What do you get when you cross a cake, a casserole and a meringue? The soufflé: egg whites whipped to a peak, combined with a sweet or savory base and baked to puffy perfection. It's a dish for which success has eluded so many that it has a nearly mystical aura, but don't be discouraged. The soufflé is more forgiving than you think.
This story begins with an egg, which is what gives the soufflé its trademark fluffiness. As the soufflé's internal temperature rises, the air incorporated into the whites during whipping expands, liquid water turns into steam and the soufflé is pushed upwards.
Most soufflé recipes call for egg whites whipped to stiff peaks. They should appear glossy and not dry. Over-beaten whites lose their sheen and result in a flat soufflé. Always use a copper or stainless steel bowl. Copper reacts chemically with the proteins in egg whites, resulting in a more stable mixture. Stainless steel bowls can also work, but egg whites may require additional whipping, or sugar or cream of tartar can be added to achieve similar stability. Avoid glass, plastic and wooden bowls, and never use an aluminum bowl; it can turn your egg whites a dingy gray color. Be sure the bowl is perfectly clean—the same goes for the whisk—and always separate an egg in a different bowl than the mixing bowl. Even a speck of egg yolk (fat) can inhibit the proper formation of peaks, and it is nearly impossible to fully extract broken yolk from whites.
The next component is the base. For some soufflés, a base is as simple as egg yolks, sugar and other ingredients such as cocoa or fruit purée. Other soufflés have a cooked starch base, providing a sturdier but light texture. Bases are also where you can reduce fat or calories. Healthier soufflé recipes may use half the amount of egg yolks or eliminate them altogether, or substitute low-fat or fat-free milk for full-fat milk or cream. Use fresh savory ingredients such as spinach or arugula. And in sweet applications, replace sweetened syrups and chocolate baking bars with fresh fruit purées.
When combining the base and egg whites, handle with care. Your instinct may be to work quickly, but it is very important to incorporate the whites into the base with a slow, gentle folding motion so you don't destroy the precious air bubbles necessary for rising. Any soufflé recipe will call for a preheated oven, but you cannot always trust a built-in temperature gauge. A unit that runs even slightly hot or cool can affect the success of the soufflé, so consider buying an inexpensive oven thermometer to ensure the temperature is precise. A soufflé will begin to settle as soon as it is removed from the heat source. This is perfectly normal and does not mean your efforts will collapse into a pancake.
Let the soufflé cool for as long as the recipe calls and enjoy!