Egg Files V: Quantum Foam

The Den

    [toy hover blimp floats around the house, it has a smiley face on it, Alton is at the controls]

    [voice over] I admit, I got it bad for bubbles. When I was a kid I used to beg to watch Lawrence Welk. I'd wash dad's car for free. I bathed every night. Later I discovered culinary bubbles: champagne, whipped cream, light frothy mousses. These were but a few of my favorite things. Eventually I moved on to the quantum foam of the food world, the dish that inspires as much fear as appetite, the soufflé.

    Fortunately, soufflés are not the monsters their mythology makes them out to be. In fact, a world class cheese soufflé demands only a handful of basic ingredients, some essential skills and, of course, a confident handler. [blimp crashes into the model dinosaur sending it to the floor]
    Stay tuned, won't you? Because I'm going to get my bubbles under control and get us all into some good eats.

The Kitchen

GUESTS: Flaky and Tender Puppets
              Big Hand

    Mmmm. Mmmm. Rich yet light. Airy yet flavorful. You know, it's been a long time since we encountered such conflicting characteristics.

FLAKY & TENDER: [appear over AB's shoulders]
AB: Well, it's our old pie crust cronies, Flaky and Tender. [knocks them out]

    The truth is soufflés aren't conflicted at all. They are in perfect Zen-like balance. You see the lightness comes from protein laden egg whites whipped into a bubbly battalion while on the other hand the richness comes from a yolk enforced base or sauce. Now bringing these two things together is an act of simple culinary matchmaking but we do have some preliminaries to get out of the way first.

    Step one, turn on the oven. Although there are a few exceptions, 375 is my soufflé rule. [blimp passes in the background behind AB] Now we must prep the soufflé that the soufflé will soufflé in. [looks around but just misses seeing the blimp] Soufflé is French for "puffed up".

Heat Oven To 375°

    True soufflés come in many sizes but only one shape, round. Now here we have a number seven soufflé which holds right at a quart and a half, perfect for a five to six egg soufflé serving, well, 3 to 4 people depending on how hungry they are.

1 1/2 Quart Soufflé

    Now any tall-sided ceramic vessel will work for a soufflé, but a true soufflé does have some characteristics which are worth noticing. For instance, the fluted exterior: pretty, yes, but functional, too. It actually increases the surface area out here and that means faster heat absorption. Also, the bottom is unglazed. Now there are a lot of guys out there with funny accents and tall hats who will tell you that that unglazed surface—because it is porous—also absorbs heat faster. Are they right? I buy it.

Fluted Exterior


    Soufflés grow best when they can get hold of the side of the vessel. So we're going to create a little bit of traction by applying a layer of ground, not grated, parmesan cheese in here. Of course, we're going to have to have some kind of glue to make it stick. For that we've got butter. So just rub this on. Be sure to use cold butter. Don't try to use melted butter.

When greasing a soufflé dish, never use margarine,
shortening, or for that matter, grease.

    It's going to take about a tablespoon of parm. You want to use a little more than you think you would need. There. We'll cover that [bowl] with plastic wrap thusly. Nice and tight. And shake. The goal of course is to cover every surface inside possible. Everything. All the way up to the lip. 

1 Tbs. Ground Parmesan

    There. Now if we've called it right, there shouldn't be much left over. Not even enough for a plate of spaghetti. There. See, we've got good coverage all the way around. Not every molecule is covered but enough. This goes into the freezer. Keeping the butter cold means that it will melt slowly and that's going to give our soufflé a better shot at upward mobility.

Place In Freezer

    Traditional savory soufflés depend on a modified white sauce as a base. All white sauces, of course, have two things in common: milk and a roux.

Basic Cheese Soufflé

    We've spoken roux-fully before, I know, but some lessons do deserve repeating. A roux is a paste in which flour granules are suspended in melted butter.

Cooked Mixture Of Equal Parts Flour & Butter

    In this case we're talking about three quarters of an ounce of flour—it's roughly three tablespoons—and an ounce and a half of butter which also happens to be three tablespoons. Now while the butter melts over medium heat, we will assemble the remaining ingredients.

3 Tbs. Flour
3 Tbs. Butter

Melt Butter Over
Medium Heat

    A teaspoon of dry mustard, half a teaspoon of garlic powder, and a heavy pinch of kosher salt round out the dry goods. While the wet team includes a cup and a third of milk heated in the microwave to speed things up, 2.5 ounces of egg yolk—that's 4 large yolks—and six ounces of sharp cheddar cheese, weighed and grated.

1 tsp. Dry Mustard
1/2 tsp. Garlic Powder
Pinch Kosher Salt

1 1/3 Cups Milk Heated in
4 Large Egg Yolks
6 oz. Sharp Cheddar Cheese,

BIG HAND: [about to dump flour into pan]

    Is it safe? Is it safe? Look, rouxes only got one purpose in life, right? To coat every single flour granule with fat so that when the hot liquid is introduced there won't be any clumping. Well butter is 6 to 8 percent water so if you dump that [flour] in there [the pan] before the water's cooked out, in other words before it stops bubbling, what's going to happen? It's going to clump. So I ask you, is it safe? [looks in the pan, no bubbles] It's safe.

BH: [almost pours it in]
AB: Oh but wai-wai-wai-wai-wai-wait.

    There's no reason not to go ahead and add the salt [adds dry goods to the flour], mustard, and the garlic powder. But we don't want that to clump in there so we'll just take that and give it a shake [shakes dry goods together].

Combine Dry
Ingredients & Shake

AB:  Okay.
BH: [pours it in]

    Now whisk this in and cook it over low heat for about two minutes or until you smell something nutty. There.

Cook Over Low
Heat For 2 mins.

"Love and eggs are best when they are fresh." -Russian Proverb

The Kitchen

    There. That looks just right. Okay, go ahead and add the hot milk. And we're going to turn the heat to high. Now wheat proteins won't gelatinize completely, that is thicken, until they boil and that's going to happen a lot faster if you start with hot milk. Okay.

Boost Heat To High, Whisk In Hot Milk & Bring To A Boil

    Meanwhile, we're going to beat these yolks until creamy and light yellow, all right? That'll help to denature some of the proteins and evenly distribute the fat so that these'll be a lot less likely to scramble when they join the hot party over there. Of course, we will have to take some other precautions, too.

Beat Yolks Until Light Yellow

    That's because egg proteins coagulate at about 140 degrees. And as you can see it is considerably hotter than 140 degrees in there. I think I'm going to turn that off. What's the answer to solve this discrepancy? We're going to temper the eggs. Here's how. We're going to take just a little bit of the hot mixture on our whisk and add it to the yolks and whisk briskly. There. And again.


    Now this is going to accomplish two things. One, it's going to very slowly increase the heat of the yolks. They'll be a lot less likely to curdle that way. And also, some of the starch from the sauce is going to get worked in between the proteins in the yolk and that'll provide even more insurance. Now I'm just going to add a little bit more of this. There. Nice and smooth. No curdling. Now this [mixture] goes back into here [the pan]. Whisking constantly. Scoop out every bit of that that you can. We want the en-richening power of those eggs.
    Now the only thing lacking is the cheese, please.

BH: [hands AB the cheese]

    There we go. Now just slowly melt that in over no heat at all.
    Mmm. Wow. That is rich and salty and cheesy which is good. Because although a soufflé base makes up less than 50 percent of the soufflé mass, it does provide 100 percent of the flavor.

    Now I like to use my base right away but you can refrigerate yours for up to a week as long as you remember to press a sheet of plastic wrap right down on top. And of course, you have to bring this to room temperature before you can work it into the foam.

Refrigerate base for
up to a week.

    Speaking of foam, it's a good thing I keep individually frozen egg whites on the premises at all times because just about every soufflé recipe on earth calls for more whites than yolks. It's just the way it is. Here we have the shell-mates of the 4 yolks we worked into the base earlier plus one orphan harvested from last month's curd making. I thawed it in the fridge overnight. Remember, always separate eggs when cold but always whip whites at room temperature. And never invite even a speck of yolk to the party because yolks are made mostly of fat and fats deflate foams.
    Which is also why we don't work whites with plastic tools. Why? Well, because fat and plastic share molecular structures. In fact, they're so similar to one another that they often bond together so much so that even a serious washing can't drive them apart. Ugghgh. As a result, plastic utensils often harbor enough fat molecules to crash a batch of whites.

    Oh, and here's a new rule. When it comes to building egg foams, you can usually replace 25 percent of the egg whites with water, H2O, at a rate of one tablespoon per white. There'll still be plenty of bubble blowing protein to go around but the lighter mass will foam a lot faster.


    [notes grease pencil drawings on his windows] I gotta find a new maid.

"The egg is to cuisine what the article is to speech." -Anonymous

    So, we have our five, room-temperature egg whites plus 1 tablespoon of water in a scrupulously clean metal bowl.

5 Egg Whites (room temp.)
1 Tbs. H2O

BH: [tries to start using a hand mixer]
AB: Heh. Wait up there, big hand.

    The worst mistake that novice soufflé-ers make is over-beating their egg whites, that is, stretching the protein so much that the resulting foam isn't flexible enough to standup to the expansion of the oven. [blimp passes behind AB again.] Now increasing the acidity of the whites will help this because it keeps the proteins from binding to one another ... [looks over shoulder] ... too tightly. Any acid will do the trick but I like cream of tartar, an acidic salt derived from wine grapes. Never leave foam without it. About an eighth of a teaspoon per foam will do.

1/8 tsp. Cream Of Tartar

    Now we beat.

BH: [begins beating]

    You want to start with a low speed until the whites just get frothy. Now I don't have anything against stand mixers but a hand mixer seems to be a better tool for this because it can keep a smaller amount of whites moving at one time and that's important. Now as soon as we've got a nice foam, we can put the spurs to her.
    [speaks but we can't hear him over the noise, anyone good at lip reading?]
    Okay, stop. Great. Now. Lift the beaters straight up and turn the mixer over. There. See. We've got strong peaks. They can stand but they don't quite stand straight. That's what you want to see. Down here [in the bowl], glossy but not dry.

    [shows a bowl with over-whipped whites] Now if we had kept going, the proteins would have eventually squeezed out their moisture and they would have collapsed in a useless watery heap. This is no longer viable foam fodder. Luckily eggs are cheap.

Over-whipped Whites

    But enough talk. In a few minutes, this foam will begin to collapse under its own weight. Time to fold.

16th century European cooks often whipped egg whites with birch twigs.

The Kitchen

GUESTS: Paul Merchant

    Now we have our freshly formed foam, our room temperature base and, of course, our prepped soufflé on deck ready to go. Now here's thing—and this is what soufflés are all about—we need to bring two unrelated forms together. We've got a heavy, rich sauce and this light, heavenly foam. We've got to bring them together in a way that will crush as few of the bubbles in the foam as possible, all right? There's a way to do it but we're going to need a really big spatula. Now that's big. And that's bigger. But this [flexible dough blade] is even larger than that. It doesn't have a handle on it but ... well, ... I can fix that. [rubber bands biggest spatula to dough blade] Food grade rubber band, of course. There. That's a big spatula.

    First step is we've got to sacrifice about a quarter of our foam just to lighten the base enough to accept the rest of them. So this time we're just going to stir them in. Just literally stir. Don't try to be fancy with it. There we go. That's going to lighten up the mass and get it a little bit closer to the viscosity of the foam. But that is the last time we will stir this mixture, ever. From here on in it's folding time.

Stir 1/4 of the foam
into the base.

    Okay. Now we look at what we got left and basically visually divide it into thirds. And the first third goes right into the middle and we fold. Just digging down and sweeping over. I like my new spatula. There. In and over. Don't stir. You've got two motions available. You can either sweep down and fold or go down the middle and fold. Your choice. Now I'm not worried about getting all of this integrated in. There's a little bit of white. It doesn't bother me a bit.

Fold in 1/3 of the foam.

    Now we take half of the remaining foam and repeat. Lay it right on top and gently fold. I'm turning the bowl as I go. Let the bowl work for you. There. Digging down, sweeping up and over. But I don't want to do more than two rotations of the bowl for any one dose of egg white. There. Now we still have a lot of egg white visible but that's okay because we've still got more to come. In fact, the next batch is everything, the next dose I should say. All the rest of the foam. There.

Fold in 1/2 of the
remaining foam.

    Again, down and up, down and over. There we go. Speed isn't as important in this as being gentle. There. Now we are going to have a few flecks of white remaining and that is fine. I don't care about that. Now for actually pouring this I'm going to get rid of the handle and just use this. Here we go. Into the bowl nice and gently. Now if you're lucky and you built it right, it should come to right up to the flare in the top of the soufflé, if you're using a number 7. Now I spilled a little but that's all right. There. I'm just going to smooth the top a bit.
    Now when it cooks, this soufflé is going to kind of mushroom over. It's just natural expansion. If you want to restrict how it rises and put what's called a top hat on it, just take your thumb—mine's already dirty—and just make a little bit of an indentation around the edge. There. Perfect. Now straight into the oven ... and don't stop to talk to strangers.

    I do, however, like to take out a little bit of insurance, a disposable pie pan. I'll tell you why later. Now set your timer for 35 minutes.

35 mins.

PAUL MERCHANT: [through a bullhorn, in a French accent] Madame and Messieurs there's un soufflé in the oven. Ziss is not a drill. I repeat, not a drill. Please refrain from stepping in la cuisine or making motions rapeeed or maybe dropping heavy objects.
AB: [peels a banana, throws peel behind Paul]
PM: Nobody moves and nobody gets hurt. The soufflé will be fine. Merci. [slips on a banana peel with a thud]
AB: Ooo. Sorry, Le Paul. But, hey, the soufflé looks fine.

    I wouldn't suggest that you bake a soufflé in an earthquake, but your everyday domestic tremor is not going to hurt the soufflé. What will hurt the soufflé is opening this [oven] door within the first 30 minutes of cooking. That's because any reduction of heat whatsoever will permanently deflate your foam. And while we're on the subject of heat, do you trust your oven? Hmm?

Don't touch that door!

"The only thing that will make a soufflé fall is if it knows you're afraid of it."
-James Beard

Appliance Showcase: Atlanta, GA - 2:46 pm

GUEST: Carl Neusblatt, Appliance Salesman

    A lot of factors go into rating the performance of an oven. But any appliance salesman will tell you there are three big ones: accuracy, even ...

CARL NEUSBLATT: Accuracy, evenness and speed.

    Let's talk about accuracy. You go home. You set your oven to 350 degrees. You expect it to maintain 350 degrees. But it doesn't because ovens cycle on and off. In fact, an accurate oven will create a temperature wave ranging 10 to 20 degrees above and below the target temperature which isn't bad when you consider the fact that inaccurate ovens can go 50, 60 or even 70 degrees off target and that's just bad for soufflés.

CN: Well, let's not forget about evenness. Our engineers employ high-technology to ensure that this model will cook evenly for a lifetime.

    But as they age, door seals, heating elements, [the blimp passes behind AB and CN] even the insulation in the walls can break down creating hot and cold spots and that is bad for soufflés.

CN: ... bad for soufflés. Yeah.
AB: Absolutely right.

    Now if you think that your oven is guilty of really major thermal crimes, you need to get in contact with a repairman. But if we're only talking about minor infractions, consider adding some mass like, say, a pizza stone. It'll act like a thermal capacitor which will help even out all of those little fluctuations.

CN: Well, that's fine and good but it'll slow pre-heating and this model is designed to, hoo-hoo, heat up in a flash.
AB: Yeah, heat up in a flash.

    What's really heating up in a flash is the air inside, okay? And when the air gets hot and you come in with the food, you open the door, the heat goes [indicates upward]. The reason why is that the walls, the ceiling, the floor of the oven haven't had time to get really, really hot, yet. That means a very slow temperature recovery and that is ...

CN: ... bad for soufflés.
AB: You are catching on.
CN: Heh.

    So, turn your oven on, let it hit it's preheat but then leave it on for another 15 or 20 minutes before opening the door so it can charge up. Or you can just add mass. It'll mean a much slower preheat but a quicker recovery time and that is ...

AB: [points to CN]
CN: ... good for soufflés.
AB: Yeah. You look familiar.
CN: No I don't. [exits quickly]

Always be sure that the bricks or tiles you add to
your oven are lead-free and glaze-free.

The Kitchen

    Looks done but there's only one way to be really sure. Knife. Discrete punctuation here. Now it should be ooey and gooey in the bottom but if you see a lot of liquid running around, you want to slide it right back in for another 5 minutes. No more than that. This looks good though.
    [pause] Oh, I know. You think that it's supposed to go ssssssss and deflate just like in the movies, right? No. If you build it right, it will stand the test of time, at least for a few minutes or until all the air inside those beautiful little bubbles starts to cool and contract. Oh, as for the pie pan, here's what it's for. Easy removal. It's really tough to get hold of the sides of a soufflé. This way you can just grab the edge and pull it onto a trivet. You're ready to eat.
    We hope we've instilled in you the confidence [blimp passes behind again] to try your hand and whisk at the best bubble trick we know, the soufflé. Not only is it easy, it's good ... eats, that is. [blimp runs into AB] See you next time.

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Proofreading by Sue Libretti

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Last Edited on 08/27/2010