Is there anything more fancy than a lovely meringue? The gleaming white surface, and the delectable sweetness make this sugary treat a rare sight to behold.
Surely such a divine food is made only by french culinary experts, constantly studying the arcane ways of shaping the most difficult and rare ingredients into eldritch forms, right? Actually, meringue is one of the easiest desserts I have ever made. It is a surprisingly simple recipe that is actually somewhat hard to mess up.
What is a Meringue?
So what exactly is a meringue in the first place. Simply put, a meringue is beaten egg whites mixed with dissolved sugar. Some people add a stabilizing agent to help the process, but the only two ingredients you need are egg whites and sugar.
There are several ways to use a meringue:
- Floating Islands (also known in French as île flottante)
- Partially cooked toppings of meringue-topped desserts, such as lemon meringue pie
- The classic dry featherweight meringue such as cookies and Pavlovas
- Angel food cake
- French macarons
- And much more
Types of Meringue
- French Meringue: Fine white sugar is beaten into egg whites. It is considered an “uncooked meringue” because the eggs are not heated when the meringue is being prepared. To cook the meringue, it is usually then baked.
- Italian Meringue: A hot sugar syrup is made first and then whipped into softly whipped egg whites till stiff and until the meringue becomes cool. Although Italian meringues are considered “cooked meringues,” there is no consensus as to whether or not the hot sugar will bring the eggs up to the required temperature for pasteurization. This type of meringue will not deflate for a long while and can be either used for decoration on pie, or spread on a sheet or Baked Alaska base and baked.
- Swiss Meringue: Considered a “cooked meringue” because the sugar and egg whites are heated over a double boiler and then whisked together. It is not considered “fully cooked” enough to be safe without bringing the egg/sugar mixture to 160 °F to pasteurize the eggs. If doing so, do not over-heat the eggs or they may scramble. This forms a dense, glossy marshmallow-like meringue.
In general, eggs need to be cooked before being eaten. While regulations and safety varies between countries, it is especially important in Canada. To pasteurize eggs, the temperature must reach 160 °F or 70 °C.
Both Italian and Swiss meringues are considered “cooked meringues” because they are heated on the stove top. If heated to the point of pasteurization, pathogens and bacteria, like salmonella, will be killed. French meringues are initially uncooked, and might contain salmonella, but will be cooked if baked in the oven.
Some eggs in the supermarkets will have a pink “P” stamped on their shells, indicating that the eggs are already pasteurized. Using these eggs fully eliminates any concerns about salmonella, however it will take slightly longer to whip these eggs.
You can also purchase egg whites in cartons, which are also usually pasteurized. However, many of these cartons may not be suitable for making meringues. Usually, the carton itself will specifically state if it is suitable.
Creating the structure of the meringue is the key factor, and the part that intimidates most people. Whipping egg whites does two things: it stretches the proteins and makes it capture air. As you are whipping the eggs, you add the sugar bit by bit to coat the egg white proteins. When the meringue is baked, the sugar will harden and give the meringue a solid structure.
There are points in the process where it is possible to mess up a meringue, and sadly this is what intimidates most people.
Make it fat-free: Make sure there is no sign of fat anywhere. Fat will prevent the whites from whipping properly. Clean your equipment with vinegar to remove any oil or fat. When separating your eggs, make sure that no trace of egg yolk is in the whites.
No Cold Eggs: Use room temperature eggs. The best way to do this is to:
- Use three bowls to separate the eggs (1 to separate each egg, 1 to hold all the whites, 1 to hold the left over yolk)
- Separate the eggs while they are cold
- Put the egg yolks back in the fridge right away
- Allow your egg whites to come to room temperature or place the bowl of egg whites in a small amount of water to warm them quickly
The Right Bowl: Use a glass or metal bowl when whipping egg whites. Plastic bowls can harbour oil and odour, which will ruin your meringue.
Don’t Over-Beat: You can stretch the egg white proteins to their literal breaking point, and the egg white proteins will physically break apart. This will give the whipped egg whites a “cottage cheese” consistency. You can limit the chance of over-beating by adding a stabilizer (like vinegar, or cream of Tartar). If you do over-beat, this is actually reversible by adding another egg white and mixing briefly. Watch this video to see it in action.
Once you are past these hurdles, meringues are actually almost impossible to mess up.
I recently made meringue cookies and followed our recipe which calls for baking the meringues at 250 °F’ for 40 minutes then turning off the oven and letting the meringues rest for an hour. I did that, but forgot to turn off the oven while the meringues were resting. They cooked for a total of an hour and 40 minutes. The end result? They were crispy all the way through, and that was it. Because of the low temperature, they did not brown or burn.
A Word About Sugar
Sugar is a key element that determines the volume, density and crispness of a meringue.
- More Sugar:
- Creates denser meringue with less volume
- Creates a more flexible structure, which makes it harder to ruin by over-beating
- Creates more crispiness in baked products
- Less Sugar:
- Creates light meringue with more volume
- Easier to fold into other batters
- Creates a less flexible structure, which makes it easier to ruin by over-beating
What Type of Sugar to Use
Most recipes recommend using “Super Fine” sugar (also known as Berry or Caster Sugar).
Regular granulated sugar will also work, but will take a lot of mixing to get the larger granules to completely dissolve in the egg whites. This is especially important when making a French meringue. If you do not have super fine sugar, a blender or food processor can be used to grind granulated sugar a bit finer.
We have tried using “Powdered Sugar” (also known as Confectioner’s Sugar, and Icing Sugar). It got mixed reviews, some not even noticing a difference. We recommend using super fine sugar or a combination of super fine and icing sugar.
Flavour and Colour
Flavouring your meringue can be done with liquid extracts such as vanilla, almond, etc. Just be careful how much you add. Extracts have a high water content, which can cause problems for your meringue.
There are also powdered flavorings available that will add flavour without the liquid. Extracts tend to be more concentrated than liquids and are good for flavouring meringues.
An excellent option for flavouring meringues is adding cocoa powder or instant espresso powder.
If you want to create colourful meringues, “Gel” food colouring, or powdered colouring is the way to go. Regular liquid food colouring usually does not work because so much is needed to even add a hint of colour. That much extra liquid can easily ruin your meringue.
Storing Baked Meringues Cookies
When you’ve made your meringues, all you have to do is store them. The best place to store them is in an airtight container, either in the fridge, pantry or freezer. Although the fridge is a humid environment, your meringues will not be affected as long as the container used is airtight.
The biggest enemy of meringues is moisture, as that will essentially dissolve the sugar and destroy the structure. If you can keep them in an airtight container, you can store your fresh meringues for up to two weeks before they start getting stale.
Freezing baked meringues is also a great option. Since meringues are fragile, use a freezer safe hard-sided container to store them.
To thaw, allow to sit on the counter for several hours.
Leftover French Meringue “Batter”
So, you’ve made the perfect French meringue batter and are ready to spoon it out onto cookie sheets to bake. But, you have made too much. What will happen to the left over batter?
Unbaked French meringue does not have a very long shelf life, measured in hours instead of days. If you find you have leftover batter, place in an airtight container and place it in the fridge. Use it as soon as possible, preferably once you are done with any batches currently baking.
The best way to avoid this is to just make smaller batches of batter and make more when you need it. Meringue recipes scale quite easily.
Storing Meringue Topped Pies
Searching for the best way to store a meringue topped pie, yield very little consensus. Not only that, most advice is completely contradictory. That is frustrating at best. The biggest problems that arise when trying to store these pies is; weeping meringues and meringues that separate from the crust and filling.
These issues usually result in recommendations to just make the meringue topping right before serving and to avoid storing it altogether.
After going through my past recipe notes and doing more research, I have some tips that will actually allow you to store a pie for at least 24 hours:
- Cover the filled pie immediately after baking with plastic wrap and allow it to cool to room temperature on the counter
- Do not add the meringue topping until the pie is completely cooled
- Be sure to beat the meringue to stiff peaks, but do not over beat
- Pipe the meringue onto the pie starting at the outer edge instead of dumping the meringue in the centre of the pie and spreading it out. Piping makes sure there are no gaps between the filling and the meringue
- Quickly bake the meringue topped pie using the oven broiling instead of slowly in a preheated oven. Place the pie on an oven rack positioned lowest in the oven. It will only take a minute or two to brown the top of the meringue
- Allow the pie to cool before putting it in the fridge. Protect the top using a tent of foil, not plastic wrap (which encourages moisture development)
So, there you have it. Meringues are not so complicated. There are so many recipes using meringues, there is no need to avoid them. Practice making different kinds of meringues – including these cookies – so that you can confidently create desserts and treats that will truly impress your friends, family, and yourself.