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ingredients and techniques

Essential Techniques: Whipping and Folding Egg Whites

meg's picture

Of all the types of recipes out there, baking recipes can be the most cryptic.

After all, how often do you see phrases like, "Have ready 1/4 cup mirepoix in brunoise" in your standard cookbook. Or perhaps, "Have ready one chicken en crapaudine..." It's just not gonna happen. For better or for worse, these days, you have to clearly enunciate through the abbreviated format of the recipe. Otherwise, your recipes risk being dismissed outright by the harried, simplicity-seeking cooks of today.

However, baking recipes still use an erudite shorthand that some new bakers find intimidating. How do you temper chocolate? How do you cream butter and sugar? What the heck are stiff peaks? As a baker, I find these phrases reassuring. An age-old collection of jargon that tells me exactly what to do. But to many, these instructions are enigmatic and need decoding before they can be useful or helpful.

A long time ago, I posted instructions on separating eggs whites and yolks. You'll want to reference that before beginning the next exercise: whipping and folding egg whites into batter.

Whipping egg whites and folding them into batter is often performed when making chiffon or génoise cakes or when lightening up a normal cake recipe. Some pound cake recipes call for you to do this in order to make them lighter.

Before you whip egg whites, wash your mixing bowl with warm, soapy water. You want to be sure that there are no oil or grease particles in your bowl. Even if you haven't used your mixing bowl recently, I recommend washing it. In the kitchen, grease tends to build up almost everywhere, as I recently found out while washing our windowsills.

Dry the bowl thoroughly. Do the same for your whisk. Place your egg whites along with the amount of cream of tartar specified in the recipe in the mixing bowl. Cream of tartar is a byproduct of wine making that is often used when whipping egg whites to stabilize the egg foam and increase the volume of the whites.

I like to whip my egg whites on medium speed (I use a KitchenAid stand mixer. For handheld mixers, use high speed). I find that they retain their structure better when whipped slower. Begin whipping and keep an eye out for them to foam and thicken.

Beat the egg whites until soft peaks form. You'll know you've reached this stage when you can lift up the whip, and the tip of the peak formed by lifting the whip droops over. At this point, gradually add the sugar called for in the recipe.

Continue whipping at medium speed until the egg whites form stiff, glossy peaks. You can see this clearly by lifting up your whip and holding it horizontally. The egg whites should not droop or fall off the whip.

It is important not to overbeat at this stage. If you whip until the egg whites are dry, the mixture will break down as you fold it into the batter, creating a heavier end product. I like to stop my mixer frequently as I get close to the stiff peak stage. This way, I can check the consistency of the whites and make sure I don't overbeat them.

As soon as the whites have reached this stage, immediately fold them into your batter. To do this, first add a third of the egg whites to the batter and fold them in gently. This is to lighten the batter initially and prepare it for the rest of the egg whites.

When I use the term "fold," I mean to use a rubber spatula. Gently plunge the spatula down (hold it so that the flat side is facing you--you should be able to see the expanse of the spatula's head) in the center of the mixture. Draw the spatula towards you, scooping a swath of batter along with it. Bring the spatula up the side of the bowl and plunge it down in the center of the batter again. You should see a ribbon of batter left in the wake of the spatula. As you repeat this movement, rotate the bowl, working your way around, always starting in the center, moving to the side of the bowl, and bringing the spatula upwards to mingle the egg whites and batter. As you fold, the position of the spatula will change. When you plunge it down in the center, you want the flat side towards you, meaning that the "sharp" side goes down into the batter first, causing as little deflation of the whites as possible. When you bring the spatula up again, you want the flat side facing up in order to bring up as much batter as possible.

Repeat this movement until the batter is more or less homogenous. It doesn't have to be perfect. You don't want to see large streaks or clumps of egg white, but total and complete incorporation of egg whites is not necessary. You may see some thin, fine stripes of egg white. This is okay.

Immediately transfer the batter to your pan and finish the recipe as instructed.

Once you find your rhythm, this technique is actually very satisfying. It also has a way of making you look very accomplished and professional, so make sure someone is watching you as you do it. It's not very often that we get to feel accomplished and professional. 

Comments

Sherry's picture

I am looking for a chocolate cake recipe that had whipped egg whites and nutmeg. It also had a ganache, but I think the recipe may have been just another from the book. My boyfriends family is over this week and I want to make this cake better from our last attempt on Thamksgiving. I can't find it anywhere on the Internet, perhaps you could give me the recipe. It was from an older book, it was unique and delicious. I think it even had walnuts in it.

meg's picture

Hi Sherry, Do you have the 2006 edition (75th Anniversary Edition) of the Joy of Cooking? If so, you may be looking for the Chocolate Walnut Torte on page 728. There are so many chocolate cakes in the book (and older editions) that it's hard to know which one you're looking for, but this one meets all the criteria--chocolate, egg whites, walnuts, nutmeg. Let us know if you don't have the book or if this isn't the recipe you're looking for.

Esther Colon's picture

The cake recipe I have calls for whipped egg white but not specify to use sugar or cream of tarter. I have already used the sugar for the cake, I have cream of tarter but do not know how to use
It. Can I make the egg whites without these ingredients.

meg's picture

You can whip egg whites without sugar or cream of tartar. If you have cream of tartar, you can simply add a small amount (1/4 tsp or so) to the egg whites before you whip them.

Neel's picture

For all cake receipe...do we need to add cream of tartar...

meg's picture

No you do not have to add cream of tartar, but it helps stabilize the egg whites.

Jennifer Niskanen's picture

What would happen if I separated and whipped the eggs in a pound cake recipe that didn't originally call for it. I just made a chocolate bundt cake with a great flavour, but it was rather dense. I think it was supposed to be more pound cake like and I didn't make a mistake but I wish it was fluffier. It had 5 eggs in the recipe and only used baking soda. Should I add tartar? How much for 5 eggs? Will whipping the eggs dry the cake out, because it was super moist as it was. I baked it to 205F. Would whipping the eggs change that internal temperature or anything?

meg's picture

In my experience, whipping egg whites for something like a pound cake ends up making it drier. It can be done, and I think the cake would still be good, but you would lose that really wonderful moistness. You might try finding a chocolate cake recipe that is less like a pound cake and more like a devil's food cake--lighter but still moist and flavorful. If you do decide to whip the egg whites for the pound cake, you'll want to use 1/2 teaspoon cream of tartar, and the final internal temperature wouldn't need to change.

Glenda Zuk's picture

I use egg whites baked in oven an a diet recipeI use 2cups whites ,1 tsps cr tarter,quarter cup stevia,bake in oven 375 sometime they fall sometime not.Why?Thank you

meg's picture

It's always hard to diagnose problems like this because I don't feel like I have enough details. The problem could be many things--high humidity (making meringue in humid weather is sketchy at best), traces of oil in the bowl the egg whites are being beaten in, or traces of egg yolk (although I'm guessing that since you're measuring egg whites in cups you may be using egg whites out of a carton?). I also wonder how successful stevia is as a sugar substitute in this scenario--usually, you want to use at least 2 tablespoons of sugar per egg white in order to get really nice meringue. Since stevia is sweeter than sugar and you need to use less, you may not be getting enough air whipped into the egg whites. It would also be helpful to know at what temperature you're baking the meringues. I hope this helps--again, it's hard to say exactly what the problem is. There could be a lot of reasons your meringue is falling.

Vanessa's picture

Hi Meg,

I am having a very difficult time whipping egg whites to stiff peaks in an almond joconde recipe that calls for the eggs to be whipped to soft peaks, at which point sugar is added, then whipped until stiff. I feel like I've tried everything (although haven't added the cream of tartar; am trying to do it without) and the eggs just seem to go from foamy to over whipped every single time. I did end up using the "meringue" twice but the joconde was pretty flat and not very spongy. I clean the bowls with vinegar, I have started on slow speed and moved up to medium (I have a KitchenAid stand mixer), I have stopped the mixing to ensure that all the whites were getting whipped (sometimes it seems that the whisk doesn't get the bottom portion) and nothing seems to work. The whites never get glossy; they go from foamy to what seems like a dried-out soft peak. And they weep. Maybe it's too humid in my house? I don't have A/C. Any suggestions would be welcome.

meg's picture

Hmm...it's certainly possible that humidity is a problem. It sounds as if you're doing everything right. Unless you're just avoiding cream of tartar because you don't have it in the house, don't worry (healthwise) about using it--it's a natural product that occurs as a byproduct of winemaking and is found inside wine barrels. Also try adding a pinch of salt to the egg whites. This will help your meringue foam and maintain stability. Also try using room-temperature egg whites. The only other thing I can think of is making a stabilized meringue with a sugar syrup. Basically, you make a syrup out of sugar and a little water (a ratio of 1 part water to 4 parts sugar; for example, 1/4 cup water to 1 cup sugar), bring the syrup to a specific temperature (235F I believe), then drizzle it into the beaten egg whites with the mixer running. However, I have never tried this method for meringue that is to be folded into cake batter. It's a little hard to guess what the problem is, but it sounds like humidity may be part of it, since it seems you've done everything right. Hope this is at least somewhat helpful!

Sandy Zacharias's picture

How many egg whites are in 1 pound? I have a recipe for a great angel food cake and this is the measurement.

meg's picture

This is a really tricky question, Sandy, and a good argument for owning a kitchen scale. However, you can make an educated guess. One large egg white weighs about 30 grams or roughly 2 ounces, so that means you would need 8 large egg whites to equal one pound.

However, egg sizes vary quite a bit, so the only way to be totally sure is to use a scale. Just for reference, I'm looking at the recipe for Angel Cake in the Joy of Cooking and it calls for 11 large egg whites. You might try using 9 large egg whites in your recipe to be safe--that way, if the egg whites you're using are a little small, you'll have the extra egg white for insurance.

Hope this helps!

merin's picture

Hai meg, i love to bake cakes..But the only prblm is that it never comes out right. i tried alot, but always gets disappointed. i have a LOT of questions.
Whenever I bake, after putting it in the oven and when i check if cake is done, it might not have risen. And when i insert toothpick, its sticky and not done. All measurements are correct. But cant understand what exactly happens. Is it because of beating consistency? Once when i was beating the batter it became like an elastic one, u can just stretch it to long lengths, and it was sticky too.. And when i tasted the batter, it was like jelly.. Is this because it's overly beaten? My biggest problm is that the cake nver rises and form a CAKE... One of my favourite is Black forest(i love chocolate cakes), tried to bake but failed. Then i tried banana cake, apple cake .. but nothing seems to work ... i hope u will help me,, please ..

meg's picture

It sounds like you're overbeating the batter. There are many different cake styles, but perhaps the most common is the butter cake. Butter cakes involve beating softened butter with sugar until light and fluffy, then adding eggs one at a time, then adding dry and wet ingredients (milk, buttermilk, etc.) alternately until just combined. Be sure to beat the butter and sugar long enough for it to get nice and fluffy--the yellow butter will turn white and look very light. Make sure your butter is slightly softened but not too soft--it should be easy to cut but not mushy. Then, add the eggs one at a time, scraping down the mixing bowl after adding each egg. Only beat the eggs into the butter enough to combine--when you beat butter and sugar, you are incorporating air bubbles into the mixture. When you start adding eggs, there is no benefit to beating for a long time--you will only collapse the air bubbles, which can make for a dense cake.
After the eggs, add the dry and wet ingredients. The dry ingredients should be well combined before adding--whisk to make sure all the leaveners (baking powder, baking soda) are dispersed. If not, you can end up with big, irregular air pockets in your cake. Once the flour is just combined with the butter/egg mixture, stop beating. Some people like to use a spatula to fold the flour into the batter. You don't want to see any clumps of flour in the batter.
Another thing to check on is oven temperature. Buy an inexpensive oven thermometer to make sure your oven is at the right temperature. Ovens can be very inaccurate, and this can affect how cakes bake.
Also make sure you're using the right kind of flour. You want flour with a low protein content--I usually use "all-purpose" flour (I think this is called "plain flour" elsewhere), but lots of cake recipes call for cake or pastry flour (you might find it labeled as "soft flour"). The low protein content will help prevent the formation of gluten, which can cause cakes to be tough and dense.
Finally, make sure the leaveners you are using are not expired. Baking powder and baking soda can lose their strength over time, so if you've had these items in your pantry for a long time, consider replacing them. Buy small amounts of them so you can use them up before they expire.
I hope this helps a little. There are many more ways to make cakes, so if you have specific questions about a recipe or a type of cake, let me know. I'll help if I can.

Flavia's picture

Can you tell me why the yolk mixture and stiffened eggbeater sometimes separate after a few hours? What am I doing wrong?
Thanks for your help

meg's picture

I'm not sure I understand the question. What yolk mixture are you referring to?

Deirdre's picture

Meg - question for you about seasoning egg whites as you whip them. I found a great demonstration to whip egg whites, place them in a fry pan and hollow out the mound and drop the yoke in, and bake until egg white is browned etc. makes a great fluffy egg fora nice light breakfast. thing is, the eggs are a bit bland. seasoning afters. I know we can season whites with sugar, but could I use a bit of salt and pepper during the whipping process and not compromise the integrity of the merangue? Could I use texas pete? other dry or wet seasonings?

meg's picture

You can absolutely season egg whites before whipping. The important thing to remember is not to add anything containing fat to egg whites as this will prevent them from whipping. Salt and pepper are fine. I don't know how hot sauce would affect the whites, though. You might try folding in things once the whites are whipped but before they are cooked. I would also try fresh herbs.

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*Note: You can use baking chocolate for this or just pick up a pound of your favorite chocolate. I used Trader Joe's (not an endorsement) dark chocolate.

Preheat the oven to 325°F. Grease...