Do all of the different ingredients and techniques for making meringue seem like one big mystery to you?
If you have never made meringue before, or have tried but have had less than successful results, don’t despair! Meringues are very easy to make if you follow simple rules and a good recipe.
Over the many years I’ve been baking, I’ve probably tried every recipe and technique there is to make meringue. I don’t know if it’s because of the baker’s fingers I inherited from my family, but I’ve never had major problems with any recipe or technique I’ve used. But, and here is the BUT, regardless of how few instructions were given, I knew to follow a few simple tips that guaranteed success!
Unfortunately, some recipes don’t produce the best results! So, as much as following the simple rules will help you succeed, it’s also important to know about the various techniques and what to do when you come across one of them. Below, I explain a bit about the different recipes, ingredients, and cooking methods. If you look through several cookbooks from different authors and publishers, or trawl the net for recipes, chances are you’ll come across quite a variety of these. Here are the key differences, as well as guidelines based on my own experience.
If you want to make the best meringue possible, then use large, fresh eggs. Whenever I can, I love to buy large, fresh, free range organic eggs from the market, particularly when they are from small local farms :-> Eggs should also be at room temperature. You won’t get as much volume from cold egg whites.
Some recipes call for a small amount of cornstarch to be added. In my experience, this does nothing to improve success or texture. I also prefer unadulterated recipes :-> Therefore, I never use it and get perfect meringues every time.
Some recipes call for a minute amount of one or the other to be added. Without going into detail, both of these ingredients are acidic. Egg whites, on the other hand, are non-acidic or alkaline. Adding a very small amount of cream of tartar or vinegar has a stabilising effect and helps give more volume to beaten egg whites (the amount is so small, that there is no effect on the taste). I find it particularly useful when adding lots of liquid flavouring to meringues, or when I want a softer look to my meringues and don’t beat them quite as stiffly as I could. When making Swiss or Italian Meringue, you are heating or cooking the egg whites, so neither one of these is needed. If you are making meringue using the Basic Meringue technique, and you follow the simple rules you’ll find here: Perfect Meringue: Tips to Success, I’ve also found that you do not need either one of these ingredients (however, do add it if this is the first time you make meringue or you are unsure!).
Most recipes do not add any salt. However, my mother always added a little salt to her delicious meringues, and the recipes in several of my favourite, trusted, patisserie and haute-cuisine cookbooks, all add salt. I’ve made meringues with and without salt and compared the taste â€“ the ones with salt taste so much better! So I always add salt!
This ingredient often raises questions because there are many different types of sugar available, some of which have different names in different countries, and some which are only available in their country of origin! Read on to determine what is what and what to substitute if you want to or need to.
This is the bit that creates most problems for inexperienced cooks, along with the baking! There are several techniques for preparing meringue:
This is the simplest way to prepare meringues. Add the salt and either the cream of tartar or vinegar [if using] to the egg whites in a large bowl. Beat until frothy and soft peaks begin to form [ie: when you lift the beaters or the whisk out of the meringue, soft peaks will fold over].
Then add the sugar, always starting with the granulated sugar if using, in small amounts [a few tablespoonfuls at a time] and beat well after each addition until completely dissolved. This step is important, otherwise the meringue will not cook properly [it will sweat and form small beads of liquid sugar on top] and it will lose its volume. Now, most recipes suggest that you use half the sugar in this step, and that once it has all been incorporated, you continue beating until glossy and very stiff [ie: when the beaters are lifted out of the meringue, the peaks stand stiffly, and if the bowl is turned upside down, they will not slip out of the bowl]. You know the meringue is beaten enough when a bit of it, rubbed between your thumb and finger, is no longer grainy. At this stage, the remaining sugar is gently incorporated by folding in with a large metal spoon.
Personally, I find this tends to produce meringues that are very fragile and more likely to crumble or break when lifted off the baking sheet. This is particularly true if you are making a large round shape such as a Pavlova shell. So I have altered this slightly ♥ to achieve perfect results each time ♥. I first add three quarters [3/4] of the total sugar using the method described above. Then, I add the remaining quarter [1/4] sugar by whisking it in gently with a large stand beater that has a whisk attachment. If your beater does not have this, then fold in the remaining sugar with a large metal spoon.
This method produces fine, silky meringues. It is prepared over barely simmering water. The gentle heat helps ensure the sugar completely dissolves. You do not need any cream of tartar or vinegar for this method, as the heat helps the eggs gain volume. To use this method, you need either a double boiler or a large heatproof bowl that you can place over water in a pot on the stove. It is important for the bottom of the bowl to be sufficiently far from the water, and that the water is just barely simmering, or the eggs may cook [they will start to curdle]! You first add the salt and all the sugar to the egg whites, stir, and place over the simmering water. As soon as the eggs are over the water, you must whisk continually for about three to five [3 - 5] minutes. Use a large balloon whisk or a hand beater with a whisk attachment to do this. The eggs will more than tripple in volume and start to become glossy. Once they leave a thick trail when the beater/whisk is lifted, remove from the heat and continue beating until very glossy and firm.
This method also makes a superb meringue. It is often used in the preparation of fine, very light buttercreams. A sugar syrup is first prepared by boiling the sugar and a small amount of water to a specific temperature, between 116 and 130°C [240 and 265°F], depending on the recipe. The egg whites are gently beaten until soft peaks form in a stand mixer while the sugar syrup boils. Immediately after reaching the desired temperature, the syrup is poured slowly in a thin stream into the eggs whites while beating constantly at medium speed. They must be beaten up to 15 minutes until completely cooled and firm [beating and cooling time will depend on how many egg whites you are using].
Meringue to which a few drops of food colour have been added produce a lovely pastel shade when baked using the “slow oven” method.
Again, some recipes add no flavouring ingredients. I usually add vanilla or another suitable flavouring if none is specified, as this enhances the flavour. ♥ Flavouring and colours are added at the end of the preparation.♥ If the recipe calls for a dry flavouring such as cocoa powder, then follow the recipe.
The ingredients for meringues to which ground nuts are added vary in proportion to account for the nuts, and a little cornstarch may also be needed â€“ this is also called Swiss Broyage and I will cover it in another article.
Most recipes suggest lining the baking sheets with baking parchment. This is the best method.
Once again, there are many different baking techniques. The temperatures and baking times can vary greatly. ♥ In essence, the best meringues are not really baked but dried out ♥ . This is why many recipes suggest making meringues in the evening, so you can let them dry out in the oven overnight. Other methods use a higher oven temperature and shorter baking time with very little or no drying out. This method tends to colour the meringues, so depending on what you are using them for, bear this in mind.
If you want to make small, pretty, coloured meringue shapes, such as meringue stars and kisses, then the â€œslowâ€ oven method is the one you must use. The oven temperatures in recipes vary greatly, depending on the baking duration, going from 80 to 140°C [175 to 275°F]. My preferred baking method is the “slow oven” method described in Perfect Meringue: Tips for Success. I also provide a method for baking them more quickly.