How to Beat Egg Whites

Egg whites, beaten

I have decided that we need to talk about egg whites. Their chief purpose, in baking, is to lend structure to baked goods. They also add liquid to a recipe, but I’m not going to deal with that right now. Because of the unique properties of egg whites, they alone can be used to leaven things like cakes without the aid of yeast or chemical leaveners.

When recipes call for egg whites, they typically call for them to be beaten. This causes a lot of confusion for people because recipes ask you to beat the whites “until foamy”, “until the batter falls from the beaters in ribbons”, “until glossy” or “until soft/stiff peaks form”.

Here is a mini tutorial, based on making meringue (which involves beating sugar into the whites as you whip them). The texture of the whites will be similar (though perhaps slightly less glossy) when whipping egg whites alone, so the illustrations can be used as a reference in multiple situations.

Start with room temperature egg whites. I don’t use copper bowls. Though it is harder to overbeat your egg whites in one, this is because copper ions migrate into the egg whites. Egg whites beaten in a copper bowl will be slightly yellowish and more stable than ones beaten in other bowls, but I still don’t like the idea that copper ions are now in my cake/food. To give extra stabilization to the egg whites in non copper bowls, you can add cream of tartar when you are beating them, if you wish.

This is the “frothy” stage. It takes 30 seconds to 1 minutes to reach this point. You can add your salt or cream of tartar now.

Once the cream of tartar is fully incorporated, shown below, begin to add your sugar. Add it slowly, either pouring it in a small, steady stream or adding it a tablespoon or two at a time.

Once all your sugar is fully incorporated, the batter will look somewhat thick and creamy. If you lift the beaters, the batter will stream down off of them, but it will not rest on the surface of the batter. Yet. These are the top two photos below.
Do not be afraid to lift the beaters and examine the batter. After a little more beating, it will fall in ribbons.This basically means that a ribbon-like strip will rest on top of the batter. You can clearly see the ribboning in the bottom two photos, which is not evident in the top photos.

After the ribboning stage, you will be able to see ripples on the surface of the egg whites as you beat them. You could probably see them before, but now they will remain on the surface. You are getting close to the infamous “soft peaks”.

“Soft Peaks” and “Glossy” are the same. There is a window from very soft to fairly stiff peaks that all qualify as “soft”. This is the softest I would consider using. The batter did not stream down from the beaters as it did before. The peaks fell immediately, but were clearly peaks – which is not entirely evident in the photo. The batter is very thick. I might beat this just a bit longer when aiming for soft peaks.

I have always been taught that even if a recipe calls for “stiff peaks” not to beat the egg whites all the way to stiffness. By stiffness, I mean that peaks in the batter do not fall at all. It is too easy to overbeat egg whites. You know you have when they lose their glossiness as the proteins break down. I would advise you to err on the side of caution. Soft peak egg whites should stick to the sides of the bowl and not look liquidy. Peaks will form and the tips will curl over. I will use this consistency when a recipe calls for “stiff peaks”.

There you have it. Now try angel food cake, meringues, pavlova, chiffon cake, souffles or mousses without fear! Actually, I still fear pavlova. But that doesn’t mean anyone else has to.

48 comments

  1. Nic,
    I did not know that if you use a copper bowl you don’t have to use cream of tartar, is this really true. Here in Italy, I am having a hard time finding cream of tartar, I have a stand mixer and not a hand held one and I have plenty of copper bowls. I guess I have to beat by hand in a copper bowl or get a hand mixer? How long does it take by hand I wonder, eternity?

  2. Gia-Gina – I didn’t use cream of tartar or a copper bowl here. Neither is necessary, some people just find that it makes it a bit easier. A pinch of salt will also help stabilise the egg whites, which is what I usually do. This took me about 5 minutes. I have done it by hand, but it takes a while. Not etermity, but maybe 15-20 minutes depending on how much practice you have. Use a really wide bowl – it’ll help!

  3. ah, i like the stage by stage pictures of the whipping egg whites. pavlova is delightfully easy to make. i think it’s also pretty forgiving. so give it a try! i have made nigella’s chocolate one in forever summer. it will drive away your fears of pavlova.

  4. Helen (AugustusGloop)

    Thanks for the great “fool’s guide” to egg whites. And pavlova isn’t that scary. Given your proven eggs-pertise it should be no problem for you.

    Really appreciated the effort you put into this post, and that’s no yolk! =P

  5. I love in depth step-by-step instruction likew this. Keep it up!

  6. Thank you for this! I always mess up egg whites because I’m not sure what I’m looking for! This is wonderful!

  7. I’m glad that you guys are all finding this to be useful! I’ll have to give pavlova another go soon. The last time I tried, I was foiled because someone turned up the oven thinking that there was nothing inside! At least the house smelled like caramel afterwards…

  8. Hi Nic,

    Thanks for the great post! I always over-beat the egg white. now I know how to achieve the texture I want. :-)

  9. What a wonderful lesson! Super photos, too. Thanks, Nic!

  10. Piggy and farmgirl – You’re both welcome. I’m glad you like the post!

  11. nic this is very helpful! im sort of afraid of egg whites- they seem so complex and the terminology always confused me. thanks for this guide :-)

  12. Hi Nic
    I just thought i’d share with you since you’ve mentioned ‘baking with julia’ so many times that I bought her mammoth book yesterday! I’ve been yearning to buy it for a while now, and finally caved in yesterday. the recipes look a bit more complex (for example, the breads!) than other bread recipes I’ve seen. I do hope however that it gives me the results I’m looking for!
    I’m dying to try her pecan sticky buns (but have to try making brioche first!) can’t wait!

  13. Chin – I’m glad that you bought the book. I, too, thought that the recipes seemed rather intimidating at first, but I realised that everything is very well explained. The actual length of the recipe (happily!) isn’t a reflection of how difficult it is to prepare. I thought that the brioche tart looked and sounded extrememly challenging, but once I started in on it, it came together well.

  14. great post nic! its very helpful… i always have problems when beating egg whites… could never get those stiff peaks. will try cream of tartar next time… thanks!

  15. I have read that you should not add salt to your egg whites when beating. The salt draws the air out of the egg whites.

  16. That was great!!.. the step by step pic really helped :)

  17. Thank you so much! Without your helpful guide I surely would not pass my French class. We had to do a food product and I chose to do these “Souffle Cookies” and I couldn’t for my life figure out how to beat those eggs. Awesome instructions! =D

  18. Interessante Informationen.

  19. Dear Nicole,
    i tried to follow your instructions, step by step. but somehow i ended up with eggs, looking nothing like what you’ve shown above. It could be because i forgot to add that pinch of salt, however i added sugar though. Can you tell me, do you whip them on medium speed or hte highest speed. And also beginning to end how many minutes does it take for the eggs to reach the ‘soft peak’. i will try again, after your reply.

  20. Help! Every time I have tried to make forgotten cookies I have done something funny to the eggs. I get them foamy and then start adding the sugar and soon after that the eggs start to look like marshmallow fluff. I’ve tried to keep beating the eggs after that to see if peaks would form but no go. What am I doing wrong? Help me please!

  21. Thank you! I was always so confused when it came to beating egg whites and found i either under beat them or beat them to much. Your step by step with pictures was such a huge help. I no longer fear when i recipe calls to beat egg whites!

  22. Tip from my 19 year old son – hand whisking method.
    Use balloon whisk and think about starting a fire in the non match days, ie hold it between both hands and slide hands to and fro
    Works for him

  23. Hello,

    I need help with beating egg whites with no salt or cream of tartar. I have a recipe that says “beat egg whites on medium high speed until stiff peaks form.” I have no idea what that looks like and every batch I have attempted comes out somewhat sea foam like, is that right for plain beaten egg whites?

  24. Sara, how humid is it when you’re attempting this? if it’s a very dry day, just keep beating ’till they get stiff…if it’s humid, though, you’re better off waiting for another day.

  25. Thanks so much for the tutorial. My first time making a cake from scratch. Looking good so far! ♥

  26. falnfenix; you must make sure that the beaters you use are perfectly dry and clean and I mean perfectly or they will be foamy

  27. great pics! I beat my egg whites for savoiardi until I got straight, standy-up peaks. I didn’t realize you could overbeat egg whites (-:. Next time, I might just go for the slightly droopy peaks — that’s always about the time I’m ready to give up.

    BTW, bree is right — you need perfectly dry and clean beaters — and bowls, too. Any speck of egg yolk or oil seems to restrict the egg whites to a sea-foamy stage. I had a terrible time learning to do egg whites, but the airy food you can make with them is really worth it.

  28. Ah! Beautiful pictures to illustrate what “glossy”, “ribbon” and “soft/stiff peaks” means in the baking realm. Now I can make a proper strawberry shortcake. Thank you so much!

  29. I have a question about beating egg whites for cake. Personally, I don’t care for fluffy cakes, so when I see cakes calling for beaten eggs whites, I usually avoid the recipe. However, there is one cake recipe I recently saw that looked great, except it called for stiffly beaten egg whites.
    My question is: Do you know if it would matter if for that cake recipe, I simply skipped beating the egg whites and treated the whites like whole eggs (adding 1 at a time to cake batter and mixing like normal)? In this particular cake recipe, there is other leavening as well. Any input would be greatly appreciated! :)

  30. Hannah – It’s hard to know without making the recipe, but if there is other leavening you may as well give it a shot and see if you like the results!

  31. I’m wanted to make coconut macaroon cookies and the pictures were an excellent example of what I need to do. I’m also go glad that I found out I don’t need cream of tartar.

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