Making the perfect souffle

Making the perfect souffle

Surely one of life's greatest treats, a perfect soufflé should emerge from the oven puffed up like a pillow with a golden crown and soft, yielding middle. Rumours abound about how tricky it is to master, but the real secret of soufflé-making is it's not that hard.

All soufflés are made by folding stiffly whipped egg whites into a richly seasoned base, either sweet or savoury, then baking until risen and feather-light. Like the humble egg itself, this king of egg dishes is incredibly versatile and can be flavoured with an endless number of ingredients. It can make an impressive starter, simple supper or show-stopping pudding. Then there are chilled soufflés, iced soufflés, twice baked soufflés, soufflé omelettes...

What you’ll need

There are two essential elements to any soufflé. A flavour base and eggs - the yolks are used to enrich the dish while the whites are stiffly whipped and folded into the base to make it rise in the oven.

Savoury soufflés
The base of savoury soufflés is usually a thick roux-based sauce, either béchamel or velouté, into which cheese or a vegetable, meat or fish puree is stirred. It is then bound with egg yolks before the stiff egg whites are folded in.

Sweet soufflés
Either a crème patisserie (custard) or thick fruit compote is usually used as the base for sweet soufflés. For a simple fruit soufflé, sugar is cooked to the 'hard crack' stage before the pureed fruit is stirred in and it is reheated to 'soft ball', then folded into the egg whites while still hot. Often a little liqueur is added to enhance the fresh fruit flavour. Creamier soufflés have a custard base into which fruit or other flavourings are stirred.

Soufflé dish
Soufflés should be cooked in a round dish so they rise evenly. You can make them either in individual ramekins or one large ovenproof dish, the classic being the French white fluted soufflé dish.

How to do it

1. Prepare the soufflé dish by greasing the inside well with soft, not melted, butter then dust it with flour or parmesan for savoury soufflés, sugar or cocoa for sweet. Chill in the fridge to set the butter. This layer will help the soufflé to rise in the oven.

2. Next make your base. Different recipes will call for different mixtures, but you always want to make sure it is well seasoned as the flavour will be diluted by the egg whites. You also want it to be thick and smooth so the soufflé will rise well. You can prepared up to this stage in advance.

3. Whisk the egg whites in a spotlessly clean bowl until stiff, but not dry. They should hold soft billowing peaks when you lift up the whisk. Week old eggs at room temperature will give you the most volume and therefore a lighter soufflé. Beat about a third of the egg whites into the base mixture to slacken it, then gently fold in the remaining whites until the mixture is smooth.

4. Pour the mixture into the prepared soufflé dishes, filling them only three quarters full. Run your thumb around the edge of the mixture to create a groove which will help it to rise up with a high cap.

5. Put the soufflé into an oven preheated to 220C/gas 7 then immediately lower the temperature to 190C/gas 5. The heat of the oven will cause the air trapped in the egg white to expand, making the soufflé rise. You want it to be golden and risen above the rim of the dish, but still soft and fluffy in the middle. A larger soufflé will take around 25-30 minutes; individual ones will take about 12 minutes.

Don’t be tempted to open the oven door during cooking, although sweet soufflés might benefit from a little icing sugar being sprinkled over a few minutes before the end of cooking which will caramelise to a glossy surface.

6. Serve as soon as it comes out of the oven, before the trapped air cools and shrinks, and the proud cap begins to collapse – a soufflé will wait for no man.
Variations

Variations

Baked soufflés - the possibilities are endless, but here are a few recipes to experiment with:
- Simple Cheese Soufflé
- Smoked haddock soufflé
- Raspberry soufflés

Twice baked soufflés - these clever little things defy all the rules. You bake them in advance (even weeks ahead if you like as they can be kept in the freezer). They’ll sink into sad deflated mounds, but when you’re ready to serve, turn out onto baking trays and give them a second blast in the oven until puffy and golden.
- Twice-baked Goat's Cheese Soufflés

Chilled soufflés - these are not real soufflés at all, but mousses set in moulds with a collar of paper around the top so they rise up above the dish. The paper is removed before serving. Usually gelatine is incorporated into the mixture so it holds its elegant shape.

By Eleanor Smallwood
 

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