Demystifying the Souffle

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A soufflé is one of the great culinary cons. Reputedly temperamental, in truth soufflés are the simplest and most humble of casseroles. Though many cookbooks talk about a soufflé as a fancy version of scrambled eggs, every soufflé in fact starts with a sauce, and it is the flavor, consistency and structure of that sauce that will in large part determine the rise or fall of the finished product.

A thick white sauce (“bechamel” in classic French terms) is the base for almost all soufflés. How thick? If you have to ask, it’s probably not thick enough. Its consistency must grip like day-old gruel. For if it is not starchy enough it will slip from the aerated whites as they inflate and you will end up with a soufflé that may look full blown and high flying, but will reveal upon the first scoop a crown of beaten egg white floating on a limpid sea of sauce.

Once you are assured that your sauce is thick enough, it is important to season it with a heavy hand. Remember this sauce is going to be puffed to 5 or 6 times its original volume, so whatever flavoring you add will be diluted many fold by the time the soufflé is served. Take a taste. If you think it has enough salt, add some more. If the garlic flavor is subtle, double it.

The next step in any soufflé recipe is to add egg yolks to the sauce, which should be done while the sauce is still hot. This is essential so that the heat starts to set up the protein in the egg yolks. Otherwise the liquid of the yolk will thin the sauce, thereby making the soufflé mixture too slack.

Many recipes alert you to the opposite pitfall, warning you that the yolks could curdle if added when the sauce is too hot. But unless the sauce is near bubbling, this is not a possibility. Egg yolks do not coagulate fully until they pass 160F. Simply transferring boiling sauce to a mixing bowl will cool it below that danger point.

The calorie-phobic tend to want to delete egg yolks from soufflé recipes. After all, they don’t help it rise, so what good are they? More than egg white, the yolk forms the structure of the soufflé and insures that once the thing rises it stays that way. As a soufflé inflates, the protein in the egg yolk coagulates, helping the sauce to cling to the bulging infrastructure and to firm up just as the inflation reaches its height. Substituting additional egg white for the yolk does accomplish the same thing, but since egg white sets up firmer than the yolk, the resulting soufflé will be rubbery rather than creamy.

Once you have the sauce made and flavored, and the yolks incorporated, you’re practically home free. All that’s left is beating the egg whites, a task that many soufflé makers fixate upon unnecessarily. The sole function of the egg white is to transfer air into the sauce mixture, where it can expand in the heat of the oven and push the soufflé aloft.

To that end it is important not to overbeat the whites. Too much beating will make the whites puffed and firm, but they will be brittle. When you try to mix them into the sauce they will break and release their air. If you stop beating while the aerated whites are still soft, they will flow into the sauce easily. It will take less action to combine the two (every time you touch beaten egg whites you deflate them), and the air will be dispersed evenly throughout the sauce, insuring an even rise.

Sunday’s soufflé is standard in its construction and flavoring, but we’ve gilded it with our take on rouille — a French condiment made with roasted peppers, garlic and basil. Not only is this dish at once contemporary and classic, but it deconstructs into elements which will provide the foundation for a week’s worth of dinners.

By making a double batch of the soufflé sauce called for in the recipe, you will have not only the base for a blanquette of chicken and a cheesy meatloaf, but the soufflé’s spinach mixture also provides the stuffing for a quick and elegant trout Florentine later in the week. And the coquilles Saint-Jacques you serve midweek gets its savory garnish of garlic, hazelnut and bacon from Sunday’s side dishes — a garlic and hazelnut baguette and a Romaine and escarole salad with hot bacon dressing.

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