You’ve surely heard the kitchen lore about making a souffle: Don’t let one molecule of yolk get in your whites, don’t open the oven door, now don’t close the oven door, and for god’s sake, take off your Dansko clogs … or you’ll make the souffle fall.
The reality of a souffle, however, is more robust. While light, sophisticated and worthy of folklore, souffles are easy and forgiving – provided you whip your egg whites correctly, so let’s start with that.
Learn to whip egg whites to not-quite-maximum loft. Egg whites contain a bunch of protein, which is the substance that will allow our soufflé to both rise and to set. The process starts by using the whisk or beaters to coax the tightly coiled protein strands so they relax and expand. I like to whip slowly at first, sort of the way you’d stretch to limber up your muscles before you go for a run (from what I’ve heard, anyway).
As you whip, you introduce air into the egg-white protein, which expands and forms little cells surrounding the air, creating a foam. The more you whip, the more the whites expand and capture air, and the creamier and firmer your foam becomes. The ideal point comes when the whites have expanded and incorporated almost to their max capacity, but they still have a bit of stretch left, so there’s room for the air cells to grow. To test, pull your whisk up from the whites to create a peak. The general shape of the peak should hold, and not slump back into the rest of the whites, but the tip should flop over, rather than stand sharp and stiff. You may see this traditionally referred to as “soft peaks,” but in French, they call it the “bec de perroquet,” or parrot’s beak, and I think it’s such a useful image, though slightly loony. Once your whites get to this point, they are ready.
Which is what happens when the foam/souffle goes into the oven. The heat causes the air in the bubbles to expand, hence the souffle rises. After a few minutes in the oven, the heat will also cause the proteins to set (coagulate) and firm up, after which the souffle won’t expand any more.
If your egg whites were overwhipped, they were already stretched to, or beyond, their maximum, and they’ve lost their elasticity. They won’t be able to expand in the oven, they’ll burst as the air cells inflate, the souffle will be vertically challenged, and we’re back to perpetuating the myth of the finicky souffle.
By the way, this principle of whipping your egg whites so they still have room to expand in the oven is valid no matter what you’re leavening: dessert souffles (as long as we’re talking about baked not chilled souffles, which get their height from gelatin and whipped cream), something like a souffled pancake, and many cakes, such as angel food.
Don’t fret about the yolks. Did I mention the part about not getting any yolks in your whites? The idea is that any amount of fat will inhibit the whites from whipping properly, and egg yolks are mostly fat. This is an admonishment I’ve heard for years and always heeded. But my cooking POV has been to avoid taking fussy steps unless they make a real difference, so I decided to see whether I’ve been needlessly stressing over a runaway drop of egg yolk.
Seems I have been. Here’s how I tested: I took eight eggs from five random egg cartons in the fridge (this kind of accumulation happens to food writers sometimes), combined them and then divided them into two identical groups. I whipped the no-yolk group in a stand mixer (after wiping down the bowl and whisk with white vinegar, an easy way to remove grease). After about four minutes, I had lovely whites with just the right amount of sexy slouch.
I repeated the process with the second group and one variable change – I added about 1/4 teaspoon egg yolk, the amount that could reasonably accidentally drip into your whites. And guess what? Sexy, slouchy, parrot-beaky whites! Identical!
The egg shells, however, are nonnegotiable. You do not want even tiny bits of shell in your souffle batter, so crack and separate your eggs one by one into two little bowls, and then transfer those to the main bowls. You’ll think this is a fussy step also, until one of your eggs breaks in the wrong way and a shard of shell slithers into your whites.
Keep the rest simple. For the rest of the process, you’re essentially making a cheese sauce that will produce a killer mac and cheese (no, not all mac and cheese comes from a box), and then stirring in the egg yolks for richness and custardy texture. Introduce this cheese sauce to the parrot’s beak egg whites, and your cheese souffle is underway.
It’s a blast to serve your souffle right from the oven, while it’s still high above the rim of the baking dish, slightly wobbly, and of course golden brown and smelling of toasted cheese. But all souffles fall once out of the oven, so don’t worry if you don’t make it to the table while still at full elevation. The flavor and texture is best once the souffle has cooled just a bit, anyway.
Tip: If you love the browned exterior of your souffle more than the tender, eggy interior, bake yours in a wider, flatter dish, like a deep gratin pan. The texture will still be fluffy and light, but you’ll have more surface area to brown; it will probably cook a bit quicker, too.
Quite Cheesy Sharp Cheddar Souffle
Active: 25 minutes | Total: 55 minutes
4 to 6 servings
You’ll need an 8-cup souffle dish or other tall-sided baking dish. Do not use a convection setting on your oven; the fan may prevent the souffle from rising properly.
Serve at a cool room temperature with a butter lettuce salad dressed with lemon juice, olive oil, and a few fresh tarragon leaves.
- 3 tablespoons unsalted butter, plus more for the souffle dish
- 3 tablespoons flour
- 1 1/2 cups whole milk
- 1 1/2 cups loosely packed, grated extra-sharp aged cheddar cheese
- 1/4 cup freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese
- 1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
- 1/8 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
- Pinch ground cayenne pepper
- Pinch freshly grated nutmeg
- 6 large eggs, separated into whites and yolks
Combine the 3 tablespoons of butter and the flour in a medium saucepan over medium-high heat, whisking to blend as the butter melts. Cook, whisking a lot, for about 1 minute, to cook off the raw flour flavor. Pull the pan off the heat and splash in about 1/4 cup of the milk. Whisk vigorously to form a smooth paste (a roux), then whisk in the remaining 1 1/4 cups milk. Don’t worry if your sauce is lumpy at this point.
Return the pan to medium-high heat; once the mixture is bubbling at edges, whisk frequently to make sure to get into the angles of the pan where the sauce can accumulate. Cook, also scraping down the sides of the pan a few times, until smooth and no taste of flour remains, for 8 to 10 minutes.
Reduce the heat to low, gradually add the cheddar and Parm, and whisk until they have completely melted. Season with the salt, black and cayenne peppers and the nutmeg. Taste, and add more of any or all of those seasonings, as needed; you want it to be quite highly seasoned, as you’ll be adding bland egg whites soon. Keep this cheese sauce warm.
Remove the top oven rack; preheat to 375 degrees (no convection). Use some butter to generously grease the bottom and sides of your 8-cup souffle dish or other tall-sided baking dish.
Make sure the cheese sauce is quite warm (which will allow the egg yolks to thicken slightly) but not actually hot (which could overcook the yolks and make them lumpy). Whisk the egg yolks into the sauce until blended.
Place the egg whites in the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with a balloon-whisk attachment; beat on medium-low speed until frothy, then increase the speed to medium-high and beat until thick and pillowy. Be careful not to overmix. To test, pull your whisk up to create a peak, which should hold and not slump back into the rest of the whites, but the tip should flop over rather than stand stiff. (Alternatively, you could beat them with a whisk in a large bowl, by hand.)
Scoop out about one-quarter of the beaten egg whites and plop them into the cheese sauce. Use a flexible spatula to carefully fold the two together. Continue adding more whites and folding them into the sauce, scooping from the bottom and gently rolling the mixtures together to preserve as much volume as possible, until all of the whites are added. Don’t worry if you see a few remaining streaks of white – better to have that than to overwork your mixture and deflate the volume. Gently transfer the souffle batter to the souffle dish.
At this point, you can keep the souffle on the counter for about 30 minutes before baking, and you can even hold it in the refrigerator for up to 4 hours. Or you can bake it right away, because you’re preheating that oven.
Bake (middle rack) until it is tall, deep golden brown on the top and still moves slightly when you shake the dish but doesn’t seem liquidy inside, for 22 to 30 minutes. You can double-check by inserting a thin knife into the center of the souffle, which should not emerge wet.
To show off your souffle, carry it to the table quickly, because it will deflate slightly as it cools. The flavor is better when it is not too hot.
Nutrition | Calories: 260; Total Fat: 19 g; Saturated Fat: 11 g; Cholesterol: 260 mg; Sodium: 400 mg; Carbohydrates: 8 g; Dietary Fiber: 0 g; Sugars: 3 g; Protein: 15 g.
(From cookbook author Martha Holmberg.)