Saturday, July 12, 2008

If you can do dishes, you can make a soufflé

What's the connection between soufflés, washing dishes, and capitalism? You'll find out by the end of this post. But lets start with soufflés. They have an undeserved reputation for being finicky and refusing to rise. That's not fair. Soufflés are some of the most obedient and predictable dishes I've ever met. They'll do their part and rise to a beautiful golden crown if you do your part and do the dishes. What I mean is: wash that mixer bowl properly!

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.
Sure, it's all important, but that's the stuff you'll read about in any good cookbook. The reason I make such a stink about washing the bowl and separating the eggs is because people often take such basics for granted.

Cheese Soufflé (and the master recipe for any savory soufflé)

Serves 6-8

Step 1: Mis en place (that's the cooking term for "getting organized")
  1. Wash a large mixer bowl (see the washing instructions above).
  2. Go through all the steps to figure out what ingredients you'll need and measure them.
  3. 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.
  4. 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
  • Butter
  • 1/4 - 3/4 cup unflavored dry breadcrumbs or finely grated Parmesan (the fewer dishes you are using, the less you'll need)
Generously butter the soufflé dish or ramekins and sprinkle with breadcrumbs or cheese over the sink. Turn the cups to make sure the crumbs/cheese cover the inside evenly. Then turn the cups upside down and tap them on the side of the sink to shake out excess. Do not smudge or the soufflés won't rise evenly.

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
  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. Stir in the cheese (or a vegetable purée) and the eggs adding them one at a time. Mix thoroughly.
Step 4: Whipping egg whites and folding them in
  • 8 large egg whites, at room temperature
  • A pinch of salt
  • 1/2 tsp cream of tartar
  1. 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.
  2. 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.
Step 5: Baking the soufflé

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.


MrOrph said...

Great tips!

I am not afraid of much, but souffle gives me nightmares that would frighten Stephen King!

Anonymous said...

Anyway I don't trust machines for doing manual work.

SLAKED! said... I just need to pair this with a steely white wine. I think something light and delicate, no?

Helen said...

I am normally not a chardonnay person, but this is one of the few dishes that's rich enough for it. I would still choose something un-oaked, like a Macon, since I don't like oak in wines.

Anonymous said...

¡¡Qué rico!!

Polly said...

Thanks for the tips.

Souffles - like floating on air when they rise.


Della said...

That was good reading but by the time I got down to a pinch of nutmeg the souffle lost its mystique...

Anyway only the brave will go to so much trouble to glorify an egg...

Shreya said...

Awesome looking souffle! :-)

Unknown said...

What a beautiful photo - absolutely PERFECT souffle! I am inspired to do one tonight ... hmmmmmmmmmm ... chocolate?

Dispatcher said...

Since you seem like an authority on fish...

I know this is a little out of context, but can you clarify this for me... I don't know about other countries, but in India, there is thing about only eating fish in the months that have the letter 'R' in them. Is this true, if so why?

Anonymous said...

I have a fear I would pull a Sabrina and forget to turn the oven on after all that work.

Anonymous said...

I actually have never has a souffle, now are they worth all the washing trouble?

anyways, your next recipe must be fish, or you will have no fish recipes on your home page!

Sheetal Budhraj said...

Wow ! Great article there. Great in terms of the content, the information, and the entertainment factor. You are so right - that more than half the people don't actually wash the dishes, they just rinse them over. Thats a great point to be brought to the front through this blog...and souffles not rising, the very thought of that fear and I get nightmares, each time I think of setting to bake them...coz nothing beats a soft fluffy souffle thats well risen. But will keep everything that you've mentioned in mind this time when I set out to bake. Also its a great blog for cooking tips!

Check out my wacky blog if you get the time :

( There's a 'z' in letz )

Cain said...

Ooh! That recipe's making my mouth water...Gosh, I'll have to try it one day!

Helen said...

Anonymous asked if souffles are worth all the washing trouble. Hmm -- you might think I am really anal, but I normally wash dishes thoroughly. So it's no extra trouble. I am also willing to bet that it takes a whole 1 minute to wash a soap and rinse a bowl, and maybe another 1 minute to dry it. So, yes, those 2 extra minutes are definitely worth it :)

Tanya said that she might forget to turn the oven on after tall this trouble. That's actually perfectly fine. A finished souffle can sit for up to 1 hour covered with inverted bowl or pot before it has to be baked.

I know this is a long post and you are all probably thinking it's a lot of work. In reality, the whole process takes around 30 minutes and then you stick it in the oven. It's not a lot of work, it's just work that has to be done correctly.

Dispatcher was asking about eating fish only in the months that have "R" in them. I am not familiar with Indian waters, so I can't say, but US they used to tell you to only eat raw oysters in the months that have "R" in them because those are the cooler months and the risk of certain bacterial in the water is lower. It's no longer true here because most oysters are farmed.


Anonymous said...

You mentioned the "rule" about eating oysters only in months with an "R".

I used to live in FL and we heard that warning often, sometimes with this explanation: Most oysters you get in FL come out of the Gulf of Mexico and there is a lot of raw sewage dumped into the Gulf. This causes a lot of potentially very harmful bacteria and that bacteria is at its highest levels in warmer months.

I don't know if all of that is true, or any of it, but it added to something you said, so . . .

Helen said...

Ok folk -- I think this whole "only eat oysters in the months with R" discussion deserves a separate thread and some real data rather than our guesses. So, next time I am at my fish market, I'll ask. If anyone knows this stuff, it's Carl from New Deal Fish Market in Cambridge.


Kate Foley said...

What a beautiful photo.

In the directions for whipping the egg whites, do we add the salt at the same time as the cream of tartar, or at another point in the unwhipped / frothy / peaks progression? Thanks!

Anonymous said...

great blog, keep it up

Helen said...

Hi Kate,

Thanks for catching my mistake. I forgot to mention when to add the salt to the egg whites. Add it along with cream of tartar before whipping them.


Cherries Rock My Socks said...

I am about to graduate with a degree in family and consumer science education...the comment on students not washing dishes well cracked me up!

Nadira said...

Souffles are one many things in life that are only difficult if you believe they are. If you assume you can handle it, read the directions carefully, and actually *follow* them, they're not tricky at all.

I made my first souffle when I was eight years old, and it didn't occur to me that it was anything out of the ordinary until I returned the handmixer I had borrowed from my neighbor, and she was surprised at what I had made.

Ditto for knitting: my first non-scarf project used intarsia, which I didn't know was supposed to be a "scary" technique, so I just read the instructions and picked up the needles.

So don't be afraid of processes that are supposed to be difficult! Just do your research and give it a try. (Although it's not a good idea to try it for the first time when you have guests.) If it doesn't turn out, you can always order pizza. :)

Nabeel said...

this looks delicious. I am at work and it is making me hungry :( Let me go and get some chocolate from our 25 cent wending machine.

Anonymous said...

i'm so happy to have found your site... i will definitely try your souffle recipe... thanks for sharing...

mhill said...

Oh my! I'm SO excited!!!!! I just found your website - WOW! To think that I could make a souffle` and the beet recipe!!!! My family only cans them - I just love new things!


Delia said...

I never relized the beginning and end to cooking was dishes. I love to cook but not the side effect. I think I will have to adjust my attitude and embrace it as a whole. I will have to go buy a dish to make a souffle in. Give it try. I am going to get to those dishes right now just for my start. Thanks for the post.

Pilo said...

Dishwashers only go so far.
Golden words. Many a cooking got bad or receive a smell that is not natural to it, due to this fault. Thanks for placing stress on it. Nice dishes and I would like test my ability.
Thanks pilo