food scientists, lab-tested for Sunset, and double-checked in our kitchens--will give trouble-free results. The tools and techniques are simple: they have to do with cleanliness, temperature, time, and acidicity. We have used the procedures with raw and lightly cooked eggs. You can also use them with your own recipes.

First, choose and handle eggs with care. Be sure the eggs you buy are fresh (most cartons are date) and have always been refrigerated below at least 50 [degrees] (this is difficult to confirm). Then keep the eggs in the refrigerator until you use them. Salmonella grow and quickly reach danger levels within hours when the temperature is 60 [degrees] or warmer.

If you use eggs raw or lightly cooked, observe these precautions.

1. Use only eggs that have been refrigerated at all times. Do not let eggs stand at room temperature more than a total of 2 hours at any time before consuming (some authorities feel this is overcautious and are comfortable with a total of 4 hours).

2. Serve any foods with lightly cooked eggs immediately, or chill at once to serve cold. Do not let these chilled foods stand at room temperature long enough to warm up.

3. Wash hands with soap and water. Do this before handling foods and between foods that can cross-contaminate, like raw chicken or fish, then an egg.

4. Keep work areas clean. Wash with hot soapy water, then rinse when you change foods, like meats to salad greens--or eggs. To avoid cross-contamination, keep tools and equipment clean.

5. If using whipped raw egg whites, be sure to keep foods containing them chilled at all times. These include fluffy desserts like mousses, souffles, and bavarians. (When we tried making meringues with hot sugar syrups instead of sugar, they did not reach salmonella-killing temperature without becoming too sweet.)

Two salmonella killers: heat and acid

To enjoy eggs soft or lightly cooked, gentle heat is important. Two heat-killing methods work: either cook food to 140 [degrees] and hold at that temperature for 3 1/2 minutes, or cook to 160 [degrees] (no holding time required).

For some mixtures, like mayonnaise or dressing for a Caesar salad, that rely on raw egg to form an emulsion or give the dressing a clinging quality, we have found that egg white works as effectively as whole egg. When using raw egg whites, a few steps taken to lower their acid level to 3.5 will ensure they're safe to consume.

To be sure foods are hot enough or acidic enough to kill salmonella, you need some simple measuring tools.

Temperature. An accurate quick-read thermometer is indispensable for determining the internal temperature (in the center) of cooked foods. Occasonally verify the thermometer's accuracy by dipping in boiling water (212 [degrees] at sea level, 208.4 [degrees] at 2,000 feet, 203 [degrees] at 5,000 feet). To avoid any possible contamination, dip the thermometer in boiling water before using it to test eggs. Also, the thermometer's ability to register rapidly (important with quick-cooking eggs) is enhanced if you dip it first in hot water.

Acid. To measure acidity, buy pH indicator strips at a scientific supply store. A package of 100 usually costs less than $10. Choose strips that indicate pH between 3 and 6 (the lower the number, the greater the acidity).

To use, moisten a strip with the food, then check the color the paper turns against color guides on the package. When pH measures 3.5 or lower, the food's acid level is adequate, under refrigeration, to stop growth of salmonella and then kill it within 48 hours.

Soft-cooked Eggs

Once you've seen how eggs look at a salmonella-safe temperature, you can judge the internal temperature fairly accurately by eye. Serve softly cooked at once; otherwise, yolks continue to firm.

Poached. Put large eggs (at refrigerator temperature) into individual poaching cups. Cook, covered, over simmering water until 140 [degrees] in the center of the yolks, then hold at that temperature (over water but off heat) for 3 1/2 minutes. Yolks will still be semiliquid in center. Eggs cooked just to 160 [degrees] at the center are still moist but not liquid.

In the shell. Put up to 6 large eggs (at refrigerator temperature) in a 2- to 3-quart pan; add cold water to cover them by about 1 inch. Bring water to 200 [degrees] over high heat; remove from heat and let stand 1 minute. Remove 1 egg and plunge a thermometer into center of yolk; the temperature should be 140 [degrees] (if not, check after 1 more minute). Once yolks are 1400 [degrees] in center, let remaining eggs stand in water for 3 1/2 minutes longer; yolks will be semiliquid.

To bring eggs to 160 [degrees] in the center, leave them in water 7 minutes after removing from heat.

Once you've achieved the results you want, you can duplicate them with the same amount of water and 1 to 6 eggs, and skip the thermometer.

Fried. Break refrigerated eggs into frying pan and cook over low to medium heat, turning once; when yolks begin to firm all around but are still semiliquid in center, the temperature will be 140 [degrees] (as shown for poached egg, page 86); keep warm in pan on lowest heat for 3 1/2 minutes. Or continue to cook to doneness desired.

Omelets. Omelets (not the puffy kind) that are still shiny and moist-looking on the surface will be, when folded or rolled over, more than 160 [degrees] in the center.

Scrambled. Test with your thermometer to make sure they are cooked to 140 [degrees] and held at that temperature for 3 1/2 minutes; or cook to a firmer 160 [degrees].

Ice Cream

Ice cream is often made by beating together milk, sugar, and flavoring with uncooked eggs. A simple precaution that does not alter the quality of the finished product is to heat the milk and sugar to 200 [degrees], then whisk this mixture into a deep metal bowl with eggs (at least 1 cup milk and 1/4 cup sugar for each 3 refrigerator-temperature large eggs). Check temperature; if 160 [degrees], heat no further. If between 140 [degrees] and 160 [degrees], set bowl in a container of 150 [degrees] water and stir for 3 1/2 minutes. Chill mixture, add flavoring, and continue as your recipe directs.

Stirred and Baked Custards

By the time either of these mixtures is hot enough to thicken, it exceeds 160 [degrees] (see photograph on page 88). Serve hot or warm; or cover, chill, and serve cold.

Hollandaise and Bearnaise Sauces

You can make cooked or uncooked versions of either sauce salmonella-proof by heating butter to a specific temperature.

For 1 large egg or 3 large egg yolks (all refrigerator temperature) and 1 tablespoon lemon juice or vinegar (add more later, to taste), you need 1 cup (1/2 lb.) butter or margarine heated to 220 [degrees].

Either whisk hot butter in a rapid steady stream into eggs over hot water or very low heat, or pour into whirling eggs in a blender or food processor. If the temperature of the sauce is not at least 160 [degrees] when all the butter is added, set container in a bowl of 150 [degrees] water and stir or whisk for 3 1/2 minutes. Removed from heat, mix in seasonings, and serve.


Start with at least 4 large egg yolks plus 1/2 cup wine or fruit juice, and sugar to taste. By the time you have whisked the mixture over direct heat or simmering water until it it thick enough to mound slightly, it is usually at least 160 [degrees]. If not, continue to whisk in pan in a bowl of 150 [degrees] water for 3 1/2 minutes.

Soft Meringue for Pie

Sugar in whipped egg whites make meringues even less hospitable to salmonella but does not destroy it. To be salmonella-proof, the maringue must be baked on the pie longer and at a lower temperature than typical, so that heat penetrates. Chill meringue pies until served.

For an 8- to 9- inch pie, whip 4 large egg whites (t refrigerator temperature) with 1/4 teaspoon cream of tartar on high speed, until frothy; gradually beat in 1/4 cup sugar, whipping until whites hold soft peaks. Pour

Pour hot cooked pie filling (such as chocolate or lemon) into baked pie shell. At once swirl meringue over filling, sealing to pie shell. Bake in a 325 [degrees] oven until meringue is evenly browned and temperture in meringue center is 140 [degrees] or above, 25 to 30 minutes. Chill (warm filling also needs to firm) and serve cold.

Acidified Egg White

Mix 1 large egg white with 2 tablespoons lemon juice. Check pH; it should be 3.5. If not, add more lemon juice, 1 tablespoon at a time, checking with each addition until pH is 3.5. Cover airtight and refrigerate at least 48 hours or up to 4 days (on longer standing, the egg begins to solidify); use as directed, following.

Acidified Egg White Mayonnaise

Put 1 acidified egg white (directions precede) in a blender, food processor, or deep bowl of an electric mixer. Add 2 tablespoons water and 2 teaspoons Dijon mustard. Whirling or beating at high speed, add 1 cup salad oil or olive oil in a slow stream until mixture starts to thicken, then add faster, incorporating smoothly. Add more lemon juice and salt to taste. Serve or cover and chill up to 4 days. Makes about 1 1/4 cups.

Per tablespoon: 98 cal.; 02 g protein; 11 g fat; 0.2 g carbo.; 18 mg sodium; 0 mg chol.

Acidified Caesar Salad Dressing

In a blender, food processor, or deep bowl of an electric mixer, whirl or beat 2 acidified egg white (directions precede) with 2 tablespoons lemon juice, 1/4 cup olive oil or salad oil, 2 teaspoons Worcestershire, and 1/8 teaspoon freshly ground pepper. Finely chop 6 to 8 drained canned anchovy fillets and add to dressing. Makes about 3/4 cup. In

In a large salad bowl, put 8 to 9 cups rinsed and cripsed bite-size pieces romaine lettuce. Pour dressing over salad; as you mix, sprinkle greens with 2 to 4 tablespoons freshly grated parmesan cheese. Makes 7 or 8 servings.

Per serving: 80 cal.; 2.3 g protein; 7.2 g fat; 2.1 g carbo.; 137 mg sodium; 1.7 mg chol.
COPYRIGHT 1991 Sunset Publishing Corp.
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1991 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Title Annotation:includes related article on testing for egg safety; recipes
Date:Jun 1, 1991
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