Kitchen Basics: The Stiff Peak

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Within the baking sphere there is a term that often confounds the reader of baking cookbooks (myself included). It's called "beat until stiff peaks form."
What in the hell does that mean?! When I hear "stiff peaks" I think of anything from a geological factoid I snoozed through sophomore year when I took Random Geology Class That Seemed Like A Good Idea At The Time to some totally inappropriate sexual reference the cool kids are doing. Either way, when I heard the phrase for a long time I got really nervous. Finally, one day watching Ina she demonstrated with her causal ease what stiff peaks are and then it was "OH!!!! Hahahaaaa that's it?!" I wiped the sweat from my flour-covered brow.
With summer at its apex now, we're doing a lot of traditional summer desserts like angel food cakes and cupcakes and cakes, meringues, and various other fabulous confections. And with fall and the holidays approaching soon enough as well, I thought a quick tutorial demonstrating The Stiff Peak phenomena was long overdue. So here goes!
First of all, stiff peaks usually means two things: cream or eggs. Either you're beating heavy cream to stiff peak point to make homemade whipped cream or you're beating egg whites in order to create meringues or to fold into other batters. No matter if it's cream or eggs, the principals are the same.
Here's what you'll need:
  • a handheld electric mixer or standing mixer fitted with whisk attachments
  • a large sturdy bowl
That's it. It's really that easy.
Now, the term "stiff peak" refers to literally these little stiff peaks you will eventually create by incorporating vast amounts of air into the cream or egg white via the revolutions of your whisks. This is why having an electric mixer is better -- it will create the peaks faster and far easier than if you did it by hand, which is also certainly very possible. But to give you an idea -- whisking egg whites by hand to stiff peak will take around 10 minutes; electric mixer is around 2-3 minutes.
For purposes of this post we'll demonstrate the egg stiff peak. First, place your egg whites (this means separate the yolks out people, and just add the white parts!) into the bottom of a large sturdy bowl:


Next, begin mixing the whites! Simply turn on your machine to the maximum speed and let it go!

After about 30 seconds you'll see the color of the yellowish egg whites begin to turn whiter, and will get frothy and bubbly in texture. This is good -- this is the air beginning to incorporate into the body of the whites (the bubbles!):

After about a minute you'll see more body to the whites. The color has turned decided ivory in color, the bubbles are getting smaller and smaller, and you're seeing the mixture beginning to thicken up. Keep going at maximum speed during the entire process!

From the point it starts to turn white it will go quite fast. Within seconds you'll see the mixture thicken more and more and the color get whiter and whiter. It's kind of magical.

Around the 2 minute mark you'll see the mixture has gotten quite thick. You'll see teeny tiny bubbles throughout, and the color is decidedly white now. The mixture is getting thick enough where it can hold itself and not collapse. But keep going just a few seconds more...

And finally...wait for've achieved Stiff Peak Status. When the mixture is thick enough you can grab some with the whisks and hold it up for 3 seconds and the egg whites don't fall off, you've achieved Stiff Peak Status. Congratulations!

Also notice the first picture of the post -- quite literally, when you beat the mixture enough and you can take the whisks out and form a peak like a mountain that holds its shape, you have "stiff peaks." Meaning, the peak is there and stiff because it doesn't collapse back down.

Now, why the hell do you even need to know this? Because some recipes require you to fold in beaten egg whites (post on folding to follow) and because using stiff peak egg whites lets you now make pie with a meringue topping, meringue cookies, or adding a fluffier texture to your next cupcake or cake recipe.

The principal is similar to making homemade whipped cream. I'll blog that one later. But this is all you need! Good luck!

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