Egg Whites, Done Right
A bevy of readers’ questions have prompted this new Times Food Section column, Back to Basics, devoted to cooking techniques. It will appear weekly and explain the various topics through photographs and detailed instructions.
Some may be techniques experienced cooks have already mastered, but even those who know their way around the kitchen may discover a different or better way of doing familiar tasks. Most of the topics will be covered in a single week; however, more complicated subjects such as pie crust and bread baking may be continued for two or more columns.
Our first column covers the age-old subject of properly beaten egg whites. Often recipes instruct you to beat egg whites until either soft or stiff peaks form. Your goal is to trap the correct amount of air within the walls of the protein in the egg white, thus achieving maximum volume.
To beat egg whites successfully, use a glass, stainless steel, china or unlined copper bowl. Not recommended are aluminum, which will tinge the egg whites gray, and plastic, because it’s almost impossible to remove traces of fat which have accumulated from other uses and will keep the whites from reaching their full volume.
A deep, round-bottom bowl that is narrower at the base is the best shape. It must be large enough for the egg whites to expand six or seven times their original volume. The bowls and beaters must be absolutely clean and free of fat and moisture for the egg whites to whip properly.
Along the same lines, care needs to be taken when separating eggs because the whites won’t whip if even a speck of yolk is present. Also, the egg whites should be at room temperature (65 to 75 degrees) to assure that they will incorporate the most air possible.
Either an electric mixer or balloon whisk may be used to beat the egg whites. In “How Cooking Works” (Macmillan: 1981) authors Sylvia Rosenthal and Fran Shinagel write: “There has been continuing controversy over the relative merits of beating egg whites with a balloon whisk in an unlined copper bowl, where the acidity of the metal helps the whites to rise and keep their stability after they have risen, versus beating them in a stainless steel or glass bowl, where you need to add a pinch of cream of tartar to supply the acidity. Let’s lay the controversy to rest. We have yet to meet anybody (ourselves included) who could spot the difference in a properly made souffle regardless of how the egg whites were beaten. A hand beater or an electric one works just as well as a whisk, and certainly an electric appliance produces less wear and tear on the cook.”
Electric Mixer Method:
It takes only a few seconds of beating egg whites at low speed to reach the foamy stage (Photo 1), where they lose the yellowish translucence, appear bubbly, but are still very fluid. This is the point where cream of tartar may be added to stabilize the whites, if desired or called for in recipes. Use one-quarter teaspoon cream of tartar for each four egg whites. A dash of salt may also be added. Keep in mind though, if either cream of tartar or salt are added too early, they will delay the foaming action.
Increase the mixer speed, continue beating and before long egg whites reach the soft peak stage (Photo 2), where peaks form when you lift the beaters but then fold over. At this point the egg whites are moist and shiny. If preparing meringue, this is the stage when you begin to add sugar; when making a souffle, this is the time to fold in the beaten egg yolks.
Continue beating and whites will stand upright in peaks when the beaters are removed (Photo 3). They should have a shiny, glossy surface and be stiff, but not dry. Egg whites beaten to this stage are used for chiffon cakes and hard meringues.
If egg whites are overbeaten (Photo 4), they become dry, appear curdled, don’t combine well with other ingredients and can’t perform their leavening function when heated. Remedy the problem by adding another egg white and beating again to the correct stage.
Before each use, a copper bowl needs to be cleaned with salt, just moistened with vinegar. Scrub the bowl thoroughly with this mixture, using a sponge or soft cloth. Rinse with hot water and dry thoroughly.
When the bowl cools to room temperature, add the egg whites and begin beating with a balloon whisk in a slow circular motion. Bring the whisk down on the far side of the bowl and up toward you. Some sources also recommend giving the bowl a quarter turn each time.
As whites begin to whip, increase speed and beat in a figure-eight motion, down the middle of the bowl, under and up one side, then down and away toward the opposite side. Continue beating until either soft or stiff peaks form.
Requests for cooking techniques that you would like explained may be sent to Back to Basics, Food Section, The Times, Times Mirror Square, Los Angeles 90053.