If you came up old school, you were taught all baking ingredients should be at room temperature before beginning any recipe. This means eggs (and milk and butter) should sit on the counter (or be set in warm place, a bowl of warm water, or put in the microwave for few seconds) until they are 68 to 70° F. Ugh, right?
I am a fussy baker, but I hate unnecessary steps. I only bring eggs (and other ingredients) to room temperature when I know it matters. And I keep experimenting to see where that line is really drawn. In general, room temperature eggs are most critical in formal or classical baking—what we might call “fine baking”— where an ingredient that’s too cold (or warm) can break an emulsion and destroy the texture of a cake, like mayonnaise curdles if you use cold egg yolks, or where a cold ingredient can cause a batter to become too stiff and congealed to mix properly.
It’s challenging to generalize across all baking—although I’m about to try! Rules always have exceptions, and the “ifs,” “ands,” and “buts” in baking can be overwhelming—unless you find them fascinating like I do. Some of us love challenges and finding exceptions to old rules, and we’re constantly doing that. However, let me insert a disclaimer: Unless you love to experiment, it’s probably safest to go with the instructions given in a recipe from a trusted source. If they call for eggs at room temperature, there’s likely a reason.
This aside, here’s my take on recipes and situations where room temperature eggs are either critical or helpful, followed by situations where cold eggs won’t hurt—and a couple of quirky cases where cold eggs work best! Read on or skip to whatever section you want to know about first:
The perfect butter cake has a light-yet-velvety crumb that melts on your tongue. The success of this masterpiece depends on creating a somewhat precarious and fragile emulsion in the mixing steps. This requires that the ingredients be around the same temperatures and patience in mixing. The classic method—you will recognize the following sequence— involves beating butter and sugar until light and fluffy then gradually beating in eggs (sometimes just the yolks), then adding flour and liquid in several alternating additions. Whipped egg whites may be folded in at the end. The sequence is meant to create an emulsion that keeps all of the ingredients in suspension while incorporating as much air as possible. It’s a delicate structure. If the emulsion doesn’t form, or if it breaks during mixing, the batter will appear curdled or separated and it will not hold enough air. Instead of light and velvety, the crumb will be compacted and gummy in places. Using cold ingredients will prevent or break the emulsion—and there goes your cake. Room temperature eggs (and everything else) are critical here.
Note: The simpler “blending method” of making butter cakes that was introduced to most of us by Rose Beranbaum (and exemplified by my Flour Swap Pound Cake) is more fool-proof than the classic method. Even so, I follow Rose’s lead and begin with all ingredients at room temperature.
In recipes that call for “tempering” eggs—whisking a little bit of a steaming hot liquid into eggs before adding the eggs to the pot— be forewarned that cold eggs are a bit more likely to scramble on contact with hot liquid than those at room temperature unless you whisk the eggs well to start with and add that dribble of hot liquid very slowly at first, while continuing to whisk.
This includes flourless chocolate tortes such as the Queen of Sheba and similar chocolaty situations involving lots of chocolate and separated eggs.
Unlike the butter cake, these tortes are expected to be dense and moist and the mixing process is pretty forgiving. They are typically mixed by whisking egg yolks into a ton of melted chocolate and butter, then whisking in flour and/or nut meal, then whipping egg whites and folding them into the batter to lighten the cake, with no other source of leavening. The method is easy, but if the yolks are cold, they cause the chocolate-butter mixture to cool and thicken so quickly that by the time the dry ingredients are mixed in and the egg whites are whipped, the batter is too dense and congealed, almost cement-like, to fold egg whites in easily without losing volume. I know some of you have experienced this! Folding in cold whipped egg whites will only compound the problem. Cold eggs won’t ruin these tortes—people love them anyway—but they turn the mixing process into a frustrating battle with congealing batter, and ensure the already dense cake with be even denser— lacking all possible textural finesse! Room temperature eggs will not only improve your results—they’ll make the process easier and more fun.
Generalizing from this example, room temperature eggs are best in any situation when you don’t want an ultra-chocolaty batter to thicken or congeal prematurely and instead stay soft and foldable. This may apply to chocolate mousses and as well. Meanwhile see the brownie exception (or maybe corollary?) below—where cold eggs are used to thicken a batter on purpose!
This includes meringues and angel food, chiffon, and other sponge cakes where whipped eggs whites are folded in.
There’s dissension, discussion, and interesting exceptions to the rule that says egg whites should be at room temperature before you beat them. There’s no doubt that room temperature egg whites whip to a greater volume than cold eggs whites. The issue is whether cold foam, which has a greater number of small bubbles, is more stable (and possible less easily overbeaten) and thus as good or better than room temperature foam that has larger but fewer bubbles. And, to be truthful, I’m not sure yet myself.
Egg white temperature warrants an entire post, with side-by-side comparisons for meringues, mousses, and cakes with whipped egg whites folded in. Until I do that comparison, I’m sticking to room temperature egg whites, with exceptions for some angel food cakes and other recipes where cold egg whites are specifically called for.
Beyond the challenging butter cake, ultra-chocolaty torte, and meringue applications discussed, there’s a world of casual cakes, cookies, and desserts where the temperature of your eggs doesn’t matter, so you can safely default to cold eggs from the fridge. Sometimes cold eggs are better than room temperature eggs!
Feel free to use cold eggs for all kinds of batters made with oil or melted butter— such as carrot and zucchini cakes, cornbread, and gingerbread, to name just a few. Cold eggs are also fine for cookies other than meringues.
I mentioned that cold eggs don’t hurt cakes made with oil. In this case, cold eggs helped. They seemed to increase the volume of the batter, which slightly improved the final texture of the cake! My guess it that cold eggs cause the olive oil to thicken slightly—which doesn’t happen with ordinary vegetable oils— thereby thickening the batter and somehow allowing more air to be whipped in.
Modern brownies—those with a huge amount of chocolate and very little flour— can be tricky to mix. A really rich brownie batter may separate and ooze tiny globules of fat in the bowl and continue to leak butter so that it literally sizzles in the oven—with ugly results that resemble porous lava! I use cold eggs to prevent this type of problem and I call for them specifically in my recipes.
When testing recipes for whole egg sponge cakes (genoise) for my gluten-free book, Flavor Flours, I began with warm eggs—the classic way—then tried room temperature eggs, and finally discovered that cold eggs gave me a more compact and stable foam and a finished cake with a better shape. I haven’t circled back to try cold eggs for genoise made with wheat flour—yet.
Maybe you’re thinking that there are too many exceptions, “ifs,” “ands,” and “buts,” and no straight answers here. If so, the simplest take away from all of this, without having to digest the examples and discussion above, is that you can stay old-school-safe and use room temperature eggs for all baking unless the recipe says otherwise.
Or you can stick with room temperature eggs for classic butter cakes, chocolate tortes, and whipped egg whites for cakes and meringues or when a recipe calls for them specifically—then embrace cold eggs without guilt or fear for most of your other baking.
Do you have any more questions about egg temperature and baking? Let us know in the comments below!