Meringue is a popular dessert topping made from whipping egg whites with sugar. It is commonly used to top pies and other desserts and to make crisp outer shells for various sweet dishes. There are two primary types of meringue: hard and soft. Hard meringue requires twice the sugar by weight as egg whites, while soft meringue requires an equal weight of both ingredients. There are several different methods used to make meringue, including Swiss, Italian and French, but all share similar preparation techniques.
Egg whites are easier to separate while they’re cold, but easier to whip while they’re at room temperature. For the best results, separate the whites from the yolks as soon as you remove the eggs from the refrigerator. Place them in a small bowl and allow them to stand for 30 minutes before beating. You may also place the bowl containing the egg whites into a larger bowl of warm water for approximately 10 minutes if you’re pressed for time. This procedure will result in greater volume when making the meringue.
Hold the Yolks
Not even a minute fleck of yolk should be allowed to contaminate the egg whites. This will prevent the whites from frothing as they should. One effective technique is to use three different bowls while separating the eggs. Place the yolks in one bowl and the whites in another, one at a time. Thoroughly inspect each white as you separate, and if you’re sure it doesn’t contain any yolk, place it in the third “clean” bowl. Continue until the third bowl is filled with pure egg whites.
Joseph Amendola, author of “The Baker’s Manual,” suggests using a copper bowl for whipping, as it will result in a more stable meringue. However, any metal bowl will work well as long as it’s clean and dry. Avoid plastic bowls which may have a film on their surface and can ruin a meringue even when they appear to be clean. In addition, the beaters you’re using should be completely clean and free of any grease. Even a tiny bit of dried on food, grease or other debris can cause the meringue to fail.
Working with Sugar
Confectioner’s sugar may be substituted for approximately half of the granulated sugar (by volume) normally used. Some cooks believe this stabilizes the meringue. Superfine sugar may also be used in place of regular granulated sugar. Superfine sugar is the finest granulation of sugar available and works well for making meringue as it dissolves more quickly.
Proper Beating Techniques
Beat the egg whites on medium-high speed instead of high for froth with lots of small bubbles. Move the beaters up and down throughout the whites as you beat, which will allow more air to enter and maximize the volume of the meringue. Add the sugar toward the end of beating, when the whites are nearly soft-peaked. For small batches, add sugar in increments of 1 tbsp. For larger batches, add about ¼ cup of sugar at a time. Stop beating when stiff peaks form, as overbeating can ruin the meringue.
Spread the meringue over the top of your pie, making sure to spread to the very edges. If the mixture is not touching the crust, it may shrink while it bakes. If you’re making hard meringue, it should be baked at the end of the day. Turn off the oven and allow the pie to rest inside overnight. This will ensure that the meringue is thoroughly dry and prevent it from absorbing excess moisture. Soft meringues may be removed from the oven once the cooking time has passed and stored or served as desired.
References and ResourcesThe Baker's Manual: 150 Master Formulas for Baking; Joseph Amendola and Nicole Rees; 2002
Biscotti & Other Low Fat Cookies; Maria Robbins and Maria Polushkin; 1997
Cafe Wisconsin Cookbook; Joanne Raetz Stuttgen and Terese Allen; 2007