For many people, the kitchen is a daunting space, host to innumerable variables, where mistakes are often made and the well-intentioned are easily embarrassed. Intimidated, many avoid the kitchen at all costs, not realizing that the kitchen is a place for experimentation, where blunders can often turn into inventive successes. But Americans are pressed for time, with minimal knowledge of raw ingredients, lacking in basic kitchen skills, and with only a handful of models for producing homemade, from-scratch meals with regularity. The unfortunate result: We have turned toward takeout, fast food, ready-to-eat pre-packaged fare in jars and cans, and meals that can be ready at the press of a (microwave) button. (Q: How do you make tomato sauce? A: Unscrew the lid.)
As Michael Pollan reports in this past Sunday’s New York Times Magazine, the definition of “cooking,” as defined by food-marketing researchers, has expanded so greatly over the last handful of decades that “to cook from scratch [now means] to prepare a main dish that requires some degree of ‘assembly of elements.’ So microwaving a pizza doesn’t count as cooking, though washing a head of lettuce and pouring bottled dressing over it does.” But if we accept the “semi-homemade” model of mostly store-bought and barely homemade, we must acknowledge that we are agreeing to limit ourselves, not only in what we eat but also in our experience of food and, by extension, in our experience of life.
Pollan asks, “How many of us still do work that engages us in a dialogue with the material world and ends—assuming the soufflé doesn’t collapse—with such a gratifying and tasty sense of closure?”
And though Americans have always had an eye—or a tongue—toward kitchen innovation and technology (and thus ease), the deficiency in home cooking wasn’t always as awfully vast as it is today. Almost 50 years ago, when Julia Child brought her cooking skills and knowledge into American homes on her television show The French Chef, many homemakers were reliant on powdered mixes and canned foods. With The French Chef, however, Child expanded American home cooks’ horizons and palates, and in doing so empowered those who had been cooking under the weight of corporate foodstuffs. “It was a kind of courage—not only to cook but to cook the world’s most glamorous and intimidating cuisine—that Julia Child gave my mother and so many other women like her,” says Pollan. And it is this courage, this ability to engage with that which is foreign and daunting, that allows us to grow, change, and become better.
Pollan asks, “How many of us still do work that engages us in a dialogue with the material world and ends—assuming the soufflé doesn’t collapse—with such a gratifying and tasty sense of closure?” In this modern age, reconciling process with product (or cooking with eating) has become ever-difficult. But it is a necessary challenge if we are to reclaim what we eat. And the first step in meeting that challenge: confronting our kitchen fears and making that soufflé.
The soufflé holds a place in the American imagination as one of the most difficult (and, by extension, impressive) dishes a home cook can prepare. In Mastering the Art of French Cooking, Julia Child offers the simplest description/instruction for this classic French dish: “A soufflé…is a sauce containing a flavoring or puree into which stiffly beaten egg whites are incorporated. It is turned into a mold and baked in the oven until it puffs up and the top browns.” Easy as pie, right? “Maybe if that pie comes from the frozen section of your local supermarket,” you might be thinking. But actually, soufflé really is that easy.
Here are four reasons why we should embrace the soufflé and take to heart Child’s instruction that “When you flip anything, you just have to have the courage of your convictions. You can always pick it up.”
1. A fallen soufflé will rise again. That the soufflé will fall is perhaps the greatest fear of the novice soufflé maker, but understanding the simple science behind why the soufflé rises (and falls) is the first step in overcoming that fear. The answer, simply, is egg whites. According to food science writer Harold McGee, “both yolk and white are essentially bags of water containing dispersed protein molecules, with water molecules outnumbering proteins 1,000 to 1.” And while the yolk is a combination of fat and protein, the white is entirely protein. When egg whites are whipped, not only is air incorporated into the whites but the protein molecules are broken out of their usual chain, and “gather where air and water meet, with their water-loving portions immersed in the liquid and their water-avoiding portions projecting into the air.” The effect of this is a net of reassembled proteins that holds both air and water in place, and an egg-white mixture that is full of tiny air bubbles. These whipped egg whites, with their reassembled proteins and their little bubbles, are what cause a soufflé to rise; when heated, the air bubbles expand and the water bubbles evaporate into steam (creating more air bubbles), causing the entire mass to grow in size. And since heat makes the bubbles expand, it is only logical (and scientifically correct) that cold will make the bubbles contract and will make the entire mass shrink—i.e. make the soufflé fall. For this reason, a soufflé should be served as soon as it comes out of the oven; as Julia Child says, “there should be no lingering when a soufflé is to be eaten.”
If you should linger, though, do not despair. Remember the science, and those tiny bubbles. They’re almost all still there! Put the soufflé back in the oven and the bubbles will expand again, making the soufflé rise once more.
2. Whipped egg whites can be fortified. In order to get air into the egg whites and break down the proteins, one must whisk the egg whites until they form stiff peaks. But almost as soon as a lush mass of whites is formed, “it will get grainy, lose volume, and separate into a dry froth and a runny liquid,” says McGee. “As the proteins bond to each other to support the foam, they embrace each other too tightly, and squeeze out the water they had held between them.” In order for the egg whites to maintain their smooth texture and voluminous size for a sustained amount of time, they must contain some amount of acid. Long before the exact science of all this was clearly understood, French chefs were using copper bowls to avoid beaten whites that turned granular and watery. The acid in the copper acted as a stabilizer for the egg whites, which is the same effect that a pinch of cream of tartar can have on the whites. Child recommends adding ¼ teaspoon cream of tartar for every four egg whites, and incorporating the cream of tartar after about 30 seconds of beating, when the egg whites begin to look foamy.
3. Soufflés can be made ahead of time. As we’ve established, the expansion of the small bubbles in the whipped egg whites are what cause a soufflé to rise, and the cooling of those bubbles are what causes a soufflé to shrink. But kept cold in the freezer, the bubbles can stay small for days. The fortified whites are stable enough so that they’ll hold up in the freezer, without losing any moisture. (The same is not true of soufflés kept cold in the refrigerator; since the fridge isn’t as cold as the freezer, it doesn’t preserve the bubbles, the whites will separate, and, when baked, the soufflé will become soggy inside.) When it’s time for eating, the soufflé can go straight from the freezer directly to the hot oven, which will expand those little bubbles in the same way it would’ve had the eggs been beaten only moments before. The only difference in baking is that the oven should be slightly hotter than if the soufflé had not been frozen. Welcome to the soufflé as a stress-free cooking experience.
4. We must challenge ourselves in order to improve ourselves. As complicated and difficult as preparing a soufflé may appear to be, in fact the preparation and execution of a soufflé are a piece of cake, cherry pie, duck soup…in other words, possible. It is this kind of experience of making real what once seemed unachievable that allows us to grow, and gives us the strength to head back into the kitchen and attempt greater feats. Julia Child helped women in 1960s America create dishes that seemed foreign and unapproachable, and in doing so aided in the development of a generation of daring cooks, open-minded cooks, cooks who believed in themselves. Michael Pollan says, “When I asked my mother recently what exactly endeared Julia Child to her, she explained that ‘for so many of us she took the fear out of cooking.’” Child did so by showing home cooks that they had the power to achieve, and that by mastering one French dish they could master all French dishes. “Cooking is an art,” says Child, “and like all art, the more you cook and the more you learn, the more sense it makes.” And the more sense it makes (and the more soufflés we attempt), the more adventurous and courageous we will be, not only in the kitchen but in our lives.
Sarah Whitman-Salkin is an editor at Cookstr.com. She lives in New York City.