Not As Fragile As You May Think
I know many otherwise confident city cooks who are intimidated by the thought of making a soufflé. You really shouldn't be. Despite a name that suggests delicacy and a fragile appearance, soufflés are actually easy to make, sturdy to cook, and a pleasure to eat. I used to think that the slightest error or tremble would cause a soufflé to collapse into an unappetizing puddle. This is not so. For the uninitiated, I'm here to tell you to have a little courage. If you do, I predict that soufflés could become a kitchen favorite.
Although soufflés may seem a bit old fashioned and in the same nostalgic food category as fondue, in fact they turn plain eggs into something special, whether savory or sweet. In The Way To Cook, Julia Child's masterpiece (a book for the kitchen counter, not the bookshelf), she explains:
"A reasonably well-assembled soufflé can be an automatic happenstance: a flavor base into which stiffly beaten egg whites are incorporated. When the mixture is baked, the heat of the oven expands the air bubbles in the egg whites and the whole mass rises. It stays puffed the few minutes needed to serve it; then, as it cools, the air bubbles deflate and the soufflé collapses. Soufflés are not difficult when you have mastered the beating of egg whites and the folding of them into the soufflé base."
Soufflés are actually stable and forgiving and there's nothing flimsy about them -- neither in their structure nor their flavor. They're also affordable: 6 eggs and a little cheese can be transformed into an impressive and big flavored centerpiece for lunch or supper for four persons.
As Julia Child described, the essentials of a soufflé are a flavored base -- usually a béchamel made with flour, butter and milk -- plus a cloud of beaten egg whites that have been whisked to full volume. If you're a purist with a strong arm, you can whisk the whites by hand in a copper bowl. But a big mixing bowl and an electric mixer are more practical and efficient to use.
The process is one of assembly: in a saucepan melt butter, stir in flour, add milk or cream and flavorings, separately beat your egg whites and gently transfer the combination to an oven-proof baking dish that has been prepared with a matching dusting of either savory cheese or sweet sugar. The dish goes into a hot oven with a temperature high enough to prompt the egg whites to rise, giving the soufflé its lift.
And will it fall? Should you walk softly while the soufflé is baking? Not to worry. This is the myth of making soufflés, maybe started by some French chef who wanted mystery to surround one of France's gifts to cuisine. The soufflé will rise in about 20 minutes and will only fall about five minutes after it's finished cooking and removed from the oven -- usually while you're serving it. You can even take a soufflé from the oven, jiggle it a bit or use a spoon to check for doneness, and return to the oven for additional cooking without causing it to deflate. It's that sturdy.
How do you know it's finished cooking? It will have risen above the top of your baking dish with surfaces that, while not exactly crispy, will be dry and golden in color. The cooking will also produce an aroma of the main ingredient (cheese or chocolate or lemon, etc.). It will have a structure that will barely move as you take the dish out of the oven. If the surface jiggles while you go to remove the baking dish, leave it in the oven for a few minutes longer until it's set.
- You'll need special equipment: a rubber spatula to fold in the beaten egg whites, an electric mixer to adequately beat the whites to firm peaks, and a soufflé dish for the baking. A soufflé dish has straight sides and this is important to enable the mixture to develop structure. While I usually argue against recipes that require special tools, most city cooks can find multiple uses for a rubber spatula and a ceramic soufflé dish can double as a salad or serving bowl, can showcase fresh fruit, or be used to bake custard, bread pudding or a vegetable gratin.
- Soufflé dishes must be prepared with a coating that helps the mixture rise. By coating the inside of a soufflé dish first with butter and then with a dusting of a dry ingredient -- grated cheese or fine breadcrumbs for a savory soufflé, sugar for a sweet soufflé -- the batter doesn't adhere to the side of the dish, thus leaving it free to rise above the top. This is an important step for a successful soufflé.
- The base needs to have a forward flavor because adding the egg whites will dilute it. So if you taste the base before adding the egg whites and it seems too strong, don't worry because the egg whites will fix that.
- When whisking the egg whites, it's essential that there not be a single bit of egg yolk in the whites because it will interfere with getting the necessary volume. So take extra special care when separating the eggs not to break the yolks and risk getting a speck into the whites. Also, make sure your mixing bowl is meticulously clean, with absolutely no residue from whatever was last in it. If you have any doubts, just wipe the bowl with a couple of drops of vinegar and then with a paper towel.
- When filling the soufflé dish with your finished batter, fill it only three-quarters, not to the rim. This eliminates the need for a collar, the piece of foil that is sometimes wrapped around a soufflé dish in order to make it -- and thus your soufflé -- taller. If you use a collar you can fill the pan to the rim. But I find my soufflés rise beautifully without a collar and this saves both hassle and mess.
- Don't overcook the soufflé because it will become dry and will collapse more easily. Start testing it a couple of minutes before the recipe says it will be done: very gently shake the baking dish to look for jiggling -- don't worry, this won't cause the soufflé to fall -- if the surface is moving (although a little jiggle is okay), leave in the oven for another couple of minutes. Also look for a golden brown color and an aroma of whatever is the main ingredient.
- If you're using a recipe for a single, large soufflé but prefer to make individual ones in small one or two-cup ramekins, follow the exactly same recipe and process. Just reduce the baking time by about 7 minutes and check for doneness in the same way.
- A hot baking dish containing a finished, towering soufflé can be tricky to remove from the oven. Small ramekins are even more difficult to handle. So what I do is simply place my baking dish or dishes on a cookie sheet or rimmed sheet pan. This makes it easy to put in and out of the oven. Plus, when I'm checking for doneness, I can very gently just move the underlying pan to see if the top of the soufflé jiggles without having to actually move the entire soufflé out of the oven.
- Frozen soufflés aren't really soufflés but are frozen mousses made from flavored mixtures of egg whites, whipped cream and often a fruit flavoring or purée. They're often presented in a soufflé dish that has been wrapped with a removable collar so that the finished recipe looks like a baked soufflé, thus the name.
- A soufflé must be eaten immediately upon being taken out of the oven. This is not just for presentation, although that matters, but also for taste, as this is when they're at their best. So decide what time you want to serve your soufflé and back into when to make each step. You can prepare the flavored base an hour or so in advance and keep at room temperature in a large mixing bowl with a piece of plastic wrap pressed against the surface (this prevents it from developing a skin). While you may be able to beat the egg whites in advance, there's the risk they may break down as they sit so I recommend beating the egg whites while the oven is pre-heating; when the oven is hot, fold the beaten whites into the base and cook immediately. Most soufflés bake in about 20 to 30 minutes.
I love being able to take a familiar and quotidian ingredient (an egg) and turn it into something unexpected and flavorful -- and what does this more than a soufflé? I hope I've convinced you that despite their reputation, they are almost bulletproof. We've added two recipes: one is savory and made with goat cheese; the other is a dessert version with Grand Marnier. Add a salad and a loaf of favorite bread and a soufflé is a main course. Make space in the top of a just baked sweet soufflé for a pour of custard sauce or softly whipped cream and dessert will be magic.
As Julia wrote, what you really will have created is "an automatic happenstance." I would add, perhaps also a little glamour.
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