So in October I received the following email:
So, I just made coffee cake! It was super fun. Can you tell me everything you know about egg whites? Such as the consequences of failure to whip egg whites to stiff white peaks in recipes which call for it?
NOT AT ALL RELATED FACT: Whisking egg whites by hand is like jacking off a guy with priapism.
And (huge apology to Re!) I am now answering it, in May. So, without anymore waiting…
I love coffee cake – I went through a whole coffee cake phase at work last fall: lemon-berry, pumpkin and cream cheese, just cream cheese, pecan and cinnamon, blue berry and cream cheese (I like cream cheese and coffee cake)…
Now, as for egg whites, what are commonly referred to as egg whites are properly known as albumen. The albumen of an egg protects the delicate yolk during embryonic growth. Egg whites are mostly water with a little protein thrown in for good measure, and make up about two-thirds of the liquid weight of the egg (the other one-third being the yolk). Truth be told, Wikipedia explains the process of what happens when whisking egg whites perfectly here. Everything else I can tell you is anecdotal. So, let me proceed by first relating the story of my first (failed) ever batch of chiffon cake. A Chiffon Cake is a spongy cake leavened with egg whites and a small amount of baking powder (the egg whites do most of the work). The whites are whisked up to stiff peaks with some of the sugar and incorporated into the rest of the batter via folding. My mistake was in not allowing the whites to stiffen enough, and when I folded them in, they were unable to stand up to the heaviness of the rest of the batter, and the air bubbles all collapsed. Since incorporating air into the batter is how you obtain the lovely, spongy texture, the cake falls in the oven (or feels depressed about its self-worth and doesn’t bother to rise at all). I was left with a bunch of one inch thick disks of lemon-flavored fail that I cubed and tossed into bread pudding (ahhh bakers, the great recyclers of the kitchen). So, to answer your question – not whisking them stiffly enough means your baked product fails to live up to its potential just like any young child who fails to “fill their father’s shoes”. Or something like that. Maybe.
I admit, I used to be a little afraid of egg whites. I just didn’t realize how tough the buggers are. The more I’ve worked with them over the years, the more I’ve come to love them and just get excited about them. There are so many hidden ways you can utilize an egg white’s potential! In fact, I would say that the best cure for albumen nervousness is to make a lot of buttercream – I got over mine soon enough after making 8 1/2 lbs. of the stuff every week. Since most people don’t need that much buttercream hanging around their kitchens, the recipe below is incredibly scaled down.
As to your note about whisking whites by hand, I definitely agree. In fact, this is directly related to my failed chiffon cake mentioned above (at the time there was only one bowl for the stand mixer, and we were backed up. Now we have three bowls, so yay!). The only cure for this is to invest in an electric mixing device. If you don’t want to drop 200-400$ on a super awesome shiny kitchenaid stand mixer (HOLY SHIT THEY MAKE CLEAR FUCKING BOWLS NOW), you can always go with a nice handmixer that has a whisk attachment; this is the culinary equivalent to a battery-charged sex toy. Cuisinart makes a nice one with a whisk attachment that runs about 40$, and the motor isn’t going to burn up five minutes later, so it’s a good deal that won’t break the bank. If you DO decide to splurge on the stand mixer, buy TWO BOWLS. You will be a happier person, trust me.
There are four main types (or rather, methods) of buttercream out there: Swiss Buttercream, Italian Buttercream, French Buttercream, and American Buttercream. Swiss Buttercream calls for sugar and egg whites to be heated over a double boiler before they are whipped up to meringue, allowed to cool and further whipped with butter. Italian and French Buttercream both call for a method wherein boiled sugar is poured slowly down the side of a bowl as egg is whisked, the difference between them being that Italian calls for egg whites and French calls for yolks. If you haven’t guessed already, American Buttercream is uncooked, does not have eggs, and is often not made with butter, but shortening (yum). There is a German Buttercream, but that’s really just Swiss Buttercream and Pastry Cream mixed together.
Though delicious, French Buttercream is the least stable of the BIG THREE cooked buttercreams, with regards to time and keeping temperature. If made, it’s best used right away, and refrigerated. It does not stand well against high humidity and temperature here in Coastal Georgia. There seems to be some debate over the superior stability of Italian and Swiss Buttercream. I believe it is more to do with personal preference, but I have found that Swiss Buttercream tends to stand up much better at an outdoor wedding in June than Italian. Plus, it’s easier, less messy, safer, and best of all, there’s no guess work! If you don’t want to do the skin test (see below), just buy a digital probe thermometer. Bonus: use the thermometer to test your bread – when it reads 200F in the center of the loaf, your bread will be perfectly done every time.
Egg whites: 8 oz.
Granulated Sugar: 1 lb. (not as much as it sounds, I promise!)
Unsalted Butter: 5 sticks + 2 Tablespoons. Allow it to soften to room temperature
Set a large pot on the stove with about two inches of water in the bottom, and turn the stove top on to medium-low, or whatever setting you have that will allow the water to steam without boiling. Boiling here means scrambled egg sugar, so we want to avoid that. Whisk together your whites and sugar in a bowl large enough to sit over the top of the pot without touching the water (stainless steel bowls are nice, but any heat-proof bowl will do so long as it is big enough for the top of your pot). Be sure to use pot holders or a thick rag to handle the bowl, as it will heat up. Now, just keep an eye on the mixture, whisking it and scraping the sugar down the sides of the bowl every couple of minutes. Check the water now and again to be sure it’s not boiling. This will take about ten to twenty minutes, so chill. Using a probe thermometer, probe the liquid and check to see when it reaches 145F; remove the bowl, and wipe down the bottom of it with a cloth. **Skin Test** For those who are serious cooks/bakers or Julia Child only: Stick the tip of your most sensitive finger in the sugar mixture. If it is uncomfortable hot but not scalding it’s done. This is how I learned to test buttercream in school, and since I don’t want to be slapped with a law suit please use discretion, don’t be a N00b and don’t blame me if you burn your stupid ass. Also just use a thermometer please.
Pour the mixture into a clean, dry mixing bowl and immediately begin whisking on the highest setting, about seven minutes, until you have stiff, glossy white peaks of meringue. Continue whisking on low until the bottom of the bowl has cooled to room temperature. When cooled, add in your butter and mix at a medium to high speed until you have fluffy, smooth, spreadable buttercream perfection! What does that look like? There are visual stages you can watch: first, the meringue will deflate slightly, and the mix will look a bit runny as the butter is whipped in. Later, it’ll take on a stiff, lumpy appearance, but persevere and you will eventually obtain a satiny, pale ivory-colored state of fluffy goodness. Some recipes will have you whip up the butter before adding it to your meringue, but this is unnecessary – we’ve totally cut the step out at the bakery. After that, you’re done – add a pinch of salt and vanilla to taste, or add various flavorings and colors (use gel colors, water-based doesn’t mix well with the butter), or whisk in a little melted, room temperature chocolate at high speed for chocolate buttercream (most delicious). If you don’t use it up right away, don’t refrigerate it, just keep it in a covered, tightly wrapped container and out of direct sunlight in a cool spot and it’ll last about a week. Swiss Buttercream pipes out beautifully, looks divine and tastes heavenly. It’s perfect on cakes and cupcakes, pumpkin pies, fudgy brownies, sandwiched between cookies and petit macarons, whoopie pies, and whatever else you can dream up. If you want the most perfect meringue for, say, a lemon pie, just skip the butter, frost on a cloud of meringue, and torch it. Cooked meringue stands up to refrigeration AND humidity way better than uncooked.
Some other delightful uses for egg whites:
- Pipe out meringue on parchment and dry in the oven at 150F overnight for meltaway cookies
- allow a little egg white to dry on your face for a natural face peel (there are loads of recipes online)
- In flourless chocolate cake: whip up the egg whites separately with a third of the recipe’s sugar, then fold in at the end. It’ll make it less dense and more melt-in-your-mouth.
- Egg whites will fluff up pie fillings!
- Add a ribbon of egg white to a lemon cheesecake.
- Poached meringue is a bizarrely delicious dessert – serve it with a little warmed creme anglaise.
Of course the best source of information on eggs is French chemist Herve This, who by deciding to find out how eggs and egg protein worked sort of started that whole Molecular Gastronomy thing.