There’s something magical about meringues. I love the idea that these airy, featherweight glossy blobs are made of only two ingredients (egg whites and sugar). I love their purity: they are naturally fat-free, gluten-free and dairy-free. And I love that this purity and simplicity requires some precision: meringues are all about sticking to a few rules.
If unicorns exist, their horn is not made of ivory: it’s made of meringue.
In essence, meringues are made beating sugar into egg whites. These two ingredients can be combined in several different ways to make the classic piped, dry meringue; the toppings of lemon meringue pie or baked Alaska; or the “islands” of île flottante (floating island). In the French method, the simpler one, the mixture is then baked. In the Swiss meringue method, egg whites and sugar are whisked over a bain-marie. The Italian meringue method uses boiling sugar syrup instead of caster sugar.
Do it like a pro: equipment
Copper bowls are best for whipping egg whites, because the chemical reaction between the copper and the egg whites makes the foam more stable. Alternatively, you can use any large glass or stainless steel bowl. A ceramic bowl will do, but please don’t use a plastic bowl – they tend to collect grease, no matter how well they are washed, and you risk compromising your egg foam.
Rule number one of making meringues: keep the egg whites far from any fat. Even small amounts of fat can causes the beaten egg whites to collapse.
Even a little water or fat can ruin the whole meringue, so make sure that the bowl and beaters are perfectly clean and dry to obtain maximum volume. Wiping the bowl with a wedge of lemon to remove any traces of grease can often help the process.
Finally, you will need an electric whisk; whisking the eggs with a manual balloon whisk is best left to those with action hero-sized biceps.
Eggs and sugar
French meringue has only two ingredients: whipped egg whites and sugar.
Caster sugar is better than granulated sugar because it is easier to dissolve in the egg foam. I follow Laduree and BBC Good Food and use half caster (during the whisking stage) and half icing sugar (during the folding stage). As icing sugar dissolves quicker in the stiff egg mixture, it reduces the risks of over-mixing and of leaving sugar grains undissolved. Whichever sugar you use, steer clear of sugar substitutes: the sugar stiffens the foam and is necessary to the structure.
Both egg whites and sugar chemically attract water. For this reason, Martha Stewart recommends avoiding making meringues on a rainy or really humid day. Now, this seems like sensible advice for those lucky human beings who live in California, Southern Spain or other similarly blessed sunny places. If, like me, you live in London (or other similarly less-blessed rainy places), waiting for a perfectly dry day would become quite unpractical. So, do as the British have done for centuries, lift your collar and ignore the weather!
Although not necessary, cream of tartar (potassium tartrate) if often used to help increase the volume and stability of whisked egg whites.
Meringues can be flavoured with cocoa powder, cinnamon or almonds. These must be mixed in at the end, delicately folding from the bottom up.
Separating the eggs
Cold eggs separate more easily because the whites hold together better, so make sure to separate the eggs when they are fridge-cold. Crack the egg in half and hold the shell halves over a bowl. Transfer the yolk back and forth between the halves, letting the white drop into the bowl. Alternatively, you can use an egg separator (my friend Linda gave me one as a present and it works pretty well). Transfer the yolk to another bowl.
When separating eggs, be careful not to cut the yolk, as whites containing any yolk will not beat properly. If a speck of egg yolk falls into the egg whites, lift it out with an empty eggshell half or a clean teaspoon. Do not try to fish it out with your fingers; even the oil on your skin will prevent the egg whites from expanding!
Whisking the eggs
While eggs separate better when they are cold, egg whites whip better when they are at room temperature. After separating, bring the egg whites to room temperature by letting them stand for 15-30 minutes.
Whisking makes the egg whites foam glossier and thicker. You can check the progression of the egg whites looking at the peaks they form when the beater is lifted: the first stage is soft peaks; the second stage is firm peaks; and the last stage is stiff peaks. Soft peaks have tips that curl over and disappear when the beaters are lifted. Stiff peaks have tips that stand straight and hold their shape when the beaters are lifted.
To test that the meringue is done, you should be able to hold the bowl upside-down over your head without it sliding out. Less dramatically, you should be able to hold a spoonful of it upside down and none of it drops off.
Adding the sugar
Add one third of the sugar at the soft peaks stage; another third at the firm peaks stage; and the last third at the stiff peaks stage. Don’t add any sugar before the whites have been whipped to soft peaks, as this can double the time you have to whip the egg whites to get a foam.
Add the sugar one spoonful at a time and keep beating the whole time. Adding the sugar gradually to the egg whites ensures that the sugar dissolves completely. To tell if the sugar is dissolved, rub a bit of the foam between your fingers: it should feel completely smooth. If it feels gritty, the sugar is not dissolved, so keep beating.
Hard meringues are not really cooked; they are dried out in a very low oven to allow the water in them to evaporate. The result should be white, crisp and dry.
Rule number two of making meringues: bake at very low temperature (60-70 ºC) for a very long time (4-6 hours, ideally overnight).
If you make meringues on a rainy or humid day, you will probably have to bake the meringues longer than on a dry day.
- 3 large eggs
- Caster sugar, same weight as the egg whites (depending on the size of the eggs, this should be between 90g-120g)
- Icing sugar, same weight as the egg whites (depending on the size of the eggs, this should be between 90g-120g)
- ½ teaspoon cream of tartar (optional)
How to make them (French method)
- Preheat the oven to fan 60ºC (conventional 70ºC). Line two baking sheets with baking paper.
- Take three large eggs out of the fridge and separate them, tipping the egg whites into a large clean mixing bowl (preferably glass or metal, not plastic). Weight the egg whites (if your scale does not take away the tare automatically, weight the egg withes together with the bowl and subtract the weight of the empty bowl). Weight the caster sugar and the icing sugar (each should be the same weight as the egg whites).
- Add half a teaspoon cream of tartar.
- Once the egg whites have reached room temperature, whisk them with an electric hand whisk or mixer on a medium speed until frothy.
- Increase the speed to high and continue whisking until soft peaks form. Slowly sprinkle in one-third of the caster sugar, sieved, one spoonful at a time. Adding the sugar slowly helps prevent the meringue from weeping later. Whisk.
- Slowly sprinkle in the remaining two-thirds of the caster sugar, sieved, one spoonful at a time. Whisk until stiff but not dry. The mixture should be thick and glossy.
- Sieve the icing sugar. Sprinkle it over the mixture, one third at the time. Gently fold in with a rubber spatula or a big metal spoon, keeping as much air in the mixture as possible.
- Once the icing sugar is fully incorporated, pour the mixture into a piping bag and pipe on to the baking sheet in round or square shapes.
- Bake for as long as you can: ideally overnight, but at least two hours. The meringues should stay white but they should sound crisp when tapped underneath. Switch the oven off and leave the meringues to cool inside it.
If your meringue starts to brown: the oven temperature is too high causing the sugar to caramelize.
If the inside of the meringue is chewy and sticky instead of dry, crisp and crunchy and/or the outside of the meringue separates from the inside: the oven temperature is too high, causing the outside of the meringue to dry and set too quickly.
If your meringue starts “weeping” or “sweating” (that is, beads of moisture form on its surface) the sugar has not properly dissolved in the egg whites. To prevent this, add the sugar slowly during mixing.
Meringues will keep for at least a week if stored in an airtight container, but they don’t like to be in the fridge.