Is Soufflé/Is not Soufflé

If you were to browse around the internet looking for spoon bread recipes, you’d see that more than a few of them are leavened solely with egg foams. It’s thought that most early spoon breads were leavened this way until chemical leaveners like baking powder came into broad use in the mid-1800’s.

Why not just use egg foam like fine cooks do with soufflés? The answer is because unlike flour, corn meal is tough stuff to leaven. It has no gluten. Also, not being ground as finely as wheat flour, it’s heavy and doesn’t gelatinize well. Which is to say, individual starch molecules don’t break off from the little broken corn pieces very easily, and without those, you don’t get much structure.

Another problem is that cornmeal is chockablock with pieces of the corn kernels’ tough outer skins. These skins, called pericaps are akin to wheat bran. Like bran, they break down into jagged shards when ground. And those shards pop egg foam bubbles.

Wouldn’t it be nice if there was a way to force the batter up — regardless of all its gas-trapping liabilities, for just as long as it takes the eggs to set. Enter chemical leavening. A healthy dose of that and a leaky corn batter can’t help but rise, like one of those dancing fan man things at a car dealership. Who cares how much gas escapes? There’s plenty more where that came from, at least for a while, but by then the egg proteins will have coagulated and we’ll have a finished “bread”. Cool, yes?

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