A Very Radical, Very Delicious Take on Risk Management
When times are dark, I lick the bowl.By Rachel Gutman
DECEMBER 29, 2021SHARE
You know that moment, just after you get a batch of cookies in the oven, when you take off your apron, place the mixing bowl neatly in the sink, fill it with water, and wash your hands to celebrate a job well done? Well, congratulations if you do. I’ve certainly never experienced it.
As soon as I’ve formed the last reasonably sized cookie, my grubby little paws go straight for the dough that’s sticking to the side of the bowl. Does one raw cookie look runty compared with its pan-fellows? Problem solved! It’s already in my belly. Cookie dough, pancake batter, pie crust, brownie batter, bread dough, custard—you name it, I’ve eaten it raw.
The CDC estimates that one in six Americans gets a foodborne disease every year. And you know what? I’m probably two or three of them. I can’t remember a time in my life before I licked the beaters clean. Tempting a stomachache for the sweet, gritty satisfaction of a licked beater has always been a game of roulette that I’m willing to play. And after spending nearly two years mapping out the consequences of every risk I take, that carefree moment when batter meets tongue feels more precious than ever.
Plenty of people agree with me. In one consumer survey published earlier this year, two-thirds of those who bake with flour admitted to eating raw cookie dough. Betty Feng, the food scientist at Purdue University who led the survey, told me that her colleagues in other countries are sometimes surprised to hear about this habit. “It’s not something worldwide,” she said.
For those with strong American values, who do know the incomparable goodness of a spatula coated in cake batter or a spoonful of raw brownie, three elements are likely at play: taste, texture, and psychology. Batters and doughs tend to be sweeter than their baked counterparts, Jaime Schick, a pastry and dessert expert at Johnson & Wales University, told me. During baking, the sugar crystals dissolve into the eggs, butter, and oil that surround them, and some caramelize. That makes for a less sweet but more complex flavor when something finally comes out of the oven.
Undissolved sugars also add a grittiness to raw batter that’s hard to replicate in other foods, Schick explained. If you don’t have a bowl of brownie batter on hand, just try to imagine the last time you snuck a spoonful: It’s mostly smooth, but speckled with delicious, sandy grains that might even crunch between your teeth. That right there is textural nirvana. “Contrast is really, really pleasing,” Schick said. You can find similar perfection on a larger scale in raw chocolate-chip-cookie dough, which, with your eyes closed, sort of feels like pebbles mixed into Play-Doh, in a good way. Once the cookies are baked, the chips melt, and you lose that sharp pleasure. And even without the contrast, the texture of batter and dough is exquisitely diverse: a spectrum ranging from semiliquid (brownie) to semisolid (shortbread). Its in-betweenness is “something that you don’t find in baked products or in other products,” Schick said; the nearest comparison she could think of was chocolate lava cake (arguably just a cake filled with cake batter), or the liquid center in a chocolate truffle.
This taste-and-texture profile makes raw batter a treat. But the context in which people eat it distinguishes it from other indulgent foods, says Lisa Duizer, the chair of food science at the University of Guelph, in Canada. If you’ve made a recipe from scratch, scraping the bowl is “the reward at the end of the job,” she told me. Nostalgia, too, could make the practice harder to resist for people who have fond memories of parents or loved ones passing them the beaters as a kid. Also, Duizer said, it feels rebellious. “Our brain tells us that we shouldn’t be doing it. But there’s that little devil on our shoulder that says, Oh, do it anyway. It’s not going to hurt you.”
The little devil is, as usual, not entirely correct. Eggs and flour can carry E. coli and salmonella. “Most people are going to get diarrhea and get over it” if they do encounter these pathogens, Cynthia Sears, an expert in foodborne illnesses at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, told me. But if you’re very young, very old, pregnant, immunocompromised, or living with diabetes, the bugs pose a real risk. Even otherwise healthy people, Sears said, can occasionally develop complications beyond stomach discomfort, including reactive arthritis. Salmonella, in particular, can stick around in your gut for a long time. And if you work in a setting such as a day care or hospital, you might have to prove that you’ve cleared the infection before going back to work.
Felicia Wu, a food-safety professor at Michigan State University, told me that when it comes to raw batters, she worries about a strain of E. coli, O157:H7, which can in rare cases lead to kidney disease and death. In general, she would advise people against such eating habits. Still, she sees it as a personal decision: “Each one of us knows how much benefit or pleasure we get from eating raw cookie dough,” she said. Oh, we know alright.
For me, a hit of raw cookie dough might make me almost as happy as, say, going to a concert. But if I go to a concert these days, I’ll be ratcheting up the risk for myself, the other fans, and everyone I interact with after. When I scrape the side of a bowl and let the resulting dollop melt in my mouth, it’s easier to feel in control, like the risks I take are mine alone. The rules don’t change, either: Today’s raw chocolate-chip cookie dough isn’t likely to be any more or less dangerous than the peanut-butter variant I mix up next Tuesday. I don’t need to plan to eat cookie dough in June, then spend six months fretting over whether or not I will actually be able to eat it when the time comes. It’s instantaneous, a fleeting joy; there’s no time to agonize over what it means. A blink, a swallow, and it’s over.
At this point, I’m starting to wonder if I have any boundaries when it comes to raw eggs and flour. Picture this: It’s November, and I’ve decided to make an Earl Grey custard pie for Friendsgiving. To make the filling, I’ve steeped the tea in milk and heavy cream, then mixed that with sugar, vanilla, cornstarch, and eggs. That’s absolutely foul, I think. Basically egg-and-bergamot soup. And then I take a sip. After all, I have a reputation to uphold.Rachel Gutman is a senior associate editor at The Atlantic.