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Whipping Whites and Sugar: Timing Matters

By Cook's Illustrated Published May 2016

Meringue cookies depend on whipped egg whites for both leavening and structure. The sugar that’s added to the whites contributes not only sweetness but also stability. But does it matter when you add the sugar?

Meringue cookies and all types of sponge cake, including angel food and chiffon, depend on whipped egg whites for both leavening and structure. The sugar that’s added to the whites contributes not only sweetness but also stability. But does it matter when you add the sugar?

EXPERIMENT

To find out, we made three batches each of meringue cookies, angel food cake, and chiffon cake, adding the sugar to the whites before whipping, after a minute of whipping, or at the very end, once the foam had reached the “soft peaks” stage. We baked them and compared the results.

RESULTS

In all three recipes, the timing made a difference. Adding the sugar after a minute of whipping was clearly best across the board. In both types of cake, the crumb structure was compromised when the sugar was added at the very end: The chiffon was dense and flat, while the angel food was coarse and almost crumbly. Adding sugar before whipping was also not ideal, leading to cakes that baked up a bit too dry.

In the case of the meringues, adding the sugar at the start of mixing produced a cookie that was dull on the exterior, with a too-fine crumb within. The cookies made when the sugar was added at the very end had an overly airy texture (tasters compared it to Styrofoam) and a grainy consistency. To top it off, they took on an unappealing brown color.

Too Early: Dull exterior and too-fine crumb

On Time: Snow-white color and ideally airy texture

Too Late: Browned, with grainy, Styrofoam-like texture

EXPLANATION

When egg whites are whipped, the eggs’ proteins unfold and then cross-link to form a network that stabilizes the air bubbles. At the same time, the sugar dissolves in the water from the eggs to form a viscous liquid that helps stabilize the structure. If the sugar is added too early, the sugar granules interfere with the proteins’ ability to unfold, resulting in a weaker network that can only support small air bubbles (this is why these cakes and meringues had a finer interior texture). If the sugar is added too late, either the sugar, which is hygroscopic, draws water out of the foam and causes the structure to weaken (as in the dense, crumbly cakes), or the sugar doesn’t fully dissolve (as in the meringue cookies that were grainy and brown from undissolved sugar caramelizing). Adding the sugar after a brief amount of whipping gives the protein network time to form while leaving enough time for the sugar to dissolve.

TAKEAWAY: For ideal volume and stability, add the sugar to whipped egg whites after the eggs have started to get foamy but well before they have started to form peaks.