How to whisk egg whites
1. First of all, the most important ingredient is not the egg white but the air, because the whisked egg white is going to provide aeration for soufflés, meringues, cakes and the like. In whisking them, what you're actually doing is incorporating air, and as you do so, the original volume of the egg white can actually be increased by up to eight times. As you whisk in the air, tiny air bubbles are formed. It might help to think of what happens when you blow up balloons here: too little air and the balloon will not be buoyant and bouncy, too much air and it will burst and the air will be lost.
2. The one thing that will prevent whisked egg whites from reaching their full-blown potential is the tiniest presence of grease. That's why the merest trace of egg yolk in the white means you are done for. But I'm afraid that's not all: you also have to be scrupulously careful about the bowl and whisk, which must also be grease free. So always wash them in mild soapy water, rinse in very hot water, then dry them with an absolutely clean tea cloth. Just to make quite sure, run a slice of lemon round the whisk and the bowl.
3. Before you begin, make sure that the mixing bowl is as large as you can get, which means that as much air as possible can circulate around the egg whites as you whisk them. Switch the whisk on to a slow speed first of all and begin whisking for about 2 minutes, until everything has become bubbly (this timing will be right for 2-3 egg whites; you'll need slightly more time for any more). After that, switch to a medium speed for a further minute, then whisk at the highest speed and continue whisking to the required stage.
4. Knowing when you've reached the right stage is tricky, and all the cook can do is follow the tried and trusted guidelines, namely, to stop when you reach the stage at which the egg white stands up in well-defined peaks. If the egg white is for a cake, mousse or soufflé, where it has to be folded into other ingredients, the peaks should be soft (so that when you lift the whisk the peaks drop slightly).
5. If it is for a meringue, where sugar is going to be incorporated, it should stand up in stiff peaks. I will always indicate whether stiff or soft peaks are called for.
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