How to Make a Perfect Souffle
Relax, It's Just a Souffle
According to La Varenne Practique (a timeless masterwork you should consider owning if learning more about classic French cooking appeals), there are only a few critical points to perfecting a souffle: a base of the right consistency, stiff egg whites, and the careful folding of the base and the beaten whites. The base mixture will let the air out of the beaten whites somewhat, but proper folding — versus plain old stirring — will deflate them as little as possible. The following basic techniques and steps are relevant whether you are making a savory or sweet souffle.
Photography by Laura Agra
Get the Recipe: Cheese Souffle
You will need a ceramic or glass straight-sided baking dish; the straight sides are necessary for the souffle to "climb" up the sides of the dish as it bakes. You can either butter only the bottom of the souffle dish, leaving the sides ungreased so that the souffle can climb, or you can grease the whole thing and then coat the bottom and sides with fine breadcrumbs or grated cheese so the rising souffle has something to grab onto.
Start with the Eggs
You'll need to separate them, as the yolks will be added to the base to add richness, and the whites will be beaten separately to add height. Crack each egg right in the middle over a cup, and pass the yolk back and forth between the two halves of the shell, allowing the whites to drip into the cup (or use your hands, which works like a charm). The eggs should be room temperature, which will help them separate more easily and will help the whites easily beat up into peaks. Make very sure the yolk stays intact. Cracking them over a cup one at a time is a good idea: If one yolk breaks, you don’t ruin the whole bowl of whites. Transfer the whites and the yolk to two separate bowls as you go.
Make the Base
Whether the souffle is savory or sweet, it will start with a seasoned base, then the beaten whites will be folded into this base. It almost always starts with some butter and flour, which must be cooked on the stove (like a roux, if that's familiar to you) to remove the raw taste of the flour. Hot milk or cream is usually added, then the yolks are added slowly, to thicken the mixture. The flavor of the souffle is really concentrated in the base, which will be diluted by the clouds of neutrally flavored egg whites that get folded in.
Whip the Egg Whites
Egg whites can be whipped to eight times their volume. Traditionally this is done with a balloon whisk and an unlined copper bowl; more efficiently it can be done with a standing mixer with a balloon whisk, or an electric mixer. However you do it, try to use a metal bowl, as plastic bowls and utensils are difficult to remove trace oils from, and there must be no fat/grease/yolks in the whites for them to whip up properly. If you use a mixer, start on low speed, and increase the speed gradually. Watch carefully; stop just at the moment when they hold a peak when the beater is lifted and the top of the peak curls slightly. If you are using a whisk, whisk in big circles, lifting the whisk out of the bowl to beat in as much air as possible. Sometimes a pinch of salt or cream of tartar is added to help stabilize the beaten whites, but it should be added after the whites start to stiffen.
Fold the Whites Into the Base
Stir in one-quarter of the mixture, then use a spatula and scoop from the bottom of the bowl over the top to just barely combine the two mixtures. There should still be some faint streaks when you finish.
Fill the Dish
Fill the dish to a half-inch shy of the rim for the best rising effect, but do make sure it is filled at least three-quarters of the way so that it passes the top when it rises. Some cooks add a paper collar to the top of the souffle to encourage it to rise even straighter and taller, but, really, that’s one step too many for me. Smooth the top. Running your thumb around the inside of the souffle to create a narrow moat and clean off the edges of the dish encourages the souffle to rise with a nice jaunty cap.
Bake the Souffle
Before you preheat the oven, move a rack to the bottom third of the oven, and make sure that any other racks are up high, or removed, so the souffle has room to rise. Don't open the oven door until you are very close to the end (and want to see if it's done). A perfect souffle will pretty much double in volume. It will be puffed and brown, and it can have a soft center (a little jiggly when the dish is gently shaken) or a firmer center (it doesn't jiggle hardly at all when gently shaken). It depends on how you like your souffle.
Serve It Quickly
Some people test doneness by inserting a knife and checking to see if it comes out clean, but stabbing a souffle is really playing with fire. If you absolutely can't serve it the moment it's ready, a souffle is likely to keep its crown for about 10 minutes if you leave it in the oven, but do turn off the heat so it doesn't overcook. Sometimes a sauce is served to complement the souffle, whether it be savory or sweet. It can be spooned onto the entire souffle at the table or spooned over individual portions.
If All Doesn't Go As Planned ...
If eggs whites separate and get grainy as you are beating them: Whip in one more white, then beat for another minute until smooth.
If the souffle didn't rise: Perhaps the base was too thick and thus too heavy for the whites to push up against. Another reason could be that the whites were overmixed with the base. Another cause is that the beaten whites, or the uncooked souffle, sat for too long before baking. After mixing the souffle, cook it within an hour. If that's not possible, keep it in the refrigerator before baking, so that the whites don't start to deflate.
If it rose but then fell in the oven: You may have left it in for too long, or you may have opened the door too many times and the fluctuating temperature caused it to collapse. Grab it and serve it — it will still be delicious!