Whipped egg whites are a key part to many recipes on this site. Egg whites have many uses – they can give cakes structure and make them rise or be sweetened and turned into meringue. Knowing a few key principles and the stages of whipped egg whites – soft, firm, or stiff peaks – helps you accomplish this necessary baking method.
Key dos and don’ts
Before you begin whipping your egg whites, keep these points in mind to help make the process go smoothly:
No yolky streaks: If there is any amount of yolk (or other fat, oil, or grease) in the whites, they will not whip properly. Don’t use egg whites if they contain any traces of yolk - save those for scrambled eggs.
By hand or machine, in a large enough bowl:You can whip the egg whites by hand with a (preferably, balloon) whisk – a lengthier process that requires considerable arm strength! – or by electric hand-held mixer or a stand mixer. Egg whites increase in volume considerably (up to 8 times in size!) as they are whipped so be sure to use a large enough bowl.
Clean, dry bowl and whisk:The bowl and whisk must be absolutely clean because even the tiniest bit of fat or residue will prevent peaks from forming. Stainless steel or glass bowls are recommended. Avoid plastic bowls as they can retain greasy residues from previous uses that can prevent the whites from whipping.
Acid:Adding a pinch of cream of tartar (or a few drops of vinegar or lemon juice in lieu) to egg whites prior to beating helps stabilize the egg protein and increase the volume, allowing the egg whites to hold their shape when whipped. If you don't have cream of tartar, don't worry as egg whites can be whipped without its help.
Type and temperature of eggs:There is a lot of debate about whether to use fresher or older eggs. The whites of fresher eggs are more stable but result in less volume than the whites of older eggs. As for the temperature, colder eggs add stability but result in less volume than room temperature eggs. The freshness and temperature of the eggs to use is up to you.
Whipping traps air in the egg whites, creating a network of bubbles and stretching the egg whites’ protein when the correct amount of air is properly beaten into them. With continued whipping, the bubbles get smaller and the egg protein thickens into a stable mass, increasing their volume. A cake prepared with whipped egg whites will rise when baked as the heat causes the air bubbles (created during whipping) to expand.
Recipes will typically call for soft to stiff peaks. The peak stiffness achieved during whipping refers to the consistency.
Egg whites reach different stages, starting out foamy and ending with stiff peaks. It is difficult to estimate the lengthen of time as many variables may impact the whipping time. It may take 4-5 minutes to whip whites to stiff peaks without sugar. More time is needed to reach the desired consistency if the recipe calls for sugar to be whipped into the whites.
Whipping egg whites should begin at a low speed - if they are whipped too quickly at the beginning, the structure of the egg white will not be as strong and they will not whip as high as they could. Gradually increase the speed until you get to high by the firm/stiff peak stage. Keep whipping the egg whites continuously (except to test the peak stage - see directions below) until the egg white stage indicated in the recipe.
To determine the peak reached, stop the mixer and lift the beater (or whisk, if whipping by hand) upright. You can not determine the peak if the beater remains in the bowl. To avoid overbeating after you have reached the soft peaks stage, regularly check the state of your egg whites by turning off the mixer and lifting up the beaters.
The four egg white stages, along with some tips, are detailed below.
Stage 1: Frothy or foamy
Begin whipping your egg whites on low speed until they become frothy or foamy, like soapsuds. At this stage, the egg whites have formed a mass of tiny, slightly opaque bubbles but the egg whites are partly still liquid.
If the recipe requires you to continue to whip the whites, increase the speed to medium-high and whip continuously until the desired peak. Monitor your progress throughout.
If the recipe calls for sugar, for ideal volume and stability, add the sugar to the egg whites after they are foamy/frothy but before they start to form soft peaks - unless the recipe states otherwise. The sugar should be added gradually, a tablespoon at a time, so it has time to dissolve and to avoid losing volume. Sugar stabilizes the egg whites and they become denser and shinier than plain whipped egg whites.
Adding sugar to egg whites is referred to as a "meringue". There are three types of meringue: French, Swiss, and Italian. The distinction depends on how the sugar is added and whether heat is involved.
Stage 2: Soft peaks
The egg whites are now white, fluffy, light and pliable. They will hold their shape ever so slightly in the bowl. When the whisk is pulled out of the mixture, the peak will be soft and fluffy – unable to hold its itself up fully and possibly curling to the side, forming a hook.
Stage 3: Firm Peaks
The egg whites have increased in volume and have become firmer. When the whisk is pulled out of the mixture, the whites form peaks that have more structure but the very tip of the peak doesn’t stand straight up – slumping to the side like a bird's beak.
Stage 4: Stiff Peaks
The egg whites now have considerable structure and firmness. When the whisk is pulled out of the mixture, the whites form smooth, shiny peaks that stand straight up. These egg whites will keep their shape and remain in place, even when the mixing bowl is turned upside down.
A Stage too far: Overbeaten
At stage 4, the egg whites have reached their fullest volume and should not be beaten any longer or you will have overbeaten eggs. If egg whites are whipped too long (i.e. beyond stiff peaks), the structure of the egg whites will break and liquid will weep out. The egg whites will look dry, clumpy and cotton-like. They are unusable in this state. Try adding another (room temperature) egg white, using a hand whisk to help recover the egg whites (do not use a electric mixer to try to fix the egg whites). If that doesn’t work, you will need to start over.
Using egg whites
Whipped egg whites should be used immediately as they lose volume and elasticity or weep moisture as they sit. Be sure to have all the remaining recipe ingredients ready to go and add them as soon as the whites are beaten. Also keep in mind that other ingredients should not be beaten or stirred into egg whites as you want to keep as much of the air beaten into the egg whites as possible. Instead, gently fold the other ingredients into the egg whites – running a spatula along the bottom of the bowl and then up and over the batter – to maintain as much volume as possible.
While whipping eggs whites make take a bit of patience and time, you'll be rewarded by the light, airy texture of your dessert!