A method for rapid detection of foreign protein contamination in complex food matrices is critically needed. Here we present a novel method that combines immunomagnetic separation (IMS) and surface-enhanced Raman scattering (SERS) to detect ovalbumin (OVA), an egg white protein, added into whole milk. IMS was used to specifically capture the OVA out of the milk. Then SERS was applied to analyze the IMS eluate using silver dendrites as the substrate. Two SERS sample preparation methods, namely solution based and substrate based, were used to prepare the IMS eluate for SERS analysis. Results show both methods were able to detect 1 µg OVA in 1 ml milk (1 part per million). Based on the results of principal component analysis and partial least-squares analysis, solution SERS was more capable of quantitative analysis, while substrate SERS was more sensitive for qualitative analysis. The total analytical time for IMS–SERS was less than 20 min, which satisfied the requirement of rapid detection in a milk processing facility. Copyright © 2011 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.