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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. 


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 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.

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