Despite the dish’s fussy reputation and appearance, making a soufflé is the definition of doing the most with the least. All you really need is flour, milk, butter, eggs, and something extra for flavor. Although there is a bit of technique required, it's nothing beyond the skill level of an average cook. If you’ve ever whisked eggs into foam or made béchamel for baked pasta, you can make a soufflé. And should you endeavor to do it, you will be rewarded with a puffy tower of steaming custard that is substantial enough to stand in for dinner any night.
I made my first soufflés as a pastry cook at a restaurant in France where, for an entire month, we served individual dishes of airy passion fruit soufflés that rose to perfect cylinders in our high-tech oven. One night my boss, the pastry chef, called out sick, so I worked with Philippe, the chef de cuisine, for the first time, preparing for the night’s service. When we had finished and it was time for staff meal, I watched him combine the remaining soufflé base and egg whites with such nonchalance compared to the way he handled the diners’ desserts that I was taken aback. He then dumped the entirety of the batter into a rather wide baking dish and threw it in the upstairs kitchen oven to cook until it was brown all over.
It was one of the best soufflés I’ve ever had, richer and more satisfying than the carefully packed ramekins in the fridge downstairs. Before that staff meal soufflé, I did not realize how resilient soufflés could be. They have a reputation for being one of the hardest things to make, but as long as you aren’t holding yourself to Michelin-star standards, you can whip up a homey rendition without having to go to school for it.
Dessert soufflés are more famous, but practically speaking, savory ones get you the best bang for your buck. A savory soufflé is like a very refined omelette in that you can flavor them similarly, but not as recklessly. Because you want the egg whites to expand in the oven and lift everything in suspension, you can’t load a soufflé with tons of cheese or wet vegetables or large bits of anything at all, or else it can get weighed down.
But even if you do bravely take a stab at a soufflé and find that yours does not rise as loftily as your ambitions, it’s still going to be pretty good. Making soufflés is a life skill that you get better at over time – after the first few, you can make one by heart. There will always be room for improvement, but the ingredients are cheap and ubiquitous enough that it doesn’t have to feel like a catastrophic loss when you don’t get a perfect result.
While this probably isn’t the best thing to attempt on a night when you are really short on time, it can be leisurely made while you drink wine and listen to a podcast. The hardest thing for anyone who hasn’t done so before will probably be the egg whites. Whether you beat them by hand or with a machine, it is imperative you have an impeccably clean bowl, preferably metal (though glass could also work). If there are any smears, smudges, or fingerprints on your bowl, clean it again. If your sponge is old, use a new one. I know this sounds extreme, but egg whites make no exceptions for grease.
You will also need a two-quart soufflé dish, which is tall and cylindrical, or another similarly sized oven-safe round or oval vessel. So the soufflé can rise, the pan should be buttered and coated with something rough like finely grated cheese, breadcrumbs for a savory soufflé, or granulated sugar for a sweet one.
Most ovens aren’t accurate – in my experience, they’re usually 25-50 degrees off, sometimes more. But this recipe’s success relies on a consistent temperature, so you should have an oven thermometer to make sure that 375 degrees is 375 degrees. And even though you’ll be tempted to take a peek, do not open the oven door during cooking until the very end.
Because soufflés are so dramatic and quick to deflate, you will want to serve yours immediately after cooking (though it will still make for good leftovers). A side of salad is a classic accompaniment, but I also like to serve it with toast, as though it were just another plate of eggs.
Ham and cheese soufflé
For the base:
- 6 eggs
- 6 tbsp butter
- ⅓ cup flour
- 2 cups whole milk
- A pinch of cream of tartar or ½ tsp lemon juice or white vinegar
- Salt and pepper
- Nutmeg (optional)
- 1 tsp smoked paprika
- ½ cup hard or semi-hard cheese like Gruyère, Cheddar, or Manchego, finely grated, plus extra for coating the dish
- ¼ cup ham, finely minced
- Move your oven rack to the bottom third of the oven and heat it to 375. Butter your souffle dish with a tablespoon of butter and sprinkle with finely grated cheese or breadcrumbs to coat the inside.
- Melt the remaining five tablespoons of butter over medium heat in a saucepan and add the flour to make a roux. Cook while stirring for a minute before adding about a third of the milk and whisking to combine until smooth. Slowly add the rest of the milk and let the sauce thicken completely by bringing it to a gentle boil while continuing to stir. Once complete, pour this sauce, your béchamel, into a metal or glass mixing bowl to cool while you prepare the eggs.
- Separate the egg whites into a mixing bowl, saving just 5 of the yolks. (The additional white helps the soufflé to rise.) Whether you’re whisking by hand or in a machine, you want to start slowly, lightly frothing the egg whites to a foamy state before adding a pinch of salt and cream of tartar or lemon juice or vinegar for stability. You can now beat the egg whites more vigorously until they form stiff peaks. Try not to let it go past this stage because they will go lumpy, but the recipe will still work as long as the foam hasn’t completely separated from the liquid.
- Season the cooled béchamel with half a teaspoon of salt and half a teaspoon of pepper, or to taste. Soufflés can turn out salty because of the additional ingredients used to flavor them, so it’s best to season with a gentle hand. Now whisk the egg yolks into the béchamel, followed by the smoked paprika, ham, and cheese.
- Add a third of the beaten egg whites to the soufflé base and mix in thoroughly using a spatula. At this point, you’re just trying to lighten the base so that the rest of the egg whites will incorporate more easily. Add another third of egg whites, this time gently folding them to retain the air, and repeat with the final third.
- Pour the soufflé batter into the prepared dish and give it a gentle shake to level out the top. Place in the hot oven and cook until it is risen, but structurally sound, which can take from 45-55 minutes. You can test to see if it’s done by giving it a gentle shake to gauge the stability (if it wobbles like Flubber, give it another 3-5 minutes) or by sticking a skewer into the center from the side. If it comes out without any gooey egg clinging to it, it is ready to serve, and for you to revel in your gourmet accomplishment.