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Dried Egg Pasta: Hidden Danger or Perfectly Safe?

By Brian Geiger, contributor

September 3rd, 2009

Kitchen Mysteries is a weekly exploration of oddities surrounding cooking and food. They could be recipes that fail when they shouldn't, conflicting advice from different sources, or just plain weirdness. If it happens in a kitchen, and you're not sure why, send a tweet to The Food Geek to find out what's happening.

Meg Maker asks via Twitter:

Hi, Meg,

Not a dumb question at all. The simple answer is that the pasta is safe because it is dry. When we think of egg danger, we think of salmonella. Salmonella is a bacteria, and like all living organisms, they need three things to thrive: food, water, and shelter.

It's usually the "shelter" aspect that we think of when we're fighting bacteria in the kitchen nowadays. Ever since we had the ability to refrigerate and freeze food throughout the year and at will, that's been our go-to method for controlling the possibilities of food contamination. After all, we put it in a box, and suddenly the bacteria drops below 40°F, the lower end of the "bacterial danger zone" that allows bacteria freedom to replicate as quickly as they want.

At the upper end of the temperature scale, we've been cooking our food for just about forever now, but aside from that, Louis Pasteur's process of heating food to kill off the bacteria has shaped our world-view on how we like to preserve food: kill all the bacteria, then refrigerate the rest to slow any additional bacteria. In other words, make the environment as hostile to the bacteria as possible, or remove their shelter.

Still, this is not the only way to combat bacteria, and aside from cooking food in general, those techniques are relatively new as far as food preservation goes.

You can't really remove food from the bacteria's diet, as they generally eat what we eat, or at least some of what we eat. So the only thing that's left is taking away bacteria's water, and that's what most of food preservation has been throughout our history.

In the case of meats, including fish, people would remove the bacteria's ability to thrive by salting the meat. With a high enough concentration of salt, bacteria can't absorb the water in the food. Instead, the water is drawn out of their system, because the cellular structure of the bacteria (and most everything else) tries to maintain a balance of water to salt ratios on each side of the cell walls. If one side becomes out of balance, water travels through to the other side until equilibrium is reached, or until someone runs out of water. In these cases, the bacteria will run out of water pretty quickly.

For some fruits, meats, and our egg pasta, another option is to just dry the food. Remove the water from the food, and the bacteria has nothing to drink. It's not as sexy as salting the food, but it is remarkably effective in its simplicity. And that, the long way around, is why it's okay to dry and store egg pasta.

posted in: Blogs, food geek, pasta, egg, salt, refrigeration, preservation, pasteurization, louis pasteur, bacteria, drying
Comments (4)

TheFoodGeek writes: Hi, Amyjean2222,

It's interesting to hear that salmonella can survive so long. I suppose having all the nooks to hang out in and the relatively warm temperature of the pasta helps out.

Still, that doesn't make the dried egg pasta particularly dangerous. Having a little of a bacteria isn't a big deal, especially as you mentioned that they'd be killed when they're cooked. The problem would come in if they had a chance to multiply.

The older view of bacteria is that they work as individuals, growing and causing whatever problems they might cause on their own. If they get into large groups, the effect, it was thought, would become noticeable.

Recent research indicates that some, if not all, bacteria communicate with each other, waiting until they reach certain group size before activating and doing whatever damage they're going to do. I don't know if salmonella works this way particularly, but I do know that a little salmonella that goes dormant and gets killed isn't going to be a big problem.

A big problem would be if you were to keep the pasta warm and moist for a while, then let it dry. So if you left it on the counter covered in plastic wrap for several hours before letting it dry. In that case, if the bacteria were allowed to multiply before going dormant, even cooking the bacteria might not be enough to prevent the problems that they could have left behind.

However, if you have access to pasteurized eggs, that's a great way to go, especially if you will be feeding the pasta to someone very young, very old, or with otherwise compromised immune system.

The larger concern is about cross-contamination. You know to wash your hands after handling raw chicken, but you might not think to do so after handling dried pasta. So if you make your own egg pasta and don't use pasteurized eggs, it would be a good idea to treat it as you would raw chicken: clean any surfaces the raw product touches, especially counters, cutting boards, and hands. Posted: 10:46 pm on October 8th

amyjean2222 writes: I had the same question myself, and a few google book results showed evidence that salmonella in fact can survive a year in dried pasta, though any bacteria will be killed during the cooking process. Commercial pasta manufacturers eliminate the risk by using pasteurized eggs or by using heat during the drying process. Posted: 2:13 pm on October 6th

LisaWaddle writes: Thanks for asking this question, Megmaker! I've wondered this myself.
Posted: 4:48 pm on September 9th

megmaker writes: Thanks so much, Brian! I now understand clearly why egg pasta won't spoil, and why it's a safe way to store it long-term. Cheers! Posted: 9:00 am on September 3rd

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