Reader Arzu in Paris asks:
Could you explain how you can pasteurize your egg whites or can you buy them like that?
That’s an excellent question, Arzu, for indeed more and more people are having concerns about egg safety these days. Just this past summer there was a huge recall of salmonella-infected eggs here in the States, right at the time when some experts were saying that the industry had largely solved the problem. It was a beautiful and elegant illustration of the age-old hubris/nemesis principle. But the US may be the only country that has this problem, I don’t know.
Since World War II, when the profitability of large-scale egg farming was first proven, egg operations have gotten bigger and bigger. And we all know that dense populations are just the sort of environments that disease-causing bugs love, since they can jump from host to host with relative ease. As far as I know, the cause of this summer’s U.S. outbreak still hasn’t been positively identified, and that represents a major setback for the people tasked with keeping the egg supply safe.
Thus it makes sense to assume that any egg you buy from a mass-market source (like a grocery store) is tainted with salmonella. If you have a source for fresh farm eggs, your risk is greatly reduced. I buy quite a few eggs from a small producer here in Kentucky who regularly tests his stock for a variety of diseases. I believe him when he tells me he has no problem with infection at all, and feel good about making things like lightly done omelets with the eggs he sells me.
The trouble there is supply. I can’t always count on having access to those eggs when I want them, so most of the time I shop at the supermarket. Over the last decade or so, recognizing the desire among consumers for worry-free eggs, some producers have experimented with pasteurizing eggs. It’s not a difficult process per se. It involves heating the eggs to about 130 degrees — above the point where microbes can survive but below the point where the proteins begin to coagulate — and holding them there for about three hours. Easy. Except that it’s not terribly easy or cheap when you run an egg business that supplies eggs at the rate of millions per month. It means time and equipment, and both those things cost money, not an easy thing to come by when your profit margins are in the pennies per dozen. For that reason, retail pasteurized eggs are rare.
So what are we to do? Last month, a reader pointed out to me that I can use my expensive new sous vide cooker to pasteurize eggs, as it will maintain a temperature of 130 with no problem. That’s jolly for me. If I didn’t have it, I’m honestly not sure what I could try. Sitting over a low stove, taking a pan of eggs on and off the heat for three hours isn’t a very attractive proposition, that’s for sure. I suppose the best option failing a small, local source, is to make a few phone calls to markets in your area to see if anyone might be selling pasteurized eggs. That’s my best advice, though there may be a few people out there with better ideas. If so, let me know!
UPDATE: Reader Nicole adds:
Hi, Joe – pasteurized egg *whites* are actually pretty easy to come by. Most grocery stores (at least where I am) sell plain egg whites in cartons in the refrigerator section. I’ve read (although I haven’t tried it) that liquid pasteurized whites don’t whip up as well, but for some recipes, I suppose that wouldn’t matter. Pasteurized yolks or shell eggs, though, seem to be much harder to find.