You know the moment right after you get a batch of cookies in the oven where 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 have certainly never experienced it.
As soon as I have made the last cookie of reasonable size, my grubby little paws go straight for the dough that sticks to the side of the bowl. Does a raw cookie look like its pan-fellows? Problem solved! It’s already in my stomach. Cookie dough, pancake dough, pie base, brownie dough, bread dough, vanilla cream – you name it, I have eaten it raw.
The CDC estimates that one in six Americans gets a foodborne illness each year. And you know what? I’m probably two or three of them. I can not remember a time in my life before I licked the whisks clean. Tempting a stomach ache for the sweet, rough gratification of a licked whisk has always been a game of roulette that I am willing to play. And after spending nearly two years mapping the consequences of every risk I take, the carefree moment when dough meets the tongue feels more valuable than ever.
Many people agree with me. In a consumer survey published earlier this year, two-thirds of those who bake with flour admitted that they eat raw cake batter. Betty Feng, the food researcher at Purdue University who led the study, told me that her colleagues in other countries are sometimes surprised to hear about this habit. “It’s nothing worldwide,” she said.
For those with strong American values, who know the incomparable goodness of a spatula coated in cake batter or a spoonful of raw brownie, three elements are likely at stake: taste, texture, and psychology. Dough and batter tend to be sweeter than their baked counterparts, said Jaime Schick, a cake and dessert expert at Johnson & Wales University. During baking, the sugar crystals dissolve in the eggs, butter and the oil that surrounds them, and some are caramelized. It gives a less sweet but more complex taste when something finally comes out of the oven.
Undissolved sugar also adds a grit to raw dough that is difficult to copy in other foods, Schick explained. If you do not have a bowl of brownie dough on hand, just try to imagine when you last snuck a spoonful: It is mostly smooth, but stained with delicious, sandy grains that may even crunch between your teeth. Right there is textural nirvana. “Contrast is really, really gratifying,” Schick said. You can find similar perfection on a larger scale in raw chocolate-chip cookie dough, which with closed eyes in a good way feels like pebbles mixed in Play-Doh. Once the cookies are baked, the chips melt and you lose the crisp pleasure. And even without the contrast, the texture of dough and dough is exquisitely diverse: a spectrum that ranges from semi-liquid (brownie) to semi-solid (shortbread). Its middle ground is “something you won’t find in baked goods or in other products,” Schick said; the closest comparison she could think of was chocolate lava cake (probably just a cake filled with cake batter) or the liquid center of a chocolate truffle.
This taste and texture profile makes raw dough a delicacy. But the context in which people eat it sets it apart from other indulgent foods, says Lisa Duizer, president of food science at the University of Guelph in Canada. If you’ve made a recipe from scratch, scraping the dish is “the reward at the end of the job,” she told me. Nostalgia could also make the exercise harder to resist for people who have fond memories of parents or loved ones who passed them by as a child. Also, Duizer said, it feels rebellious. “Our brain tells us we should not do that. But there is the little devil on our shoulder who says, ‘ Oh, do it anyway. It’s not going to hurt you.”
The little devil is, as usual, not quite right. Eggs and flour can carry E. coli and salmonella. “Most people will get diarrhea and get over it,” if they encounter these pathogens, said Cynthia Sears, an expert in foodborne illness at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine. However, if you are very young, very old, pregnant, immunocompromised or living with diabetes, the insects pose a real risk. Even otherwise healthy people, Sears said, can occasionally develop complications in addition to stomach discomfort, including reactive arthritis. Salmonella in particular can get stuck in your gut for a long time. And if you work in an environment such as a daycare or a hospital, you may need to prove that you have removed the infection before returning to work.
Felicia Wu, a food safety professor at Michigan State University, told me that when it comes to raw dough, she worries about a strain of E. coli, O157: H7, which in rare cases can lead to kidney disease and death. In general, she would discourage people from such eating habits. Still, she sees it as a personal decision: “Each of us knows how much benefit or pleasure we get from eating raw cookie dough,” she said. Oh, we know that well.
For me, a hit of raw cookie dough might make me almost as happy as, for example, going to a concert. But if I go to a concert these days, I will increase the risk to myself, the other fans and everyone I interact with after. When I scrape the side of a bowl and let the resulting blob melt in my mouth, it’s easier to feel in control, just as the risks I take are mine alone. The rules don’t change either: Today’s raw chocolate chip cookie dough is probably no more or less dangerous than the peanut butter variant I mix together next Tuesday. I do not have to plan on eating cookie dough in June, and then spend six months worrying about whether or not I will actually be able to eat it when the time comes. It is instantaneous, a fleeting joy; there is no time to worry about what that means. A blink, a swallow, and it’s over.
At this point, I’m starting to wonder if I have any limits when it comes to raw eggs and flour. Imagine this: It’s November and I’ve decided to make an Earl Gray vanilla cream for Friendsgiving. To make the filling, I soaked the tea in milk and cream and then mixed it with sugar, vanilla, cornstarch and eggs. It’s completely ugly, I think. Basically egg-and-bergamot soup. And then I take a sip. I have a reputation to cherish.