Technique: Beating Egg Whites

A cheat sheet for perfect egg foam

If you want to make a cheese soufflé, meringues or an angel food cake (and trust us, you do), you first have to master the technique for properly beaten egg whites.

There are as many tricks as there are chefs, but here are the five worth committing to memory:

• Use room-temperature egg whites, which beat up faster and with more volume than when cold.

• Fat is the enemy. Even the tiniest bit of yolk can sabotage your perfect foam. Separate the whites and yolks carefully, and beat the whites in a clean, dry stainless steel or copper bowl. (Copper makes for an exceptionally fluffy foam.)

• If you're beating egg whites by hand, use a large balloon whisk and prepare to feel the burn. Once you start whisking, continue until the foam is stable at the soft or stiff peak stage (for a visual, check out our slide show). If you are using an electric mixer, pay attention: Whites can go from just right to overwhipped and grainy in the time it takes to send a text message.

• Add insurance. To stabilize the foam, add a small amount of cream of tartar, an acid salt. If you're making a sweet preparation you'll need to add sugar, but add it in two stages: a bit at the beginning and the majority at the end. The reason for this is that sugar inhibits foam formation, so adding it all at the beginning would be detrimental. Confectionary (powdered) or superfine sugar is our choice as it dissolves easily.

• Know when to stop beating. You want to hit the sweet spot between underwhipped, which results in an unstable foam that weeps and collapses, and over-whipped, which also results in an unstable foam that–you guessed it–weeps and collapses. Here's what perfectly beaten egg whites look like. Now, start whipping!

Begin beating the egg whites, cream of tartar and, if using, a small amount of sugar at low speed until foamy bubbles form.

Increase the speed to medium and continue beating; the bubbles will become smaller and the foam will take on a tighter, denser appearance.

Continue beating, increasing the speed to medium-high. Gradually add the remaining sugar, if using, and beat until the egg whites form soft peaks.

A closer look at soft peaks.

Continue to mix the egg whites on medium-high speed, watching carefully, until the mass is glossy and smooth. When you pull the beater (or whisk) out of the foam it should form a peak that holds, not curls. This is the stiff peak stage, and you should stop beating now or risk overwhipping the whites.

A closer look at egg whites beaten to the stiff peak stage.