Melt-in-your-mouth homemade meringue is an ethereal delight, whether it’s piled high on a pie, baked into crispy cloud-like cookies, or cradling fruit for a delicate Pavlova. Here are all the tips and tricks you need to whip up perfectly light and airy meringue from scratch.
Try this recipe: Authentic French Meringues
In its simplest form, meringue is made up of just egg whites and sugar. The ratio of egg white to sugar and how you handle those two ingredients makes all the difference in the outcome. Here’s what you need to know before you get started:
- Use the right bowl. Make your meringue in a clean, dry bowl made of glass, ceramic, stainless steel, or copper. Plastic is generally not recommended because it can hold traces of oil, which might affect how your meringue turns out (more about that below). Egg whites expand in volume when air is whipped into them, so be sure the bowl you use is larger than you’d think you’d need.
- Egg temperature. Room-temperature egg whites whip to a higher volume, but it’s easier to separate the yolks from the whites when the eggs are chilled. The solution is to separate the yolks and whites while the eggs are cold, then set the whites aside for 10 to 15 minutes to bring them to room temperature.
- Sugar and sugar-to-egg ratios. You can use regular granulated sugar when you’re making a meringue, but many cooks swear by superfine sugar because its ultra-tiny crystals dissolve more easily and completely when you whip them up with the egg whites. How much sugar you add depends on your recipe: Soft meringues used to top pies or baked Alaska, or to fold into batter have about 2 tablespoon sugar for every egg white. Hard meringues you can pipe into shapes have about ¼ cup per egg white, and usually contain an acid such as cream of tartar or lemon juice.
- Optional stabilizers. To make a sturdier meringue, your recipe may direct you to add an acidic ingredient such as cream of tartar, white vinegar, or lemon juice. Caution: Don’t use a copper bowl if you’re adding acid to stabilize your meringue; it will react with the copper and discolor the egg foam.
- Humidity hurts. Choose a dry day to make your meringues, otherwise they’ll suck up whatever moisture is in the air and never quite set up properly.
Q: Does a trace of oil or egg yolk really ruin your meringues?
Maybe not. Serious Eats ran a test and concluded that the presence of a tiny bit of oil or a drop of egg yolk will increase the time it takes to whip the egg whites to the point where they can hold peaks, but that it’s not necessary to throw out a batch of whites because a mere trace amount of oil or yolk sneaked in. But if you want to play it safe, start with ultra-clean equipment and pristine whites.
Q: Can you make meringue without adding cream of tartar?
Yes, but the acid in the cream of tartar makes for a sturdier meringue that is less prone to weeping. If you’d rather use lemon juice as an acidic ingredient rather than cream of tartar, add about 1/2 teaspoon juice for every egg white in your recipe.
1. Using chilled eggs, separate the egg yolk from the egg whites. To ensure no broken yolks get into your whites, separate each egg into two small bowls — one for the white and one for the yolk — and then add the white portion to a large bowl. Let the whites sit at room temperature for 10 to 15 minutes.
2. Optional: add cream of tartar (about 1/8 teaspoon per egg white), or lemon juice or white vinegar (about 1/2 teaspoon per egg white) before beating.
3. Using an electric mixer, start beating the egg whites on medium-low speed, then increase to medium speed until they expand in volume and soft peaks form. At that point, you can switch to high speed, adding sugar very gradually, about a tablespoon at a time. Be sure to move the mixer around the bowl to evenly incorporate the sugar into the egg whites to help stabilize the foam. Continue to beat until egg whites are glossy and hold a firm peak that doesn’t fold back onto itself.
4. Test the mixture to make sure all the sugar has dissolved. Rub a small amount between your fingers to feel for any grittiness. If it’s smooth, you’re done. If it’s gritty, continue to beat and test until the sugar is completely dissolved and the meringue mixture is silky smooth.
Cooked meringues are ideal for making buttercream frostings, topping baked Alaskas, or decorating meringue pies because the egg whites are cooked to at least 140 degrees F (60 degrees C), effectively killing bacteria that can cause food-borne illness. Note that cooking—or pasteurizing—egg whites is not a concern when the meringue will be baked longer than ten minutes in a moderate oven (350 degrees F/175 degrees C). Some supermarkets do sell pre-pasteurized egg white, but these require a much longer whipping time to reach the desired volume for a meringue.
There are two kinds of cooked meringues: Italian and Swiss.
Italian meringue is made with a sugar syrup boiled to the soft-ball stage (248 degrees F/120 degrees C) and carefully poured in a thin stream into egg whites that have been whipped with cream of tartar; the mixture is then further whipped until stiff peaks form and the mixture cools. Caution: Because of the constant whipping, the bowl cools quickly, and the egg whites may not reach pasteurization temperature; you can use an instant read thermometer to check the meringue’s temperature after the first minute or so of whipping. Try this recipe for Unbaked Meringue.
Swiss meringue is made by combining sugar, cream of tartar or other acid, and egg whites, and heating them in a double boiler over boiling water. To prepare a Swiss meringue, whisk the sugar and egg whites enough to break up the whites, but not so vigorously that they form an airy foam. The sugar will melt and act as a protective shield against coagulation of the egg whites; heat and whisk constantly until the temperature of the whites reaches 120 degrees F (49 degrees C) or hotter. Remove the bowl from the heat, and beat the warm egg whites until they form stiff, glossy peaks.
There is an art and a science to making perfect meringues, and common challenges that can arise. Let’s take a look at the problems and their solutions.
Beading is the formation of sugary water droplets on the surface, caused by overcooking.
Solution: Bake your meringue pie at a high temperature with a short baking time. This prevents overcooking the outer layer of meringue, so beading is avoided. Bake at 425 degrees F (220 degrees C) for 4 to 5 minutes.
Weeping: is the pooling of water between the meringue and the pie filling, caused by undercooking.
Solution: Make sure the pie filling is hot before you spread meringue over it, then spread to the edges to seal. Hot filling ensures that the inside of the meringue cooks, preventing weeping. Sprinkling fine cake crumbs, vanilla wafer crumbs, or soft white bread crumbs over the filling will absorb liquid between the meringue and the pie filling, which will also prevent weeping.
Shrinking is a loss of volume during baking.
Solution: For every 2 egg whites, dissolve ½ teaspoon cornstarch in water and heat it before whipping it into the beaten egg whites. See the Never-Ever-Fail Meringue recipe for an example of this technique.
Note: Swiss or Italian meringues are less prone to shrinking and weeping since they are already cooked.