Learning to whip egg whites is a right of passage for most cooks. It seems simple enough, just whip away until they get light and fluffy, right? Well, sort of. Not using the right equipment, eggs, or even doing things in the wrong order can all affect the volume and texture of your egg white foam. With a little science and a few tips, anyone can perfectly whip egg whites into a white, fluffy, dream-like foam.
Before you reach for the eggs, make sure you have the right equipment. Egg whites need to be whipped in glass, metal, or glazed ceramic bowls. Plastic bowls have a thin, oily residue that can inhibit the egg whites from whipping. For the same reason, make sure your whisk or beaters are impeccably clean and absolutely dry.
Fresh eggs will achieve the fullest volume as they are slightly acidic and this helps stabilize the proteins. As eggs age, they slowly become more alkaline, which makes their proteins less stable. You can check the freshness of your eggs with a quick water test. To better your odds of getting perfectly whipped whites, use eggs that rest on the bottom of the water glass.
Room temperature eggs will whip easier, although cold eggs are easier to separate from the yolks. For the best results, separate your eggs while they are still cold then allow the whites to come to room temperature before whipping. If there is any amount of yolk in the whites, they will not whip.
The Whipping Process
Begin whipping your egg whites on low speed until they become foamy and frothy. Once the egg whites are foamy, increase the speed to high until they become whipped to the desired stage.
Though whipping with an electric mixer is preferred by many cooks, you can also use a large balloon whisk. When doing it by hand, beat quickly in a big circular motion to add as much air as possible.
Stages of Whipped Egg Whites
As you continue to whip, the egg whites will reach various stages, starting out foamy, then with soft peaks, and finally firm peaks. You want to stop according to the directions in your recipe. It is possible to over-beat egg whites as well, which means you need to start over.
- Foamy: The egg whites are still primarily liquid, with some bubbles that may cause the egg whites to look slightly opaque.
- Soft Peaks: The egg whites are now white, will hold their shape in the bowl, and will not slide out if the bowl is tipped sideways. When the beaters or whisk is lifted out of the egg whites, they will form soft peaks that slump over to the side.
- Firm Peaks: When the beaters or whisk is lifted out of the egg whites, the peak will stand erect and not bend over. When firm peaks form, the egg white has reached its fullest volume and should not be beaten any longer.
- Over-Beaten Egg Whites: If egg whites are beaten past the point of stiff peaks, the matrix of proteins will begin to break down and the foam will collapse. The egg whites will become grainy, watery, and flat. They can not be salvaged.
Other ingredients are often added to beaten egg whites, either to add flavor or to help the stability and increase volume. A pinch of salt or cream of tartar added for every 2 to 4 egg whites prior to beating will help stabilize the protein matrix and increase the volume. This is especially helpful with older eggs, which may have become slightly alkaline.
Sugar is often added to egg whites when making meringues and other desserts. It is important to add the sugar correctly to preserve the integrity of the foam. Sugar must be added gradually to prevent collapse, so begin with a small amount once the egg whites are foamy, and continue to add it gradually as you beat. The sugar will cause the egg whites to take on a glossy appearance.
Using Whipped Egg Whites
Whipped egg whites should be used immediately as they may lose volume or weep moisture as they sit. Never beat or aggressively stir egg whites into other ingredients. Rather, other ingredients should be gently folded into the egg whites. Fold as few times as possible to combine the ingredients and maintain as much volume as possible.