by Nicole Rees
from Fine Cooking #128, pp. 78-85
When I make meringue, I feel a little like a magician. I start with translucent egg whites that take up barely any room in the mixing bowl, add some sugar, beat like mad and–voilà!–the mixture has transformed into a big, white, shiny, billowy mass. The trick up my sleeve is the sugar, which turns a fragile egg-white foam into a stable meringue.
But the magic doesn’t end there. A soft meringue puffs up a soufflé, lightens a mousse, and–perhaps most famously–adds height to lemon meringue pie as a jaunty topping of swirls and spikes. A meringue can also be slowly baked, transforming (once again) into crisp cookies or cake layers.
There are three basic types of meringue: French (also called common), Swiss, and Italian. What differentiates them is how the sugar is incorporated into the egg whites. Any of the three can be used for both soft and hard meringues, but as you’ll see on the following pages, each type has attributes that make it work especially well in specific desserts, including a fruit-and cream-filled pavlova, a lemony dacquoise, and chocolate and peanut butter cupcakes so good they will disappear right before your eyes, no magic wand needed.
Follow these tips for the loftiest results, regardless of which type of meringue you’re making.
- Don’t bother making meringue on a rainy day. A meringue is hygroscopic, meaning it absorbs moisture from the environment. On a humid day, meringue toppings will be more likely to weep, and baked meringues may be sticky instead of crisp.
- Keep any yolk out of the whites. The fat in the yolks interferes with the bonding of the protein molecules in the whites, making the foam less light and stable. Separate each egg over a small bowl to be sure the white is free of egg yolk before combining with other whites. The yolks are less likely to break and contaminate the whites if you separate them while they’re cold.
- Warm whites warm to room temperature before beating. Not only will you get loftier results (see “Separate eggs cold; beat whites at room temperature“), but sugar granules don’t dissolve as easily in cold egg whites, resulting in a weak, coarsetextured meringue that breaks down easily.
- Use a clean, dry mixing bowl and beaters. Be sure the bowl is properly rinsed. Soap is fat-based and can interfere with whipping.
- Use superfine sugar. Its smaller granules dissolve more readily, which provides stability. (To make your own superfine sugar, grind granulated sugar in a food processor until fine.)
- Add salt late. Added early, it can prevent the egg proteins from forming a foam, thereby increasing whipping time and decreasing stability.
- Beat until stiff. Stiff peaks stand straight up when the beaters are lifted.
The basic meringue
How it’s made: Sugar is gradually beaten into egg whites once they’ve reached the soft-peak stage. The mixture is then whipped to stiff, glossy peaks.
Pros: The lightest of all meringues, it’s also the easiest and quickest to make.
Cons: It’s not very stable. If used as a topping for a pie or cake, it can succumb to weeping and collapse. Cornstarch in the pavlova helps keep the chewy inside dry.
Best for: French meringue is often used in cake batters to lighten the texture of the finished cake. On its own, a French meringue is shaped by hand and baked for meringue shells, such as the Fresh Berry Pavlova, and used for thin baked meringue toppings.
Tip: To maximize stability, add 1/8 tsp. of cream of tartar or 1/2 tsp. lemon juice or vinegar per egg white. The acid in those ingredients keeps egg proteins from bonding too tightly, which can make the mixture grainy instead of glossy.
Fine texture, more stable
How it’s made: Sugar and egg whites are combined and gently whisked over hot water until the sugar dissolves completely; the whites are then whipped to stiff peaks.
Pros: Finely textured and more dense than French meringue, Swiss meringue is a more stable topping for pies and tarts, and holds up well when queezed from a piping bag.
Cons: Due to the addition of the sugar at the start, Swiss meringue takes longer to beat than French meringue, sometimes more than twice as long. That early addition of the sugar, while making the meringue more stable, also makes it more dense, so it won’t reach the same airy heights as a French meringue.
Best for: Piped and baked meringue cookies and cake layers, such as this Pistachio-Lemon Dacquoise.
Tip: Instead of mixing over simmering water (the traditional method), simply place the mixing bowl into a larger bowl of very warm tap water. The goal of both methods is to warm the egg whites just enough to melt the sugar; 95°F to 115°F will do the trick. (Make sure the temperature of your hot tap water isn’t over 125°F, or you may overcook the egg whites.)
Fully cooked, super fluffy
How it’s made: A hot sugar syrup is beaten into egg whites that have reached the soft-peak stage, and then the mixture is beaten until cool with stiff peaks.
Pros: Fully cooked and very stable, Italian meringue holds up beautifully as a topping for days without weeping.
Cons: Requires a candy thermometer and a vigilant eye; if the syrup goes higher than the soft-ball stage (234°F to 240°F), the meringue will become rough, sticky, and too thick to spread. It also takes the longest to make.
Best for: Buttercream frostings that will hold their lofty, dramatic shape and keep for days. Because it’s fully cooked, Italian meringue is often the meringue of choice for mousses.
Tip: Use a stand mixer if you have one. Italian meringue needs to cool as it’s being beaten, and a stand mixer makes quick, easy, hands-free work of this. If using a hand mixer, be sure to use a heavy bowl that will stay put as you beat the hot sugar syrup into the egg whites. You can also wrap a towel around the base of the bowl to help it stay in place.
Photos by: Scott Phillips