What Does Stiff Peaks Mean in Cooking?

Written by fred decker
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What Does Stiff Peaks Mean in Cooking?
Meringue is made by whipping egg whites to peaks. (Jupiterimages/Photos.com/Getty Images)

Novice cooks and bakers are often mystified by the instructions given in recipes. To an experienced eye, instructions to whip eggs or cream to soft peaks, or stiff peaks, carry a definite meaning. However, most recipes don't explain the process in detail, assuming that the cook or baker understands what is meant.

Whipping Eggs to Stiff Peaks

Egg whites pass through several stages as they are whipped. As the egg whites are whisked they form large bubbles, and begin to lose their pale yellow hue. They become progressively whiter as the whisking continues, and the bubbles grow visibly smaller, eventually forming a uniformly fine froth. After a little more whipping, the whites will make a peak when the whisk is lifted out. If it holds a definite shape, and doesn't fall back under its own weight, the whites are at the stiff peaks stage.

Tips for Whipping Egg Whites

Egg whites form a foam because their protein molecules are "unwound" by the whipping, then bond with each other to trap the air that's whipped in. A small amount of salt or acidity added to the bowl will speed the process. Whipping the eggs in a copper bowl will also work, because the copper changes the protein molecules bond. Older eggs whip more readily than fresh eggs, but produce a less stable foam that breaks down easily. Any fat, egg yolk or dish detergent in your mixing bowl will prevent the egg whites from foaming to their potential.

Whipping Cream to Soft Peaks

Although different forces are at work, cream as it's whipped progresses through a series of stages similar to those seen in egg whites. As the whisking begins, large bubbles are formed, which slowly become smaller bubbles and then a uniform foam. At this stage, the whisk will leave a visible trail behind it in the cream. Initially the cream is still soft, and the mark of the whisk fills itself in. This is the soft peaks stage. Just a few more seconds of whipping will bring it to the stiff peaks stage, when the cream holds a definite shape.

Tips for Whipping Cream

Cold is the fundamental element in whipping cream successfully. The cream should be very cold, straight from the coldest part of your refrigerator. When possible, it helps to also chill the bowl and the whisk. If you live in an especially hot climate, it is best to whipped cream in the cool of the morning and refrigerate it until needed. Cream forms a foam because the whipping breaks up globules of butter fat, causing them to bind together in spherical bubbles that trap the air inside. It is analogous to creaming butter for a cake, which also traps air.

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