This post is all about how to temper eggs. I’ll teach you how to do it, and maybe even more importantly, why we temper eggs in the first place. If you’re here for the first time, you may also be interested in reading about the function of eggs in baking.
This post is part of my Fundamental Friday series where I explain baking and cooking techniques and/or answer baking and cooking questions. For ease of browsing you can find all the Fundamental Friday posts in one place. Thank you for visiting!
Reader Beth asked me to tackle tempering eggs, as the prospect of adding hot liquid to cold eggs can strike terror into the hearts of even experienced cooks. Beth, I accept your challenge. You didn’t have to smack me with that glove, but whatever.
There are a couple of meanings for the word temper in the pastry kitchen.
One is for chocolate, and it describes the process of heating, cooling, and reheating chocolate so that all of the different fats in cocoa butter (which all have slightly different melting points) behave themselves and set properly, giving you a nice, shiny end product with a good snap.
The other, and the one we will concern ourselves with today is this “to slowly heat up eggs so that they don’t curdle.”
More completely, What’s Cooking America provides the following definition: “To slowly bring up the temperature of a cold or room temperature ingredient by adding small amounts of a hot or boiling liquid.
Adding the hot liquid gradually prevents the cool ingredient (such as eggs) from cooking or setting. The tempered mixture can then be added back to hot liquid for further cooking. This process is used most in making pastry cream and the like.”
Reasons to Temper
Eggs are rather finicky creatures.
They are also very necessary in the pastry kitchen for all sorts of reasons–thickening, structure, leavening, emulsifying, etc. But sometimes, they don’t want to play nicely. What’s their problem? Eggs are very temperature sensitive.
Their proteins, which are largely found in the whites (albumin), begin to coagulate, or cook, or denature, at about 140F. The yolks (vitellus!) start to set up at a somewhat higher temperature, around 150-155F. Eggs will be all cooked–whites and yolks–by about 160 degrees, F.
Eggs enjoy being cooked slowly. That’s why they are quite happy in a water bath, so they never have to be above 212F, thankyouverymuch.
If you raise the temperature slowly and steadily, the proteins will set up all smooth and happy. If, however, you blast them with crazy high heat, the proteins will set up so tightly that they will squeeze out all the liquid and you will end with a pan full of rubbery scrambled eggs sitting in a pool of sad, cloudy water.
This is not what we are going for.
LIke the frog that happily sits in water as it is slowly warmed up but will leap out if tossed into boiling water (that story scarred me for life, but I just had to reference it because it’s so true).
So, when you want to add your finicky eggs (the ones that like to coagulate slowly at low temperatures) to a near-boiling pot of milk, cream, and sugar (and maybe some starch) so you can make pudding, ice cream or Something Else Yummy, you have to think slow and steady.
And tempering lets us raise the heat slowly and steadily.
How To Temper Eggs, in a Nutshell
Here are the Rules for Tempering.
- Pour a little of the boiling/hot liquid into the cold eggs while whisking madly.
- Pour the warmed eggs back into the pot.
That’s pretty much it, in broad strokes, but it can still be a little bit daunting.
I know you have Questions.
Tempering Q & A
I used to have the same question. My wrists aren’t strong enough to hold a huge pan of boiling dairy in one hand and whisk with the other. And that, friends, is when I had a Light Bulb Moment. How about using a ladle?! There you go–dip in one small ladle of hot liquid at a time while whisking madly with the other hand. No ladle? Use a 1/4 cup measure or something.
Okay, you have four options here.
Option 1 is to whisk faster than the bowl spins. Not very practical, I admit.
Option 2 is to get a bowl that has some sort of rubberized bottom. They make those. They sell them for kind of a lot.
Option 3 is to get some of that puffy stuff for lining china cabinets that comes on rolls next to the contact paper at the store. Just cut a square of it and set your bowl on it.
Option 4 is actually my favorite.
Take a kitchen towel, get it wet, wring it out and then make a little nest for your bowl to sit in.
Just form the towel into a circle that’s a little smaller than the bottom of your bowl, and put it on your counter next to the stove (or wherever you’re tempering your eggs). Then snuggle the bowl down inside its little nest. Now it won’t go anywhere. And if you happen to get a little overzealous with your whisking, whatever whisks out of the bowl will land on the towel. Yay!
How much hot liquid you need to add depends on how many eggs you have. That is not a cop out; I’m not done yet.
You know that you want the eggs to be hot, and you know you have to do it slowly. Here’s what I do. If I have say, 4 eggs, that’s maybe 2/3 cup by volume.
I’d probably start by adding an ounce or so of the hot liquid (2 Tablespoons, give or take), whisking the whole time. Then, I’d add a little more and a little more, feeling the side of the bowl.
Once the eggs are decidedly hot, I’d pour them all into the pot. With the heat turned off, and whisking all the while. I honestly never have measured how much hot liquid I add to my eggs. If I had to guess, I’d say probably about twice as much as the amount of egg. And no, I don’t always add all of the hot liquid to the eggs–once my eggs are hot, in they go. Not just warm. Hot.
No you don’t. You only need enough to make your eggs hot. Once they’re hot, it’s safe to pour them back into the pot with the rest of the hot liquid. Just be sure to keep whisking while you do this.
Why I Don’t Stress Over Tempering
Tempering is a means of getting something (eggs) from point A to point B (from cold to hot) slowly and steadily. Tempering is a technique, not a scientific formula, which is why there’s no definitive answer for “how much hot liquid do I need to add to the eggs?
To help take out some “added insurance” while tempering, here are some things you can do to make the process even more foolproof:
- Add a portion of your sugar to the eggs. I don’t care if the recipe doesn’t tell you to–it’s okay. I promise. Whisk the sugar and eggs together very well until they’re nice and creamy. I’m sure you’ve heard that sugar can start to cook your eggs. This is chemically a true statement, so make sure that you really whisk the two together and then don’t leave them just sitting there for too long.
I always whisk at least a few times every minute or so while I’m waiting for my dairy to heat up enough. Of course, you could always wait until your dairy is hot before you whisk the two together.
Adding the room temperature sugar will raise the temperature of your eggs slightly, which is a good thing. The sugar will also help to get in the way of all those proteins and keep them from bumping into each other and coagulating too readily.
- Make sure your eggs aren’t refrigerator cold. Remember, eggs like a slow ride, so take them out of the fridge at least half an hour before you’re going to use them to give them a chance to warm up a bit. You can call this a pre-temper, if you want. But you don’t have to.
- Strain the finished product (the custard or whatever, once the eggs are tempered) through a fine-mesh strainer. Sometimes, even when you’ve done a Great Job, a little bit of the eggy protein will decide to coagulate anyway, just out of sheer meanness.
That’s why I always strain. Always. Then, when the strainer comes up empty, I can feel Smarter Than Eggs. (And if the strainer has little bits of egg in it, I can rinse it out quickly and pretend it never happened).
When to Partially Temper
Once your eggs are cooked, they are Cooked.
By that, I mean that, if you are making a product that will need more cooking in the oven in order to set up, such as a flan or creme brulee, the rule is that you have to cool off your tempered egg/dairy mixture quickly, before the eggs completely coagulate.
If you do not. You will find yourself Close to Service with a Very Lot of ramekins of creme brulee that have been in the oven in a water bath for 2 hours and are still just pools of thick liquid covered with a skin. For example. Ahem.
I’m telling you, if you’ve ever had a creme brulee not set up for you in the oven, it’s probably because your initial mixture was way too thick (the eggs were already completely cooked). So, for Items to Be Further Cooked, please have an ice bath ready and waiting so you can cool things down immediately.
As a matter of fact, when I temper hot cream into eggs to make creme brulee, I don’t even put the mixture back over the heat. I temper all the hot cream into the eggs, and then pour the mixture through a fine-mesh strainer into a pitcher for filling my ramekins.
When to Temper “All the Way”
Items that will be fully cooked on the stovetop, such as pastry cream, ice cream base, and creme Anglaise can and should be cooked more after the tempering.
It probably won’t take long, but continue to stir your tempered egg/dairy mixture over heat until it either boils for a minute (pastry cream, pudding) or until it coats the back of a spoon (creme Anglaise, ice cream base).
The magic number on a thermometer is 180F. And then cool it in an ice bath. Immediately.
I’ve seen a 12 quart batch of ice cream base turn from perfect to scrambled eggs while just sitting there. Nasty old carry-over cooking. Sometimes carry-over is a bad thing, and it certainly is in the case of custards.
The larger your batch, the more danger there is of carry-over cooking. If you’re only dealing with a quart of mixture, it should cool off quickly enough to avoid problems, but any more than that, cool your tempered and fully cooked liquid in an ice bath.
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