Whenever cooks tell me that they followed instructions to a tee and their soufflé didn't rise, my guess is that the bowl in which they whipped the egg whites wasn't clean enough. I have a rare opportunity to watch 60+ people wash dishes on monthly basis. No, I don't search for "washing dishes" on YouTube. I teach cooking classes, and dirty dishes are an inevitable side effect. Here is what I've noticed -- most people rinse dishes, they don't wash them. Two factors contribute to this lack of thoroughness -- over-reliance on dishwashers and not owning the dishes being washed.
Dishwashers only go so far. You still need to scrub any pieces of food or dough off the dishes before loading them into that magic box. If you've ever pulled a supposedly clean bowl with dried up oatmeal out of a dishwasher, you know what I mean.
Now about ownership. Obviously, the people washing dishes in a cooking class don't feel particularly invested in their cleanliness. When they are everyone's dishes, they are no one's dishes. Communal ownership leads to failure of way bigger things than souffles. So, own that bowl! Don't rely on your spouse, boy-friend, girl-friend, kid, friend, or room-mate even if they are the primary dish washer in your household. If you want your souffle to rise, roll up your sleeves, get the sponge nice and soapy and scrub the heck out of that bowl. Be just as thorough when you rinse it, and make sure the towel used for drying is perfectly clean (I suggest using paper towels). If there is as much as a spec of grease on that bowl, the whites won't whip properly. Some recipes suggest rubbing the inside of the perfectly clean and dry bowl with lemon juice or vinegar and wiping it dry, but I never find this necessary if the bowl is washed well in the first place.
Good. You have a clean bowl and hopefully you got yourself into a meticulous enough frame of mind necessary for making soufflés. Now let's talk about separating eggs. Separate them one at a time dropping the white into a small bowl, and collecting all the yolks in another bowl. Only dump the white into the mixer bowl if the yolk was removed intact. Since the yolk is mostly fat any trace of it will not let the whites whip properly. The best way to break eggs is to tap them on the counter, and then open them gently with your thumbs. Breaking eggs on the side of a bowl usually increases the likelihood that you'll get little pieces of shell into the egg or damage the yolk.
If you are thinking that there has to be more to soufflés than a clean bowl and correctly separated eggs, you are right. Here are a few more tips:
- Bring the white to room temperature before whipping
- Whip the whites right before folding them in, not in advance
- Stop whipping the whites as soon as you get stiff peaks of they'll curdle
- Don't smudge the soufflé molds after buttering them and sprinkling with bread crumbs or cheese (or sugar for sweet soufflés). If you take good care of your molds, the soufflé will rise straight up and won't look like a leaning tower of Pisa.
- Don't open the oven door for the first 20 minutes no matter how much you want to take a peak.
- Invite your guests to the table 10 minutes before the souffle could possibly be ready. You don't want people to decide they need to use the bathroom or make a phone call or start arguing about who'll win this election when there is a soufflé to be eaten. You only have a couple of minutes before your work of art starts to fall.
Cheese Soufflé (and the master recipe for any savory soufflé)
Step 1: Mis en place (that's the cooking term for "getting organized")
- Wash a large mixer bowl (see the washing instructions above).
- Go through all the steps to figure out what ingredients you'll need and measure them.
- This is a good time to get the eggs out of the fridge and to separate them (see the separating instructions above). Collect all the yolks in one small bowl and all the whites in the large mixer bowl. Keep them at room temperature.
- Preheat the oven to 375F.
Step 2: Preparing the baking dish(es)
- one 8-cup soufflé dish (4 inches deep)
- or six 8 oz ramekins with straight sides
- or eight 6 oz ramekins
- 1/4 - 3/4 cup unflavored dry breadcrumbs or finely grated Parmesan (the fewer dishes you are using, the less you'll need)
Step 3: Making the base
The base for most savory soufflés is a thick Béchamel Sauce mixed with a flavoring (like cheese, spinach, butternut squash, etc). Once you master the basic recipe, feel free to improvise with the flavoring. If using a vegetable purée make sure it's seasoned generously with salt.
- 3 Tbsp butter
- 3 Tbsp all-purpose flour
- 1 1/4 cups boiling milk
- 1/2 tsp table salt (or 1 tsp Diamond Crystal Kosher or 3/4 tsp Morton's Kosher)
- 1/8 tsp white pepper (you can substitute black)
- Pinch of nutmeg
- 1 1/4 cup lightly packed grated Gruyere (or some other cheese or vegetable purée)
- 6 large egg yolks
- Set a medium-size, heavy saucepan over medium heat. Add the butter and wait for it to melt. Add the flour and cook stirring constantly for 2 minutes. Regulate heat so that the flour doesn't brown. Remove from heat.
- When the mixture stops bubbling, add the boiling milk (it has to be boiling, not just warm) and whisk vigorously with a wire whip until blended. Stir in the salt, pepper, and nutmeg. Return to medium heat and boil for 1 minute, whisking constantly. Sauce will be very thick. Take off heat and cool to room temperature.
- Stir in the cheese (or a vegetable purée) and the eggs adding them one at a time. Mix thoroughly.
- 8 large egg whites, at room temperature
- A pinch of salt
- 1/2 tsp cream of tartar
- Add the cream of tartar and salt to the egg whites, and start beating them on low speed with a whisk mixer attachment. When frothy, increase the speed to medium and beat until soft peaks form. Increase the speed to high. Beat until the peaks are stiff, but not dry. Do not over beat or the whites will become clumpy.
- Use a rubber spatula to fold one-quarter of the egg whites into the Béchamel base. Then fold in the rest of the whites. Folding is not stirring! Here is a video on how to fold in the whites correctly. The reason you don't add the whites all at once is to lighten the base first and make the consistencies of the base and the whites more compatible.
Pour the mixture into the prepared soufflé dish or ramekins, tap them gently on the table and smooth the top with the flat of a knife.
Ahead-of-time note: If you are not ready to put the soufflé in the oven immediately, it can wait in a warm, draft-free place, covered with an inverted large bowl or pot for up to 1 hour.
Place the souffé in the middle of the oven and don't open the oven door for at least 20 minutes. Large soufflés take 40-45 minutes until they are puffy, browned, and cooked through. Individual ones take 20-25 minutes for 8 oz ramekins, and 17-20 for 6 oz ramekins. Remove from the oven and serve immediately.
If you want to learn more about soufflés, I highly recommend Julia Child's Mastering the Art of French Cooking and the 1997 edition of the Joy of Cooking.