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Before Beating Egg Whites, Read This

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There are a few essential things to know about egg whites in baking that will make all the difference to success.

Photo by James Ransom

Before you begin, age your egg whites, weigh them—and clean your bowls.

  • First, egg whites from freshly-laid eggs will not beat well. They need to be at least five days old.
  • When a recipe calls for a certain amount of egg whites, it’s important to get out your scale. I previously wrote about the decreasing size of egg yolks, and the other side of that coin is, of course, the increasing amounts of egg white. One egg white should be 30 grams/1 ounce/ 2 tablespoons/30 milliliters (and it follows that 8 egg whites should be 240 grams/one 8 ounce cup/237 milliliters). Of course, this is most important in recipes that rely on a precise quantity of egg white and/or that call for the whites to be beaten to very stiff peaks (read on more explanation).
Your Egg Yolks Are Smaller Than They Used to Be
Your Egg Yolks Are Smaller Than They Used to Be
  • Also keep in mind that egg whites will not beat if even a drop of fat gets into them. This includes egg yolk or any traces of oil that might be in the bowl. If in doubt, wipe the bowl with a clean damp towel that has been sprinkled with a little white vinegar. Should a drop of yolk get into the white, the eggshell works like a magnet to draw it out.

Take steps to prevent against over-beating.

When stiffly beaten egg whites are called for in a recipe, over-beating will break them down and deflate them once they are added to the mixture, at which point it will appear curdled. The problem is that it can be extremely hard to tell when eggs have crossed the fine line between stiffly beaten and over-beaten. In recipes where it’s critical for the whites to reach very stiff peaks—when making ladyfingers, for example, the batter will not keep its shape when piped if the meringue is not stiff enough—it can be easy to over-beat.

Luckily, there is a reliable safeguard, which I discovered many years ago, that has made a huge difference to my baking life: cream of tartar. Cream of tartar (potassium acid tartrate) is a byproduct of wine production (and an essential ingredient in snickerdoodles). Adding the proper amount of cream of tartar will prevent overbeating of egg whites 100% of the time.

Nutella Stuffed Snickerdoodles

Nutella Stuffed Snickerdoodles by Yossy Arefi

Cardamom Currant Snickerdoodles

Cardamom Currant Snickerdoodles by fiveandspice

It is essential to weigh or measure the egg white (see above!) because too little or too much cream of tartar will not protect the whites effectively. The ideal amount is...

  • For 1 egg white (30 grams), 1/8 teaspoon of cream of tartar
  • For 8 egg whites (240 grams), 1 teaspoon of cream of tartar

Measure the cream of tartar by dipping the measuring spoon into the container and leveling it off with a metal spatula or knife. Be sure to wipe the outside bottom of the spoon with your finger before adding the cream of tartar to the whites, as some may have stuck to it.

When using an electric mixer, add the cream of tartar before beginning to beat. Start on low speed (or medium-low if using a small amount of egg white) and gradually bring the speed up to medium-high. If whisking by hand, wait until the egg white begins to foam before adding the cream of tartar.

Left: Stiffly beaten egg whites (safe to reach if you use cream of tartar). Right: Bec d'oiseau, which you should aim for if you're not using cream of tartar. Photos by Woody Wolston

If not using cream of tartar, it is advisable to beat the whites only to almost stiff peaks to avoid the risk of over-beating: They should curve slightly when the whisk is lifted out of the meringue. The French refer to this stage as bec d’oiseau, which means bird’s beak.

Some people prefer beating cold egg whites because, though it decreases the volume slightly, the meringue will be somewhat more stable. This isn't an issue if using the cream of tartar, so I prefer to allow the egg whites to come to room temperature to take advantage of the increased volume.

The Easiest Buttercream You'll Ever Make (+ Meringue 101)
The Easiest Buttercream You'll Ever Make (+ Meringue 101)

Understand how pasteurization will affect your egg whites’ behavior.

  • Pasteurized egg white that is sold in refrigerated containers in supermarkets has added acid to enable it to beat well.

  • Egg white from eggs pasteurized in the shell (such as from Safest Choice Pasteurized Eggs makes an exceptionally stable meringue (the process of pasteurization involves heating the eggs in the shell, and heat creates a more stable meringue, as in Italian or Swiss meringue) but requires double the cream of tartar and extra beating time on high speed.

The Best Uses for Extra Egg Whites

The Best Uses for Extra Egg Whites by Lindsay-Jean Hard

How to Make Meringues with Any Amount of Leftover Egg Whites

How to Make Meringues with Any Amount of Leftover Egg Whites by Alice Medrich


Freeze extra for later!

Most bakers end up with lots of extra egg whites, so it’s useful to know that they can be frozen for months and, in my experience, without any loss of quality. I freeze egg whites in plastic containers—absolutely free of grease—with airtight lids.

To defrost, allow the frozen whites to sit overnight in the refrigerator, or set the container in a bowl of hot water. When thawed, lightly whisk for uniform consistency.

Now that you've read up, here are some recipes to practice on:

Crunchy Almond Butter Meringue with Berries and Cream

Crunchy Almond Butter Meringue with Berries and Cream by Alice Medrich

Bacon Pecan Meringues With (or Without) Milk Chocolate

Bacon Pecan Meringues With (or Without) Milk Chocolate by Alice Medrich

Eton Mess with Rhubarb-Gin Jam and Lemon-Basil Meringue

Eton Mess with Rhubarb-Gin Jam and Lemon-Basil Meringue by Cristina Sciarra

Sesame-Rose-Pistachio Meringues

Sesame-Rose-Pistachio Meringues by Alice Medrich

What's your biggest challenge in baking with egg whites? Tell us in the comments below (and maybe we can help!).

Tags: Bake, Tips & Techniques