Foodie Ramblings: Beating Egg Whites

Dear Readers,

As I discussed in last night’s post, understanding how to properly beat egg whites might be the thing that will be the difference from a baking success and a baking fail. If you are the type who has mastered the art of beating eggs into stiff and thick perfection, than kudos to you (super jealous BTW).But if you are like me and still struggling to figure it out, we are still at the point were some instruction is require. While there are a plethora of informative guides out there to help explain this process, the recipe I was using was not one of them.

Still a wee bit bitter about how things turned out, I decided to do some research about beating egg whites to figure out where things went wrong. Looking back on it now, I probably should have done this yesterday before I started baking but hey, live and learn right?

*Please note, I am not a science person by any stretch of the imagination, unless its forensics (WHOOT!). I have done my best to explain the more scientific stuff behind beating egg whites in a manner that someone like me (an idiot) would understand. I apologize to any science inclined people who may read what follows. Proceed with expectations set to low*

Fun fact first: Egg whites that are whipped with sugar are also referred to as meringues, so says How Baking Works by Paula Figoni. According to Ms. Figoni, meringue can not form without the combination of proteins that are found in egg whites. As the egg whites are whipped, air bubbles are beaten into the liquid and certain egg proteins unfold, creating a structure that traps and protects the air bubbles are breaking down.  Over time, the egg whites transform the from foam into a more stable mixture.

Clearly then, stability is key. Stable meringues should be firm but also flexible since it needs to withstand being folded and baked. At the same time, they should also have volume and lightness. Unfortunately, there are quite a few things that can affect that.

1. Sugar: This is basically the ingredient that stabilizes one’s whipped egg mixture. In the case of making something like a meringue, the sugar needs to be added slowly since the sugar crystals need a chance to dissolve within the egg white foam. If added too quickly, the proteins may not be able to unfold, which either leads to a softer meringue or whites that won’t whip at all.

2. Fats or lipids: These can mess up with the process of aeration either by slowing it down or preventing it from happening all together. Have you ever been cautioned about making sure no yolk gets mixed into your egg whites? This is why. Lipids interfere with the infolding of the egg proteins which affects the trapping of the air bubbles. If the air bubbles are contained properly, they will collapse.

3. Acids: Acids lower the pH of the meringue. Cream of tartar is the most common of acids used in whipping egg whites. This is an ingredient that should added early, as it will allow for the creation of a structure that will be flexible and stable.

4. Temperature: Egg whites should be room temperature, not chilled. Those right out of the fridge won’t whip well. Take them out in advance.

5. Whipping Time: If whipped too quickly or for too long, the meringue structure will begin to collapse and curdle.

6. Copper: Whipping in a copper bowl will increase a meringue’s stability similar to the way cream of tartar does; improves the flexibility and helps prevent over-whipping.

Ok, so the above are what can make or break one’s hopes of producing a perfect meringue. So what about the actual process? Well, the most basic and informative that I came across comes straight from my copy of Baking Illustrated. This is what they suggest.

1.Beat the egg whites and medium-low speed until froth, about 30 seconds. Raise the speed and add the cream of tartar to help stabilize the egg foam. Slowly add the sugar and continue to beat.

2. Just before the whites reach the proper consistency, turn off the mixer. Detach the whisk attachment and remove the bowl from the mixer. By hand, use the whisk attachment and give the mixture a few more strokes.

Soft peaks will droop slightly downward from the tip of the whisk; stiff peaks will stand tall.

So there you have it, an abbreviated explanation behind the science of beating egg whites, sort of. Hopefully, this information helps you as it will certainly help me in the future.

Till next time!

List of Sources

“Common Baking Problems and How to Avoid Them.” Baking Illustrated: A Best Recipe Classic. Ed. The Editors of Cook’s Illustrated Magazine. Brookline, MA: America’s Test Kitchen, 2004. 135-50. Print.

Figoni, Paula. “Eggs and Egg Products.” How Baking Works: Exploring the Fundamentals of Baking Science. Third ed. Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons, 2011. N. pag. Print.