The scary science of falling souffles
Gird your loins, because today we’re tackling one of the most seemingly intimidating of all culinary endeavors, the souffle. For many of you, given the choice between making a souffle and wrestling Freddy Krueger in a room full of spitting cobras, you’d happily go 10 rounds with Freddy. Fortunately for us all, souffles fall into the category of “Things That Seem Scary But Then Aren’t Once You Think About It.”
Like a zombie baby.
So let’s change out of our worry pants and dive in headfirst.
WHY YOU NEED TO LEARN THIS
Souffles, besides being delicious and deceptively easy to pull off, are totally old school. Classy with a delicate strength, like Audrey Hepburn in a ramekin, they will delight the palates of your guests, even as the more petty among them drool green envy.
THE STEPS YOU TAKE
The cardiologists among you know the souffle as that soft susurration murmuring through your stethoscope. For us regular jamokes, it’s an ultralight egg dish that is baked until it puffs like an adder to golden deliciousness, only to tumble back into itself when it meets the harsh and unforgiving room temperature.
Souffles can be savory or sweet. Today we’ll tackle savory only, but, regardless, they have just two components: the base and the egg foam. The base is just a thick, highly flavored sauce, and the foam, whipped egg whites.
Before we begin, let’s review a few basics, shall we?
Roux: Equal parts by weight of fat and flour, cooked to various shades of white and brown.
Next, bechamel, a French mother sauce that is little more than milk thickened with a quickly cooked white roux. It’s the primary base for most savory souffles.
The base can be flavored with just about anything: fresh herbs, pureed vegetables, cheese, even minced or ground seafood or meat.
The key to a successful souffle, though, is the whipped egg whites. When you whip egg whites, you’re creating bajillions of tiny air bubbles, each encased in a mostly liquid membrane. When the souffle enters the hot oven, the heating bubbles expand and rise. Simultaneously, the water in the membrane evaporates into steam, making the bubbles even larger. Both of these actions cause the souffle to rise in the ramekin until the continued heat coagulates the proteins in the eggs and flour, giving the whole thing structure.
It’s also why the souffle is destined to fall when it leaves the oven: The air bubbles cool, the water vapor condenses and the top plummets into the base.
Here’s what you do. The amounts I list will be for 6 to 8 individual souffles or one big, group souffle.
1. Butter or spray your ramekins (4 to 6 ounce size), then coat the inside with some grated Parmesan, flour or breadcrumbs. (The coating of fat keeps the souffle from sticking to the sides, making your cleanup easier.)
2. To make the bechamel, melt 3 tablespoons of butter in a small sauce pan. Whisk in 3 tablespoons of flour, and cook, stirring, over medium heat for a couple of minutes. Remove your pan from the heat, and whisk in 11/4 cups of milk. Bring it to the boil, stirring constantly, then reduce the heat and simmer for several minutes, until very thick. Remove from heat.
3. Separate 5 eggs, taking care to make sure that no yolk gets into the whites.
4. When the bechamel has cooled somewhat, stir in 4 of the yolks (Oh, I can sense the creeping panic now: “But, but … what do I do with that extra yolk?” Well, I put that very question to our old friend, Mr. Google, and in exactly 0.93 seconds he came up with over 7 gazillion suggestions. You’ll think of something.) and a cup of flavoring. If this is your first time, cheese is so easy: cheddar or Swiss with a little Parmesan. Season with salt to taste.
5. Whip your egg whites by hand or with a mixer. Regardless, here are some hard truths: First, the bowl has to be squeaky clean. Any grease or any yolk will prevent the foam from reaching its potential loftiness. Second, start by mixing slowly. Slow mixing means lots of small air bubbles rather than fewer, larger bubbles. As the foam builds, you speed up until the whites have attained about 8 times their original volume, and the consistency is soft to stiff peaks. Don’t overmix, as that makes a dry foam, which means there’s less water to evaporate into steam.
6. Fold a third of the whites into the base, then carefully and patiently fold the base into the remaining whites thusly: Pour the base onto the whites, then use your spatula to scrape and lift the whites from the bottom over the top of the base as you rotate the bowl toward you. Keep scraping and lifting (see why it’s called “folding”?) until all the whites are incorporated. The batter should be thick but should fall from the spoon when picked up.
7. Divide the mixture into the ramekins, filling them three-quarters full. Bake in a 400-degree oven until they’ve risen above the ramekins and the tops are a beautiful golden brown. Take them out of the oven, and let them rest for a few minutes, then serve. They will fall during the resting, but that’s OK. As we said earlier, that’s the air bubbles cooling and the steam condensing back into water, both of which will cause the souffle to deflate.