Have you ever tried to make a lemon meringue pie and ended up with a sort of sad, droopy meringue top? We all have! Luckily, once you master the meringue, it’s a super simple trick to have up your sleeve for pies, cookies, and even cakes!
Whipping egg whites with sugar creates a delicate yet stable structure called meringue. Egg whites are approximately 90% water and 10% protein. When the whites are beaten, the protein strands begin to bond with each other, creating a web holding the air bubbles and the liquid together. With continued beating, the proteins continue to link, forming a stable foam. Any added sugar also acts to stabilize egg whites, as it melts and surrounds the air bubbles, helping to hold the matrix in place. Science!
To best create a stable meringue, there are a few rules and precautions to follow.
- Ensure that the egg whites do not come in contact with any fats, whether from the yolks or from your equipment, as fats coat the proteins and prevent them from readily forming a foam. Be sure the bowl and whisk are free of grease.
- When separating eggs, the yolks and whites separate cleanly when refrigerator-cold as the yolks are firmer and do not easily break. However, temperature can affect the ability of the egg whites to foam; the colder their temperature, the longer the foaming time. Bring the whites to room temperature (68°F) before whipping.
- Choose a stainless-steel or copper bowl, if available, and a balloon whisk, if whipping by hand, to achieve the best volume.
- Another technique for stabilizing egg whites is to add a small amount of an acid, such as cream of tartar, to the whites. This strengthens the protein links and creates a thicker, more stable foam. A good rule of thumb for adding cream of tartar as a stabilizer is to add 1/8 teaspoon for every two egg whites.
Stages of Whipping
When whipping egg whites, there are three stages of foam development: soft peak, medium peak, and stiff peak. Egg white foams will have a stronger structure and more volume if foamed slowly at the beginning until frothy, and then finished at higher speeds. To determine the stage of whipping, lift the whisk out of the bowl. A soft-peak meringue will not create a point at the end and will cling to the surface of the whisk or beater. A medium-peak meringue will form a peak but will droop slightly at the end. A stiff-peak meringue will form a sharp point at the end of the whisk or beater. If a meringue appears dull or lumpy, it has been overwhipped and may be saved by adding another egg white and whipping to the desired stage.
Types of Meringues
There are three types of meringues: common (or French), Swiss, and Italian. Swiss and Italian meringues are cooked meringues and are the most stable, making them the best suited for toppings. They are also used for lightening creams and fillings. Common meringues are used to aerate or lighten preparations that are to be further baked.
A common meringue, also called French meringue, is made by simply whipping egg whites with sugar added until the desired volume is reached. This type of meringue is theeasiest to form but the least stable.
Swiss meringue is formed when the egg whites and sugar are heated together, while whisking, over a hot water bath to 140°F. The meringue is then whipped either by hand or with a mixer to the desired volume. The heating of the whites creates a cooked meringue that is safe to consume and that is more stable than the common meringue.
An Italian meringue is made by beating the egg whites with a mixer and heating the sugar and water together to 240°F to create a sugar syrup that is poured into the whites while whipping. This meringue is the most stable of the three types of meringues; additionally, it is safe to eat because the hot sugar syrup has effectively cooked the egg whites.
Once you make your meringue, you can use it to top pies and tarts, piped and dried in a low temperature oven and eaten like a cookie (we love this one!), or as a layer in a trifle. Fill a piping bag with meringue and practice swoops and swirls, or, if you have one, use a kitchen torch to carefully toast the meringue for golden brown peaks that taste like a toasted marshmallow!
Take a peek at this video for a better look at how to make a meringue, then get in the kitchen!