The mere mention of the word soufflé wrenches my stomach and sends a ripple of nausea up my throat; blood presses against my arteries as my heart quickens; my upper lip slides up on one side in an anxious snarl and my nostrils flare to take in more air.
Soufflé anxiety, or "soufflanxiety," as it's clinically known, is very much a real thing, suffered by millions of cooks all over the world. But my case is different. I'm not worried about soufflé itself—no, soufflé is easy, stupid easy, souffloopid easy. Anyone worried about a catastrophic soufflé collapse needs to find something else to fret about, because there's nothing hard about soufflé at all.
My soufflé anxiety is a form of PTSD—post-traumatic soufflé disorder—and it dates back to five years ago, when I worked at Food & Wine magazine. I wrote a monthly column dedicated to nerdier culinary projects, like making tofu from scratch and all kinds of fermentations, each month consulting an expert to help me perfect the process in question. I'd finally decided to tackle soufflé, and reached out to Jacques Pépin, the legendary French chef, to ask if he'd mentor me. He agreed, and invited me to the International Culinary Center, where he's a dean, for a marathon soufflé-making lesson. Here it was, finally, my once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to hang out with Jacques Pépin while making soufflés.
The morning of our session, I woke up in my Brooklyn apartment, got ready to go, and set out the door. A quick train ride over the Manhattan Bridge, and I'd be at the ICC's Soho location. My train breezed over the bridge, entered the tunnel on the Manhattan side, and then lurched to a stop. Then it didn't move, and it didn't move, and it didn't move. Cut off from my cellular lifeline, I couldn't send a message to anyone about my status. I waited, tapping my feet, grinding my teeth, letting out forceful exhalations of impatience, and, almost definitely, punctuating the quiet with increasingly loud curses.
Eventually the train dragged itself into the station, and I bolted out and up to the street. I knew that if I sprinted the remaining few blocks, I could make up at least some of the lost time. So I ran...right into the biggest street construction site I've ever seen. It was impassable, a wall of barricades, trucks, cranes, and workers insisting I go in the wrong direction.
I like to tell myself that by the time I finally dashed up the stairs at ICC and into the kitchen-theater where Pépin was waiting, I was a good 10 minutes late. But I also know that I've had five years to rewrite that day in my head, whittling down my lateness to a number I can live with. Pépin, for what it's worth, was nice about it, but I could tell he was pissed. Ugh, I just shivered writing that last line.
So...what's all this about soufflés being hard? They're not. The universe can conspire against you in many ways. It can stall your train, cut off your mode of communication, and throw literal roadblocks in your path. But it won't make your soufflé fall, especially if you follow my advice. And I've been taught by the best.
Breaking Down Soufflé (Without a Tragic Soufflump)
A soufflé is a fundamentally simple thing that leverages the power of eggs to achieve impressive results. All classic soufflés, sweet and savory, start with a base that provides richness and structure. In savory soufflés, like the cheese soufflé I'm demonstrating here, the base is a thick béchamel sauce, usually calling for about three tablespoons flour per cup of milk (though my recipe bumps this up to three-and-a-half tablespoons for just a slightly thicker and more robust result). For comparison, one to two tablespoons of flour thickens a cup of milk into a silky but pourable sauce, like the gravy you get on biscuits.
In sweet soufflés, the base is often pastry cream, though Pépin showed me in our lesson that you can just as easily sweeten béchamel and make a dessert soufflé from that.
Into that base, a few key ingredients are added. Egg yolks get whisked in for even more richness, and, when in the oven, coagulation—as the eggs cook, they set, just like when you fry or scramble them, allowing the soufflé to hold onto its loft for at least some time before deflating.
Along with the yolks go any seasonings you may want; they're not essential beyond salt and pepper, but you can punch up the flavor with a spoonful of mustard or a few dashes of hot sauce if you want.
After that, stiffly beaten egg whites are mixed into that rich yellow base in two additions. The first is stirred in more aggressively to loosen the base enough to accept the second addition, which should be gently folded in without too much effort.
That gentle folding is key, since you want to keep as many of the tiny air bubbles trapped in the beaten whites as you can. The more you mix, and the more vigorously you do it, the more air bubbles you'll lose.
Once in the oven, those air bubbles will expand as gases and steam inflate them. That's what causes a soufflé to rise, and really, there's no stopping it—your beaten whites will contain air bubbles and those air bubbles will expand, and when they do your soufflé will push higher and higher in its baking dish. Sure, there are some factors that can affect exactly how this all plays out, but play out it will.
The last key ingredient in a cheese soufflé is the cheese. You can use various types, but a flavorful, good melter like Gruyère or cheddar is ideal.
Soufflé Ingredient Ratios (Soufflatios)
I started my recipe research for this article by creating a spreadsheet that mapped nearly 10 different respected soufflé recipes against each other. My goal was to see where, and to what degree, their ratios and other key details, like oven temperature, differed. The answer: not a lot.
You have some room to play with a soufflé, a little more or less flour in your béchamel, maybe, or slightly different oven settings, but stray too far and you've left camp soufflé and veered into other territory. Add too much more flour, for example, and your soufflé is going to start to resemble a cake; too little and it'll be too thin to hold its shape, spilling up and over the sides of its container.
You could try to dramatically alter the number of eggs relative to the béchamel base, but that's a relationship that's pretty well established, and it delivers the results we all think of when we think "soufflé" (in truth, you can reduce the béchamel base all the way down to nothing and still make what's known as a soufflé omelette, a related, but different and less stable, preparation).
In my own recipe, I opted for an amount of flour in my béchamel that's leaning toward the high end of what's generally called for. It makes a soufflé that rises just a little less dramatically, but it still rises plenty, as you can see in the photos here. In exchange, it has a bit more substance, which is what I like about it; a savory soufflé should feel like a meal, not a magic trick that puffs itself up before your eyes only to fade away and never make it to your stomach.
Soufflé Oven Temperatures (Is It Getting Soufflhot In Here?)
The oven temperature has a couple important effects on a soufflé. First, the heat of the oven is a critical "ingredient" for getting a soufflé to rise; it's what causes gases to expand inside all those trapped air bubbles and what converts moisture in the soufflé batter to steam. Together, those forces expand the air bubbles and cause the soufflé to swell. The hotter the oven, the more quickly and fully those air bubbles expand. My tests confirmed this: A 400°F oven produced a marginally taller soufflé than a 375°F oven did.
The heat also sets the proteins in the egg yolks and whites, allowing the soufflé to keep some of its height even after cooling. Without the eggs setting, the soufflé batter would remain liquid and would immediately collapse back down to its original state as soon as it cooled. Even still, a soufflé will deflate as soon as it leaves the oven. The photos in this article were taken within about a five-minute window of the soufflé being removed from the oven, so the collapse shouldn't be dramatic (after all, that's why we use a base like béchamel in the mixture—to give it staying power), but it will happen noticeably but slowly as the soufflé cools. The soufflé, to be clear, remains delicious even as it loses its loft (it can also be partially puffed back up by briefly returning it to a hot oven).
Lastly, the heat browns the surface of the soufflé, giving it a deeper flavor, thanks to our good friend the Maillard reaction.
The oven temperature, therefore, allows us to balance a few different factors all at once. The hotter the oven, the more quickly and fully the soufflé will rise, and the faster it will brown and set on the outside. But the soufflé is also more likely to remain runny in the center, since it'd come close to burning on the outside if you were to leave it long enough to cook through to the center. If you like a soufflé with a custardy center, as I do, a hotter oven is more likely to give you that result.
If you use a lower oven temperature, like 350°F or 375°F, you'll get slightly less of a rise, and the soufflé will brown on the outside more slowly.
That buys you time to leave the soufflé in the oven longer, letting it cook through more fully to the center with less risk that the surface blackens in the process. If you like a fully set soufflé, a lower temperature might be your preference.
A Note on Stomping (Stouflomping?) and Opening the Oven Door
Here's a bit of kitchen wisdom that needs to die with all the other kitchen wisdom that's been debunked in recent years: That old commandment not to open the oven door when cooking a soufflé, not to stomp in the kitchen, not to exhale too forcefully on it, etc. I call BS.
To prove it, I cooked two soufflés. One I left undisturbed for the duration of its cooking. The other I abused, opening the oven door every five minutes, slamming it closed, bumping the oven, doing everything I wasn't supposed to. They came out identical.
Like I said, a soufflé will rise.
Beating the Whites (Soufflex Those Muscles)
Brace yourselves: This is the section where I'm going to tell you the one thing you don't want to hear, which is that for the best soufflé, you'll likely get better results if you beat the whites by hand. You don't have to, but it's the one part of the process where you really can take more complete control if you use your own horsepower instead of outsourcing it to a motor. (Obviously, if you can't beat the whites by hand for physical reasons, it's totally fine to use an electric mixer; you will still succeed.)
I came to understand the advantages of hand-beating the whites while running my first test batches, during which I used a stand mixer. I'm not a pastry chef, you see, so, while I've beaten my share of egg whites in my life, I'm not as practiced at it as a pastry pro might be. And what I realized was a mixer makes it harder for those of us who don't beat egg whites every day to properly judge the stage the whites are at in any given moment.
I found myself staring down into the bowl as the beater battered around a blur of whites that was almost impossible to analyze. Worse, the mixer is so powerful that it takes the whites through their respective stages, from a loose foam to firm peaks, very quickly. It's a little too easy to stop the machine, see that it's only at soft peaks, turn it back on, and then discover that you've sped past stiff peaks to grainy ones that are falling apart.
This does not happen when you beat them by hand. With each snap of the whisk, you have immediate feedback on the status of the whites. You can feel when they're liquid, and when they're becoming a foam. As they begin to grow in stiffness, all you have to do is pause your hand for a moment and lift the whisk. Do the peaks slump over on themselves? Start moving the whisk again. The progression is slower than in the bowl of a stand mixer, so you're much less likely to pass your desired stage of firm and glossy whites without noticing it.
And it's really not all that slow. People act like it's some great tribulation to beat egg whites by hand, but it only takes a couple minutes at most, especially if you're using the right kind of whisk (a French whisk).
Jacques Pépin, incidentally, whisked all his egg whites by hand when I had my soufflé session with him, and he talked in greater detail about beating egg whites than I thought possible. He talked about why he prefers fresh, cold eggs for soufflé, since they're thicker and form smaller air bubbles. He described his whisking method, first beating quickly to loosen the whites before slowing down to aerate them, lifting the whites with the whisk and letting them splash back down on themselves without tapping the bowl too much with the tines, a whisking movement that's different (and easier) than the figure eight often used to beat cream by hand. He talked about how he'd beat older eggs whites to a different stage than newer ones, a master's dialing-in to compensate for whites that are less viscous.
He used an expensive copper egg-beating bowl, which helps form more stable beaten whites that are less prone to breaking and weeping (the copper interferes with too-strong sulfur bonds from forming). If you don't have one of those, you can add a little cream of tartar to the whites, an acid that also prevents those sulfur bonds from forming. Or you can skip those tricks and just beat the egg whites alone. In my tests, I noticed almost no difference between the sample with cream of tartar and the plain one, but then I didn't over-beat my whites in either case. If you want an insurance policy against messed-up egg whites, copper or cream of tartar are good ideas.
Say Cheese! (I Got Nothing for This One, So Sou Me)
One final consideration for your savory cheese soufflé: the cheese. You want a good melter with a low water content. That means a semifirm cheese that can be grated into shreds, like Gruyère or cheddar. I tend to reach for the Gruyère because it's classic French and also one of my personal favorite cheeses.
I also grate some Parmigiano-Reggiano to dust the interior of the buttered soufflé dish, which helps to form a delicious crispy crust, but I don't mix it into the soufflé itself. I made that mistake one night when experimenting with cheese options and ended up with a soufflé that had a broken, gritty texture. I've seen other recipes that do call for it in the soufflé batter, and I'm sure it can work sometimes, but it's not a good melter, which means you risk ruining your soufflé.
Of course, if you want to risk ruining your soufflé, that's your choice. But then don't blame the soufflé if things go wrong, because, like I said, a soufflé won't ruin itself.