Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Don't be afraid of whipping egg whites


Last week, poor Roxy had a harrowing egg white experience. She was making these cupcakes, and started whipping the egg whites for them. And she whipped, and she whipped, and she whipped, and whipped some more (not like that, you dirty people), and then she brought the laptop into the kitchen and IMed me in panic after she had been whipping the egg whites for 15 minutes and there was froth but nothing else. She was typing with one hand while holding the electric beater in the other hand, and while she managed not to get any egg white in her laptop, the whites were still not light and cloudy. I talked her down, we figured out the problem, she started over, and soon had beautifully fluffy egg whites, and the resulting cupcakes were delicious. So, in this first installment of an occasional series about food and cooking, I am here to tell you: Don't be afraid of whipping egg whites.

Now, as Roxy's experience shows, beating egg whites can be a little tricky, but if you remember a few key things, it will be a breeze. First, start with your equipment: room temperature egg whites, a clean, dry bowl, and clean dry beaters. The most important thing for the latter two are that they are clean and, you guessed it, bone dry. Apparently a copper bowl is the best thing for whipping egg whites, but seriously, who has a copper bowl? Glass or metal will do just fine. As for your beater, I usually whip my egg whites in my stand mixer, but a hand mixer is actually easier, especially if you only have a few whites. Optional additions are cream of tartar or lemon juice, I'll get to that in a moment.

The easiest way to separate your egg whites is to crack the egg into your hand, and let the whites fall into the bowl through your fingers. This technique makes it so much easier and cleaner to do it that way than cracking the egg and shuttling the yolk back and forth until as much of the whites as possible are gone: this way you get almost all of the whites into the bowl, you run less of a chance of puncturing the yolk and getting any yolk into your whites, and any bits of broken egg shell stay on your hand, and not in your whites. In order to get the whites to room temperature, you can either put the eggs into a bowl of warm water before cracking them (dry them off before cracking so that water doesn't get into your whites), or once you've separated them, put a bowl of warm water under the bowl that holds your egg whites and let them sit for a few minutes.

Then just turn on your beater and start whipping. Start the beater at a relatively low speed, and then turn it up when they start frothing. At that point, you can add a tiny bit of that cream of tartar or lemon juice (about 1/8 of a teaspoon per egg white) because they stabilize the whites and make them fluffier, but if you don't have any, it's not a big deal. Then keep whipping until they get fluffy. Then you're done! As they start to get fluffy, it's always better to go slow and keep stopping to check, because you don't want to overwhip them (this one of the reasons why it's better to use a hand mixer than a stand mixer for this, because you don't want to walk away and forget about them, because then they'll get liquid again). See, that was easy, wasn't it? And it took only a few minutes.

So the next time you see a recipe that looks great, but you pass it by because you have to whip the egg whites, just stop, think "I can do this!", and don't be afraid of egg whites.

A few other handy links about beating egg whites:
Beating Egg Whites Tips and Hints []
A video on beating egg whites []
Stage by stage pictures of beaten egg whites [bakingsheet]

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