Reader Mel writes in with a great question: since meringue is made from egg foam that’s often only lighty baked — and sometimes not baked at all — are there any safety issues with it?
I’m glad you asked that, Mel, since Salmonella Enteritidis-infected eggs have been in the news here in the States in recent years, and indeed Salmonella is a growing problem around the world. Still it’s important to remember that Salmonella is but one of many pathogenic organisms that can invade eggs in or out of the shell. To help limit the risk of getting sick as a result of them, most food authorities recommend heating anything with eggs in it to at least 160 degrees Fahrenheit (three minutes at 140 is also effective, as is 45 minutes at 130).
That’s not terribly much, though chances are good that the center regions of some of your meringue pies won’t get up to 160. Italian meringue may or may not get that hot as it’s mixed.
Still, I myself don’t worry inordinately about meringue safety. If we’re talking Salmonella, the odds are with me. It’s estimated that about one in twenty thousand eggs is contaminated with Salmonella in the US at any give time. Which means that the average American will encounter a Salmonella-tainted egg once every 84 years. Salmonella also occurs in the yolk of the egg, not the white, which is a not-very-hospitable place for bacteria to grow.
Then there’s the sugar. Large amounts of it make life extremely difficult for bacteria as it robs them of the water they need to thrive. Granted you’d need a meringue that’s about 80% sugar to bring any and all microbial growth to a complete stop. Those recipes are out there, mind you, however even not-so-sweet American pie meringue is about 50% sugar…which is enough to slow microbial grow down considerably.
Add it all up and I don’t worry too much about meringue, though you can never be 100% certain that it doesn’t contain something that could potentially make you ill. But then there’s a lot of stuff floating around in my kitchen and refrigerator that could potentially infect the food I prepare and/or store there. My personal philosophy is to take reasonable precautions, implement as many safe food handling practices as I can and hope for the best.
It goes without saying that more than a few food safety authorities would take issue with my approach because in their view you can never be too careful when it comes to your health. That’s entirely fair, so don’t take this post as encouragement to eat unpasteurized raw eggs, especially if you’re immune compromised in any way. On which note I should say that pasteurized eggs are out there and gaining popularity. They don’t whip up quite as well as unpasteurized eggs since even low heat can cause some of the proteins in them to curdle. Still they offer a measure of protection against foodborne illness that many find reassuring.