The Kitchn's Baking School Day 4: All about meringue.
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In its most basic, stripped-down definition, meringue is egg whites whipped with sugar. Air is quickly whipped into the egg whites, which makes them billow up to as much as eight times in volume. Pretty neat trick, right? When sugar is added, it not only provides sweetness, but it also helps stabilize the egg whites. This way, the whipped whites do not collapse as quickly, allowing us to transform them into everything from crunchy baked cookies to lemon meringue pie.
Meringue is a semi-magical substance, and one that, like pâte à choux, forms part of many pastry essentials. Here's what you need to know about the incredible magic of meringue.
The 3 Major Types of Meringue
Meringue is just whipped egg whites and sugar, but depending on the ratio of sugar to whites and whether or not heat gets involved, there are actually several different types of meringue that can all be used in a variety of ways in our kitchens.
Gluten-Free Alert! All types of meringue are naturally gluten-free and they make a great base for gluten-free and dairy-free desserts. Serve meringue cookies with fruit and dairy-free whipped coconut cream, for instance, or crumble over dark chocolate ice cream for a gluten-free treat.
The ratio of sugar to egg white changes the role and properties of the meringue, as does the addition of heat. Let's take a look.
French Meringue: Baked, Hard, and Dry
This is perhaps the classic meringue that comes to mind: crisp, airy, usually crunchy after baking. This type of meringue is pictured at the top of this post.
- What is it? French meringue is essentially just egg whites beaten with sugar and a stabilizing agent (like cream of tartar), which is then piped or scooped into the desired shape and baked low and slow in the oven until the meringue dries out. This type of meringue is the least stable and should be used just after being whipped.
- What you do with French meringue: This type of "hard/dry" meringue is typically piped and baked into cookies, decorative shapes, and shells — like toadstools for Buche de Noel cakes and airy pavlovas.
- What is its texture like? Once baked, French meringue should be crisp and light, but not browned, when done cooking. Be sure to bake them slowly at low heat. You will know when they are done when the baked meringue can easily be lifted off a piece of parchment and the bottoms are dry.
Italian Meringue: Cooked and Soft
In Italian meringue the sugar is cooked as a syrup with water before adding eggs.
- What is it? Cooking the sugar before adding it to the whipped egg whites makes a "soft/wet" Italian meringue. This kind of meringue is the most stable and edible without additional cooking. Sugar and water are boiled together into a syrup, and then slowly streamed into the whites as they're being whipped. Once all the syrup is added, you keep whisking until the meringue forms stiff, glossy peaks.
- What you do with Italian meringue: Plain Italian meringue is used on the outside of Baked Alaska and to top lemon meringue pie. If you add butter this turns it into Italian buttercream icing for cakes and pastries.
- What is its texture like? This type of meringue doesn't have to be baked, since the eggs get "cooked" by the sugar syrup. So you may eat it as a fluffy, whipped topping on a pie or other dessert, or lightly bake it on top of a cake or pie.
Swiss Meringue: Also Cooked and Soft
Swiss meringue also heats the sugar, but without water. Instead, the egg whites and sugar are gently cooked together.
- What is it? Similar to Italian meringue, Swiss meringue uses a gently heated mixture of egg whites and sugar, but no water is involved and the mixture of whites and eggs gets heated on the stovetop (usually over a double-boiler). Once the sugar dissolves, the meringue is then taken off the heat and whipped to stiff, glossy peaks.
- What you do with Swiss meringue: Swiss meringue can be used as a topping (think 7-Minute Icing) or turned into buttercream, like Italian meringue. It can also be used to make homemade marshmallow fluff.
- What is its texture like? Like Italian meringue, it doesn't have to be baked so it can be soft, light, and fluffy instead of baked and crunchy like meringue cookies.
How To Make Classic French Meringue
For the purposes of today's lesson we're going to talk through the simplest form of meringue, French meringue. Here are the basic steps for making meringue. For a step-by-step visual guide, be sure to check out the full baking lesson.
- Start clean: When making French meringue, start with egg whites that are completely free from yolks, and bowls that are completely dry and grease-free.
- Whisk at medium-low speed: Begin whisking at medium-low speed. Add in any vanilla, salt, or cream of tartar, if using. After a few minutes, the egg whites will begin to foam but will still be too liquidy to hold any shape.
- The foamy phase: At this point, bump up the mixer to medium speed and gradually start adding in the sugar, a little at a time. As you continue to beat the whites, keep gradually increasing the speed of the mixer and adding in the sugar. The whites will begin to become more opaque and will start to tighten into a more solid foam. When they reach the "soft plop" stage, the whites will start to barely hold on to the whisk; they won't hold a peak quite yet.
- Soft peak stage: Add in the remaining sugar as you head into the "soft peaks" stage. Here, the whites will just begin to hold their shape, but the peaks will slump over and melt back into themselves. Increase the speed to medium-high and continue whipping.
- Firm peak stage: When the meringue hits the "firm peak" stage, the whites will indeed hold their shapes, forming nice peaks with tips that fold back on themselves.
- Stiff peak stage: The next and final stage of whipping meringues is our target: stiff peaks! This is what we are waiting for. At this stage, the whites should stand straight up in all their shiny, smooth, glossy glory. The meringue should be stiff enough at this point to be piped and hold its shape. If you rub a little between your fingers, it should feel silky and not grainy.
Party Trick! Hold a bowl of stiffly whipped meringue upside-down over someone's head! If the eggs are whipped properly, they will defy gravity and stay in the bowl — no mess or apologies needed.
- Dollop or pipe your meringue: Once your meringue is stiff and glossy, you can either dollop it out on a parchment-lined baking sheet, or pipe it into stars or other shapes.
- Bake the meringue: Bake the meringues at 215°F for 60 to 90 minutes.
- Cool the meringues in the oven: Crack the oven door open and let the meringue cool completely in the oven. They should sound hollow when tapped.
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Why Meringue Does What It Does
Now that we've talked about the major types of meringue, and how to make a basic French meringue, let's go over the why of it all. Why does meringue behave the way it does?
Why Meringue Is "Allergic" to Fat
For maximum volume and the most stable whipped egg whites, be sure to keep your whites free from fat and grease. As the proteins in the whites unfold and then recombine to create a stronger foam when whipped, fat (found in residual grease on equipment or from the egg yolk) interrupts the proteins from binding back together.
So what happens if you are separating your eggs and a bit of the yolk falls back into your whites? If it is a small drop, try to remove it, but don't abandon your whites quite yet. Egg whites with a small amount of yolk will most likely still whip up; they just need more time. Crack an entire yolk? You are best off starting from scratch.
While you will always see it written to avoid all fat and grease when working with egg whites, it may not be as extreme as you might think. Fat does interfere with the formation and stability of whipped egg whites, but trace amounts of grease and small drips of yolk might still be okay. To take out the guesswork, it is best to just try to avoid fat when you can.
Why Meringue Recipes Call for Cream of Tartar (Acid)
Adding an acidic element to whipped eggs whites help stabilize them, and this is why many recipes call for cream of tartar, lemon juice, or distilled white vinegar. This does not necessarily cause the whites to increase in volume, but it does keep
Tips for Maximum Meringue Success
In order to ensure maximum volume from your meringue, keep these key bits of information in mind:
- Whip eggs in a glass, stainless steel, or copper bowl. Avoid plastic, since plastic is naturally porous and can sometimes contain traces residue of fat.
- Your bowl and any other equipment that comes into contact with the egg whites should be completely clean, dry, and free from grease, which can interfere with the proteins in the whites and prevent the whites from foaming.
- Be very careful that your egg whites are completely free from any bits of egg yolk. This can also prevent your egg whites from foaming and holding their shape.
- When using an electric mixer, always start slow, but don't over beat.
- Add in your sugar slowly to make sure it completely dissolves.
- Lastly, cold eggs are easier to separate, but room-temperature egg whites whip up faster. If you remember and have time, separate your eggs while still cold from the fridge, but then let them rest on the counter to warm to room temperature before whipping.
If you're piping out your meringue, try not deflate the meringue too much as you work with it. Avoid overfilling your piping bag — work in batches if you need to. When doing the actual piping, hover the piping tip slightly over the surface where you're piping, instead of right against the surface, and then stop squeezing the bag just as you're finished with each shape.
What to Avoid When Making Meringue
- Watch your oven temperature closely and use an oven thermometer if you can. An oven that is too hot may cause the shells of baked meringue to brown or crack.
- Avoid making meringue on humid days if at all possible. If you can't avoid it, you can combat the humidity by increasing the bake time. The hygroscopic nature of sugar absorbs the extra moisture in the air and interferes with the stability of the meringue. Once baked, humidity may also cause crisp meringues to soften.
- As tempting as it is, try to avoid opening the oven until the very end of baking, or your baked meringue may crack.
- Use caution when using bulk egg whites in the carton, unless otherwise specified by a recipe or unless you need to use pasteurized egg whites for food safety reasons. Some brands will let you know if they are unsuitable for baking, while others may take more time to whip and in the end might not be as strong.
- Make sure your mixing bowls and utensils are totally free of grease and avoid egg yolks in the whites. The fat interferes with the egg white's ability to foam — specifically the protein albumin.
- Don't add your sugar too fast. This can prevent the sugar from dissolving as cleanly and lead to meringue with a gritty texture.
- Avoid over-whipping the whites. Since sugar helps stabilize egg whites, it's actually hard to over-whip egg whites once you've added all the sugar, but it's still something to watch out for. If you go too far, the whites will appear grainy and dull and will start to become dry and clumpy. They will be hard to incorporate into batters and begin to break down as you fold them.
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Read this post on the best ways to use meringue, and tell us a project you'd like to make with meringue.
Make basic meringue cookies using French meringue.
Upgrade your meringue with something spectacular: give it a twist, pipe it out, or add color.