Melt-in-your-mouth meringues are an ethereal delight, whether they’re piled high on a lemon meringue pie or cradling fruit for a crisp, delicate Pavlova. Here are all the tips and tricks you need to make perfectly light and airy meringues.
In its simplest form, meringue is made up of just egg whites and sugar, but how you handle those two ingredients makes all the difference in the outcome. Follow these tips for best results:
Use a clean, dry bowl that’s completely grease-free, because the tiniest trace of fat will wreck your meringue. Glass, ceramic, stainless steel, and copper bowls are all good choices. Don’t use plastic bowls; although they may appear clean, they could still hold trace amounts of oil on the surface.
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 white while the eggs are cold, then set the whites aside for 10 to 15 minutes to bring them to room temperature. It’s important to separate yolks from whites completely; even a trace of yolk will deflate the whipped egg whites.
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: More sugar makes for a firm meringue that you can pipe into shapes, while less sugar makes a softer meringue–the fluffy kind you heap atop a cake or pie. In general, you’ll use about 2 tablespoons of sugar for every egg white.
As an optional step to make a sturdier meringue, add cream of tartar, white vinegar, or lemon juice. (If you’re using a copper bowl to make your meringue, don’t add any acid; it will react with the copper and discolor the egg foam.)
Step-by-Step MeringueEgg Whites and Food Safety
Pasteurizing–or cooking–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).
For buttercream frostings, baked Alaskas, or meringue pies, the egg whites should reach at least 140 degrees F (60 degrees C) for safety’s sake. Some supermarkets sell pre-pasteurized egg whites; these require a much longer whipping time to reach the desired volume for a meringue.
Italian meringues are made with a sugar syrup. Sugar and water are boiled to the soft-ball stage (240 degrees F/115 degrees C) and carefully poured in a thin stream into a mixer bowl of whipped egg whites. The mixture is whipped until cool. 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.
Swiss meringues are made by combining sugar and egg whites and heating them over a double boiler.
- 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 145 degrees F or hotter.
- Remove the bowl from the heat, and beat the warm egg whites until they form stiff, glossy peaks.
Read more about making cooked Swiss meringues.
Beading, weeping, and shrinking meringues are common complaints.
Beading–the formation of sugary water droplets on the surface–is 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–loss of water between the meringue and the pie filling–is caused by undercooking. Solution: Spread meringue over hot pie filling, and spread to the edges to seal. Hot filling is necessary to ensure that the inside of the meringue cooks, preventing weeping. Fine cake crumbs, vanilla wafer crumbs, or soft white bread crumbs sprinkled lightly over the filling will absorb liquid between the layers, another preventative against weeping.
Shrinking is a loss of volume during baking.
Meringue Pie tips
A never-fail method for producing the perfect meringue is one that uses a cornstarch and water mixture to form a gel: beaten gradually into a meringue, the thickener will prevent shrinking problems. See the Never-Ever-Fail Meringue recipe for an example of this technique.
- Swiss or Italian meringues, since they are already cooked, are less prone to shrinking and weeping.