Meringue, pronounced “mer-rang,” is simply egg whites and sugar whipped together to form an airy mixture of foam and air bubbles, and depending on how long the mixture is whipped magically results in billowy and fluffy meringue with either soft or stiff peaks.
Meringue can be varied by adding extra flavors such as coffee, chocolate, and ground nuts. When meringue is baked it becomes a lusciously light and crisp confection that quickly dissolves in your mouth.
Meringue is a key ingredient in many desserts and confections such as:
- Topping over pie fillings such as Lemon Meringue Pie
- Formed into a shell to hold fillings such as Chocolate Angel Pie
- Piped into round discs and baked such as Strawberry Meringue Cake
- Formed into small sandwich cookies, such as Macarons
- Formed into shapes such as Meringue Ghosts
- Used as frosting such as Seven Minute Frosting
- Used to make confections such as Marshmallows
- Used to make light and airy foam cakes such as Angel Food Cake
- Baked with cake batter to form a sweet and crunchy topping such as Chocolate Hazelnut Meringue Cake
There are three basic meringue types: French, Italian, and Swiss. The ingredients are the same for each type, but the proportion of egg whites to sugar varies and the preparations are different.
French meringue is made by whipping egg whites into soft peaks, and then gradually adding sugar while whipping until stiff peaks are formed. Since the egg whites are raw while whipping, French meringue is the least stable meringue and should be used immediately or the whites may begin to break down and deflate. French meringue is often used to leaven soufflés or cakes such as sponge and flourless cakes and may also be spooned or piped into shapes or round discs and then slowly baked to dry out to a crisp and crunchy texture.
Italian meringue is made by whipping the egg whites into soft peaks and then hot sugar syrup that has been cooked to a soft-ball stage is slowly poured into the soft egg whites while continuing to whip the mixture until it is cooled and forms stiff peaks. Italian meringue holds up longer before deflating and breaking down than French and Swiss meringues; it is also known as “cooked meringue,” and is the most stable of the three meringue types.
Swiss meringue falls somewhere between French and Italian meringues. Egg whites and sugar are whipped together while being heated over simmering water until the sugar is dissolved and the mixture reaches a temperature between 140 and 160 degrees. Depending on the recipe, the meringue may be whipped entirely while over the simmering water, or removed from the heat and whipped until cooled. The finished meringue will have glossy peaks that hold their shape well. Swiss meringue is also known as “warm meringue.”
Japonaise meringue is a fourth type of meringue that has finely ground almonds and a small amount of cornstarch folded into French meringue. The egg whites are whipped into soft peaks, and then sugar is gradually added while whipping into firm peaks. The ground almonds and cornstarch are mixed together and then gently folded into the meringue by hand, and then the mixture is piped or spooned into the desired shape and baked. Japonaise meringue layers are often layered with other cake layers, toppings, or Buttercream to form a meringue-type layered cake.
Noisette meringue is a variation of Japonaise meringue, made with the addition of ground hazelnuts instead of almonds, along with a small amount of >cornstarch and vanilla extract.
The scientific word for egg whites is albumen; albumen contains proteins called albumin and ovalbumin. When egg whites are whipped the albumin forms tiny air bubbles that can increase the volume of the egg whites by up to 8 times. If the beaten egg whites are then heated, the water within the whites evaporates and the air bubbles you just spent time creating would quickly collapse and disintegrate if not for the ovalbumin. The ovalbumin protein coagulates when heated and thereby prevents the beaten egg whites from collapsing as the water evaporates, allowing baked meringues to form a solid and dry sweet confection.
Sugar along with sweetening, also helps stabilize the egg white foam and adds moistness to help keep the meringue fluffy and smooth instead of dry and lumpy. However sugar also decreases the lightness and volume of the meringue.
Sugar is generally added gradually so that it has a chance to dissolve before the next bit of sugar is added. And except when making Swiss meringue, sugar is added after the whites have been whipped to soft peaks. If added before whipping to soft peaks the sugar will tend to separate out to the bottom of the bowl, if added after the whites are already whipped into stiff peaks, then the whites will be too dry to allow the sugar to incorporate.
The amount of sugar used helps to determine the desired texture of the meringue. Soft meringue has less sugar and is typically used for toppings; hard meringue has more sugar and is often baked until dry.
Acid such as citric acid, lemon juice, and cream of tartar are often added in small amounts while whipping egg whites to help firm the whites and allow them to retain more air. A small amount of acid has a negligible taste; a large amount may adversely change the taste.
Salt is often added to meringue as a flavor enhancer. Even though just a small amount of salt is added, the salt may increase the amount of time needed to whip the egg whites to the desired firmness, therefore add toward the end of the whipping.
Flavorings and extracts such as vanilla should be added after the sugar, and toward the end of the whipping. Since fats and oil will inhibit the egg whites from expanding and whipping, any flavoring with natural oils such as nuts, chocolate, spices, and citrus zest should be added after the egg whites are fully whipped; these ingredients should be gently folded into the whipped egg whites by hand with a balloon whisk or rubber spatula.
Before attempting to whip egg whites, the egg yolks must first be completely separated from the egg whites as the yolk contains fat which prevents the whites from foaming and whipping. If even a tiny speck of egg yolk is left behind the whites may not foam and whip properly. The bowl and beaters you are using to beat the egg whites must be clean and free of any grease or dirt; wash the beaters and bowl in hot water just before using to ensure everything is squeaky clean.
Using a copper bowl to beat egg whites is thought to be ideal; the copper reacts with the egg whites to produce greater volume, along with stabilizing the whites so they hold their shape better. However, not everyone has an expensive copper bowl sitting in their kitchen. Stainless steel bowls work just as well as copper, and the addition of a small amount of acid should produce the same result as a copper bowl. Plastic and wood bowls should not be used to beat egg whites as they are difficult to completely clean of all dirt and grease. Aluminum bowls are also not a good choice as aluminum is corrosive and can impart a grayish color. Glass bowls may work fine for making meringue, but don’t drop the bowl as there is always a chance of breakage. When whipping >egg whites by hand use a balloon whisk to achieve the best volume and lightness.
Basic Meringue Tips
Cool dry day: Meringue is sensitive to the outside weather and you will have more success in making meringue on a cool dry day. Meringue absorbs moisture from the air, therefore in damp or humid weather meringues often need to bake longer than the specified time. Humidity may also cause meringues to collapse and become sticky. Adding 1 to 2 tablespoons, or even up to 1 cup of confectioners’ (powdered) sugar will help meringue hold-up in humid weather.
Clean equipment: Make sure the bowl and beaters are spotlessly clean, otherwise dirt and grease will prevent the egg whites from expanding to a whipped texture. Wash the beaters and bowl in hot water just before using to ensure everything is squeaky clean.
Use a large sized bowl for beating the egg whites. Egg whites will expand up to 8 times in volume.
You can beat the egg whites by hand with a wire whisk; however the task is far easier if you use either an electric stand mixer or hand mixer.
Fresh vs. old eggs: Old egg whites whip better than fresh ones. Allow farm-fresh eggs to sit 3 to 4 days so the whites will start to thin; egg whites begin to thin and become clearer, making them easier to whip if they are a few days old. Most eggs purchased in a grocery store can be used immediately as they are likely to be at least a week old.
Separating eggs: The egg yolk must be completely separated and removed from the egg white. Otherwise the yolk which is high in fat will prevent the egg whites from expanding to a whipped texture.
Eggs separate most easily when they’re cold. Crack cold eggs one at a time over a small clean bowl and let the egg whites fall into the bowl. Make sure the white is free of any yolk and shell, and then transfer the white to a larger bowl for whipping with the rest of the whites.
Warming egg whites: Eggs separate most easily when they’re cold; however the egg whites whip to their fullest volume when warm. Separate the egg whites into a bowl and let sit on the counter for about 15 minutes until they come to room temperature. Or, place the bowl of egg whites into another bowl with warm water to warm them faster, like a bain marie water bath. Or, hold the bowl of egg whites over a pan of simmering water until they reach room temperature, 1 to 2 minutes, constantly swirling the whites in the bowl while holding over the steam so they don’t start coagulating.
Sugar: Superfine sugar dissolves easier into the egg whites than regular granulated sugar, and also helps to maintain a light textured meringue. Make your own superfine sugar by putting granulated sugar into a food processor, blender, or small food grinder and processing into fine granules. Regular granulated sugar may also be used instead of superfine sugar and you may not even notice a difference in the finished meringue.
Whipping: Start whipping with only the egg whites in the bowl. Whip the egg whites into soft peaks, and then gradually add the sugar while continuing to beat until stiff shiny peaks form.
Don’t over beat or over-whip, stop whipping the mixture when you think you are almost there and you’ll probably find the egg whites are perfectly whipped. Properly whipped meringue looks smooth and glossy. Over beaten whites look lumpy and dry and may even begin to separate. Over beaten whites will remain lumpy and distinct instead of being smoothly absorbed when you incorporate them into another mixture such as cake batter. If you do over beat the whites, they can normally be saved by adding another egg white and whipping gently until the whites again look moist and glossy.
Soft vs. stiff peaks: Whipping by hand using a copper or stainless bowl and wire whisk normally yields softer peaks with a higher volume that is desirable for soufflés, mousses, and incorporating into cake batters. Soft peaks are floppy mounds that are moist and soft but should come to a peak when the whisk is lifted.
Whipping with an electric mixer normally results in stiffer and stronger peaks to use when making baked meringue disks or meringue based cakes such as Angel Food Cake. Stiff peaks look glossy and moist and will stand stiff and remain peaked when the beater is lifted.
Folding: Folding is a smooth and gentle motion that blends two separate mixtures. Folding is a technique used to gently blend whipped egg whites with another ingredient or mixture to keep from deflating the air from the whites.
If other ingredients are added into the whipped egg whites, such as ground nuts or citrus zest, use a large balloon type whisk or rubber spatula to fold the ingredient into the egg whites. The ingredient should be as evenly dispersed as possible without deflating the egg whites.
When beaten egg whites are folded into another heavier mixture such as cake batter, it is helpful to first add a small amount of the whites to the batter to lighten the entire mass. Then the remaining egg whites can be easily folded into the batter allowing you to avoid deflating the air out of these remaining whites. The goal is for most of the whites to be loosely dispersed throughout the batter, not so completely incorporated into the batter that they’ve lost the air you whipped into them.
Spoon whipped egg whites over heavier mixtures. Using a balloon whisk or rubber spatula, cut down through the center of the bowl, scrape across the bottom of the bowl and up on the side of the bowl closest to you and let the mixture drop back down into the bowl. Give the bowl a quarter turn and repeat, continuing until the two mixtures are lightly blended and there are no large streaks of unblended egg whites.
When folding flour into egg whites, sift the flour a little at a time over the whipped egg whites, and gently fold the flour into the whites using about 3 to 4 turns of the bowl with each addition of flour.
Piping: Most meringues can be piped through a pastry bag fitted with a plain or decorative tip. A standard coupler is ½ inch and may be easily used in place of a metal tip.
Meringue can also be spooned or dolloped onto a baking sheet instead of piping; try pinching the tops with slightly dampened fingertips to form a peak in the meringue if desired. Or, use damp fingertips to smooth down unwanted peaks.
Preparing the pan: lining a baking pan with baking paper or parchment paper is a favorite method of preparing a pan to prevent sticking, allowing the meringue to easily release after baking.
Baking: Meringue normally needs to be baked soon after whipping so the egg whites don’t start to break down and deflate. Meringue bakes best, forming a crisp outer shell when baked in a low oven, which allows the meringue to dry out rather than actually cooking. If the heat is too high the meringue may crack, along with turning an ivory or brown color instead of retaining a snowy white color.
Meringues should release easily from the baking sheet. If they show resistance they are probably not fully baked. After baking for the specified time, turn the oven off and leave the meringue in the oven overnight to cool slowly making them less likely to crack.
Browning: At times it is desirable to brown meringue, such as when making meringue pie or baked Alaska. Brown the meringue under the broiler for 20 to 60 seconds or until the peaks in the meringue are golden brown, watching carefully to prevent the meringue from burning. Or, lightly toast the meringue with a kitchen torch. Hold the torch 3 to 4 inches from the meringue and wave it back and forth until the meringue is lightly browned all over.
Weeping: Weeping occurs when liquid leaks out from under baked meringue; a moist layer forms beneath the under baked meringue and weeps out around the edges. To help prevent weeping, make sure to cook the meringue all the way through. When making a meringue pie, if the meringue is spooned on top of a hot filling, the heat from the filling will help to cook the underside of the meringue.
Most meringue pies need refrigeration, which will generally cause weeping or beading after a day or so. Also the damp surface of filling causes some of the sugar in the meringue to liquefy and weep out. But this change to the meringue wont diminish the flavor or enjoyment of eating the pie.
Beading: Beading is caused by undissolved sugar, but is also caused by too much heat. If the meringue is baked on a high heat it hardens quickly, and the moisture in the meringue escapes forming droplets, or beads, on the surface of the meringue. Beading won’t diminish the flavor but the finished meringue may not look quite as pretty. To help prevent beading the next time, make sure the sugar is completely dissolved when whipping the meringue. Also try reducing the oven heat or remove the meringue from the oven sooner.
Shrinking: Meringue on top of a pie tends to shrink away from the edges. To help prevent shrinking spread the meringue all the way to the edges so that the meringue touches the pastry without any gaps. First drop mounds of meringue around the edge of the pie on top of the filling. Then mound the remaining meringue in the center. Gently press down on the meringue to make sure the meringue is sitting directly on the filling, filling in any air pockets. Make sure the filling is completely covered with meringue and the meringue is touching the edges of the pastry.
Storing: Meringue easily absorbs moisture from the air, making it susceptible to becoming soft and sticky if not stored airtight. Wrap the meringue in air-tight wrapping or place in an airtight container, and store in a cool or room temperature, dry location. Meringue on its own should not be refrigerated; however desserts that include other mixtures such as a lemon meringue pie will require refrigeration which is not the best environment for the >meringue but needed to keep the overall dessert safe from bacteria.
Making Basic Meringue:
- Clean the bowl and beaters in hot water so they are completely free of any dirt or grease.
- Separate the egg yolks from the egg whites (cold eggs separate easiest.) Discard the egg yolks or cover and refrigerate the yolks for another project.
- Place the egg whites in a bowl that is large enough to allow the egg whites to expand up to 8 times their original volume. Let the egg whites sit until they reach room temperature.
- Beat the egg whites starting with an electric mixer on medium-low to medium speed. The whites will look frothy at first with bubbles forming. Acid, such as cream of tartar or lemon juice may be added at this stage.
- Increase the mixer speed up to medium or medium-high. As you continue beating the egg whites soft peaks will begin to form; soft peaks gently droop when the beater is lifted. If the recipe adds sugar, add at the soft peak stage, adding the sugar one tablespoon at a time or in a slow steady stream while continuing to beat the egg whites. Add any salt or liquid flavorings after the sugar is added.
- Continue beating the egg white mixture on medium or medium-high speed until stiff peaks form; stiff peaks look moist and glossy, not dry, lumpy or broken. The meringue should hold it’s shape when the beater is lifted, and be firm enough to remain in the bowl if the bowl is turned upside down.
- Add any flavoring that contains natural oils such as nuts, chocolate, spices, and citrus zest after the egg whites are fully whipped; these ingredients should be gently folded into the whipped egg whites by hand with a wire balloon whisk, or a large rubber spatula.
Making Meringue Shapes:
Meringue disc: Draw circles 8 to 10 inches in diameter on one or two pieces of baking or parchment paper. Place the papers upside down onto baking sheets; the circles should be visible through the paper. Place the meringue in a pastry bag fitted with a ½ inch or larger plain tip. Pipe the meringue in a spiral within the drawn circles; starting in the center and working to the outside. Bake immediately at 200 degrees for approximately 2 hours or until dry. At the end of the baking time, turn off the heat and leave the meringue discs in the oven for several hours or overnight to cool and finish drying out. Or, bake according to recipe directions.
Meringue cup: Create a meringue cup to hold fresh fruit or other fillings. Place the meringue in a pastry bag fitted with a ½ inch or smaller plain or star tip. First pipe a small circle of meringue onto parchment paper to form the base, about 3 inches in diameter; starting in the center and working to the outside. Then pipe 3 to 4 additional layers on top of the outer edge of the base to form an outside wall. Bake immediately at 200 degrees for approximately 2 hours or until dry. At the end of the baking time, turn off the heat and leave the meringue cups in the oven for several hours or overnight to cool and finish drying out.
Macarons: Macarons are petite sandwich cookies with a filling placed between 2 baked meringue shells. Place the meringue in a pastry bag fitted with a ½ inch or larger plain tip. Pipe 1 inch or 1½ inch circles onto a parchment lined baking sheet at least 1 inch apart. Place the tip directly on the parchment paper, gently squeeze the bag and let the meringue billow up around the tip, then as you release sweep the tip to the side of the meringue mound rather than lifting straight up and forming a peak. Rap the bottom of the baking sheet a few times firmly on the counter top to help flatten the meringues and release trapped air. Smooth any pointed tips with barely moistened fingertips. Let the meringues sit and air dry at least 45 minutes or up to 1 or 2 hours. Bake according to recipe directions. See recipe for Macarons.
Meringue mushrooms: Place the meringue in a pastry bag fitted with a ½ inch or larger plain tip. To form the mushroom caps, hold the pastry bag close to a parchment paper lined baking sheet and pipe out a small dome using about 1 tablespoon of meringue. Pull up on the tip to release. Smooth any pointed tips with barely moistened fingertips. To form the mushroom stems, hold the pastry bag close to the parchment paper and pipe the meringue, lifting the bag as you pipe, to form a small cone shape. Make the same number of stems as caps. Bake immediately at 200 degrees for approximately 2 hours or until dry. At the end of the baking time, turn off the heat and leave the meringue cups in the oven for several hours or overnight to cool and finish drying out. Assemble the mushrooms by making a small hole in the underside of the cap large enough to fit the tip of the stem. Put a tiny bit of Buttercream or melted chocolate in the hole and gently insert the stem.
Meringue kisses: Place the meringue in a pastry bag fitted with a star tip. Hold the pastry bag close to a parchment paper lined baking sheet and pipe into small candy kiss shapes. Or, drop the meringue from the tip of a teaspoon. Bake immediately at 200 degrees for approximately 1 hour or until dry. At the end of the baking time, turn off the heat and leave the meringue in the oven for 1 to 2 hours, or overnight to cool and finish drying out.
Meringue ghosts: Place the meringue in a pastry bag fitted with a large star tip with an opening about ¾ inches. Hold the pastry bag close to a parchment paper lined baking sheet and pipe ghosts 2 to 3 inches high. Bake immediately at 200 degrees for approximately 2 hours or until dry. At the end of the baking time, turn off the heat and leave the meringue in the oven for several hours or overnight to cool and finish drying out. See recipe for Meringue Ghosts