I have way more cooking gadgets than your average 23-year-old. The last two birthday presents from my boyfriend were a digital scale and an immersion blender. While they were exactly what I wanted, next year I promise I’ll ask for something more romantic.
Quite possibly my favorite gift was a set of eight-ounce ramekins. I still can’t get over the thrill of individual servings. And there’s nothing better than using a ramekin for soufflés.
The word soufflé is the past participle of the French verb souffler, “to puff up”. The first soufflé recipes appeared in France in the early 1800s and were savory, flavored with puréed meat or game. According to foodreference.com, the word soufflé first appeared in English in chef-to-royalty Louis-Eustache Ude’s cookbook The French Cook in 1813. Eustache worked for Napoleon’s mother, along with a few English Dukes and Earls. In 1841, founder of haute French cuisine Marie Antoine Careme published Patissier Royal Parisien, with recipes on soufflés with chocolate, vanilla, lemon, and cheese. New ovens heated by air drafts instead of coal made these recipes possible, as they provided an even cooking temperature necessary for soufflés to rise and stay up.
A soufflé consists of two essential parts: an egg custard base containing flavoring and whipped egg whites, which provides structure and height.
The base is just a white sauce, a milk-based sauce thickened by roux, or flour suspended in butter. Melt your butter until it stops foaming, so that the water has evaporated out of it. Then add flour and cook until the starchy flavor is gone. By coating each flour granule with fat, you prevent lumps that occur when flour and water mix later. In the meantime, mix the other ingredients – milk, flavoring agents, and egg yolks. Incorporate those slowly into the roux, such that egg yolks are not scrambled.
Next, get whipping! Egg whites consist of protein and water. When you whip them, the protein forms a kind of skin around bubbles of air. Your egg whites should be whipped just until you see soft peaks, because the air bubbles need to be able to expand further in the oven. Use eggs that have reached room temperature, because the whites will expand faster and easier. Adding an acid like cream of tartar will help the egg white proteins denature, which will help the foam form faster. Avoid any traces of egg yolk. If fat is present, it lubricates the junctions between proteins and prevents the formation of foam. Avoid using a plastic bowl if you can – plastics and fats share a similar molecular structure and tend to bond easily, thus plastics tend to hold onto residual fats. Fold the whipped egg whites gently and quickly into your base.
The physical law behind the soufflé was identified by a French scientist and balloonist, J.A.C. Charles (McGee, 2004). Charles’ Law states that if gas is held at a constant pressure, its volume is directly proportional to its temperature. As temperature increases, the gas molecules will move around faster and hit the walls of their container with more force, causing an increase in volume. Heat an inflated balloon and the air will take up more space, so the balloon expands. Similarly, when a soufflé enters an oven, the air bubbles swell and the mix expands out the top of the dish.
Charles’ law only causes one-quarter of the rise. The rest comes from the continuous evaporation of water. Liquid water becomes water vapor and adds to the quantity of gas molecules in the bubbles, which increases the pressure on bubble walls, causing the walls to stretch. Additionally, the heat causes the protein to stiffen, and along with the fat from the yolk, it forms a kind of scaffold that keeps the soufflé from collapsing. The higher the temperature of the oven, the higher the soufflé will rise, because the heat expansion will be greater and more of the moisture in the mix will be vaporized.Logically, as the soufflé cools, the air contracts in volume, and the vapor condenses back into liquid. That’s why you have to eat it fast!