How to make the perfect meringue and three recipes to try

By Melissa Clark, The New York Times

There are few transformations in cooking as miraculous as turning an egg into a meringue.

With only some sugar, air and a small amount of effort, a bowl of modest egg whites can become extravagantly glossy and puffed, ready to dress up all manner of swoopy, fancy confections — festooned on cakes, piped into pavlovas and kisses, or swirled onto pies.

While it may seem difficult, making meringue is a whole lot easier than you might think. Any home cook with a set of electric beaters — or a balloon whisk and perseverance — can whip one up in a matter of minutes. It’s well worth the work, whether you’re looking to impress your friends and family, your sweetheart on Valentine’s Day or yourself any time you crave something sweet.

Because while perfecting something as special as meringue is a thrill, the real enchantment happens when you eat it.

From Frothy to Fluffy

Meringue at its most minimal consists simply of sugared, beaten egg whites. Sometimes it’s heated, sometimes not, and recipes date back to at least the 16th century. Before electric mixers, making meringue was an endurance test, a showy display of a pastry cook’s skill and upper-arm strength. Until the wire whisk was popularized in the 19th century, this vigorous mixing was accomplished with birch branches, knives or bundles of straw. Just think of that the next time pulling out your mixer seems daunting.

In reality, creating foam from a liquid isn’t hard: If you beat, shake or agitate it, you’ll incorporate air, and end up with a temporary froth. The tricky part is getting the air to stay. Think of blowing bubbles with a straw into your glass of chocolate milk, then watching as they pop when you pause to take a sip.

But the specific proteins in egg whites (and aquafaba) allow them to inflate into a billowing mousse — and remain that way longer — before the air escapes and the whites collapse.

As Harold McGee wrote in his food science compendium, “On Food and Cooking,” eggs are remarkable for their ability to harvest air and form something new. Beat a single egg white, he wrote, and you’ll end up with “a cupful of snowy white foam, a cohesive structure that clings to the bowl when you turn it upside down.” (Don’t try that with chocolate milk.)

As they are beaten, the proteins in egg whites uncoil, trapping air in tiny bubbles. The more you beat them, the thinner these proteins become, and the more air they’re able to capture as they become aerated. Adding sugar or heat, or both, to whipped egg whites helps stabilize them by firming up the proteins so their structure remains intact.

The Three Faces of Meringue

There are three types of meringues, each with a different character.

The simplest, commonly called a French meringue, is made from beating uncooked egg whites and sugar, and it’s the lightest and most voluminous of the three. But it’s also the least stable, liable to break down fairly quickly unless baked until hard. French meringue is often folded into the batters of baked goods to lighten them, such as sponge cake and macarons, or formed into pavlovas and meringue kisses to make crunchy, brittle-sugary treats.

Swiss meringue is made from egg whites and sugar heated in a double boiler until the sugar melts, then beaten until buoyant and creamy. More stable than French meringue, Swiss meringue is thicker and not as light. You’ll find it used to top pies and tarts (as in the recipes here), and baked Alaska, as the base for buttercreams and as a frosting for cakes on its own. (Pastry chef Stella Parks says seven-minute frosting is just a Swiss meringue in disguise.)

The densest, smoothest and most stable of the three is Italian meringue, but it can also be the most challenging. It starts with a molten sugar syrup heated to 240 degrees, then carefully beaten into a bowl of whipped egg whites until the mixture cools, becoming silky verging on sticky. Italian meringues can be used more or less interchangeably with Swiss meringues, but are preferable when increased stability is required, as in professional kitchens and candy making.

Meringue Plays Well With Others

For all of its sweetness and airy mouthfeel, meringue on its own doesn’t contribute much taste, but it pairs brilliantly with other ingredients. Without any fat to coat the palate, meringue is an excellent flavor carrier, allowing whatever you’re mixing in to shine through brightly.

For example, using brown sugar instead of granulated sugar yields a rich, caramelly butterscotch meringue that makes an unexpected pairing with blood orange curd.

Spices, extracts and citrus zest can be incorporated toward the end of beating, and a little lemon zest sprinkled into the topping of a lemon meringue pie increases its tanginess immeasurably.

Then there’s freeze-dried fruit powder, that darling of pastry chefs, which can lend both color and verve. And despite its high fat content (because fat is the enemy of egg-white fluffing), small amounts of melted, cooled chocolate can be folded into meringue, as long as you use a light hand so you don’t deflate the eggs.

Going a step further, combining raspberry powder and bittersweet chocolate makes a complex-tasting, fuchsia-streaked meringue that’s an absolute knockout dolloped on a raspberry tart.

Of course, marshmallowy mounds of meringue perched on nearly any dessert will make it seem like magic. And you don’t need to be a wizard in the kitchen to get there.

How to Make the Best Meringues

Humble and mysterious, an unbroken egg is “one of the most private things in the world,” the food writer M.F.K. Fisher wrote. But once cracked open, it reveals itself to be a flamboyant shape-shifter.

Depending on how you handle them, egg whites can metamorphose from a dense, viscous liquid into various altered states: soft and spoonable; firm and sliceable; or a billowing froth that’s an essential building block of gastronomy. Beaten egg white is the airy foundation of countless mousses, souffles, cakes and — the sweetest of all — sugary, glossy meringue. Making meringue isn’t difficult, but there are some best practices that will yield the most cloudlike results.

Fat is the enemy of fluff. The presence of fat can hinder how an egg white’s proteins trap air. Always use a clean bowl for beating and be very careful when separating the eggs to avoid any yolks from tainting the whites.

Make sure your eggs are cold … Cold eggs are easier to separate than room-temperature ones. This will help keep the yolk intact, so it doesn’t bleed into the white.

… And fresh. Older eggs inflate faster than fresher eggs, but meringue made from fresh eggs is more stable.

Use fresh (or previously frozen) egg whites. You can make meringue from pasteurized egg whites, but you have to beat them for a lot longer, and the results are never as voluminous.

Start low. For increased stability, always start beating your whites on low speed if using an electric mixer, then gradually increase the speed.

Add a little acid. Incorporating 1 teaspoon cream of tartar or 2 teaspoons lemon juice or vinegar to 1 cup of egg whites helps prevent overbeating, which causes them to denature and become lumpy. A chemical reaction between a copper- or silver-plated bowl and egg whites can also prevent overbeating (this is why copper bowls are traditional for beating whites). If you whip your whites in copper or silver, you can skip the acid.

Save leftover egg whites. They last for weeks in the refrigerator and months in the freezer. Thawed frozen egg whites whip up perfectly.

Be mindful of moisture. Meringues will weep and wilt when exposed to too much humidity. Try to make meringue on a dry day, and never store it in the fridge. An airtight container at room temperature is your best bet.

Recipe: Extra-Lemony Meringue Pie

Yield: 8 servings

Made with a buttery lemon curd and topped with swirls of lemon zest-infused meringue, this pie is tangier and creamier than many others of its kind. You can make it with regular or Meyer lemons: The regular ones will be sharper and brighter; the Meyers, a little softer and fruitier. This pie is best served the day it’s baked, though you can make the dough and filling up to five days in advance. The meringue, however, needs to be whipped up just before the pie is baked. Store leftovers in a sealed container at room temperature.

Ingredients

For the crust:

  • All-purpose flour, for rolling out dough
  • Dough for 1 (9-inch) pie
  • For the lemon filling:
  • 4 egg yolks (save whites for the meringue)
  • 1 large egg
  • 3/4 cup (150 grams) sugar
  • 3/4 cup plus 2 tablespoons (207 milliliters) freshly squeezed lemon juice (from 4 to 6 regular or Meyer lemons)
  • 2 teaspoons finely grated lemon zest (from 2 lemons)
  • Pinch of salt
  • 6 tablespoons (85 grams) unsalted butter, cut into 1/2-inch pieces

For the meringue:

  • 4 egg whites, at room temperature
  • 1 cup (200 grams) sugar
  • 1/2 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
  • 1/4 teaspoon cream of tartar
  • Pinch of salt
  • 1 tablespoon finely grated lemon zest (from 3 to 4 lemons), plus more for garnish

Preparation

1. Prepare the crust: On a lightly floured surface, and using a lightly floured rolling pin, roll pie dough into a 12-inch circle, about 1/8-inch thick. Transfer to a 9-inch pie pan (not deep dish); fold the edges over and crimp them together. Prick crust all over with a fork and chill in freezer for 30 minutes until frozen. (Cover with plastic if freezing for longer than a few hours. Well wrapped, it will last in the freezer for up to a month.)

2. Heat oven to 425 degrees. Line chilled crust with foil, fill with pie weights or dried rice, then bake for 12 minutes. Remove foil, lower oven temperature to 350 degrees, and bake until pale golden, 10 to 16 minutes longer. Transfer to a rack to cool while you prepare the filling. (Leave the oven on if baking the pie immediately.)

3. In a heavy saucepan, whisk together egg yolks, egg and sugar. Stir in lemon juice, zest and salt. Add pieces of butter and cook, whisking constantly, over medium-low heat until the mixture thickens enough to coat a spoon, about 7 to 9 minutes. An instant-read thermometer should register 180 degrees. Inspect the filling: If you think there are any coagulated bits of egg, strain through a fine-mesh sieve into a clean bowl.

4. Pour filling into pie crust and return to the oven to bake until filling is set (it should jiggle only slightly in the center), about 18 to 25 minutes. Remove pie from oven and increase oven temperature to 400 degrees for baking the meringue.

5. As the filling bakes, make the meringue: Fill a medium pot with 1 inch of water and bring to a simmer over medium-high heat. Using a large metal bowl, whisk together egg whites, sugar, vanilla, cream of tartar and salt. Set the bowl with the egg white mixture into the pot above the water, and whisk constantly by hand until sugar dissolves and mixture is warm (160 degrees on an instant thermometer) and has thickened and lightened in color, 5 to 7 minutes. Remove bowl from heat.

6. Using an electric mixer, beat on medium-low speed and gradually increase speed to high, until mixture is thick and fluffy, and stiff peaks form, about 5 to 8 minutes. Be careful not to overbeat.

7. Using a rubber spatula, gently fold in lemon zest. Mix with care to not deflate meringue: A few strokes should do it. Spread the meringue over the hot filling, making sure it meets the edges of the crust. Using a knife or spatula, swirl in a design, if you like, and bake until lightly browned, about 8 to 12 minutes.

8. Allow to cool completely and top with more lemon zest before serving.

Recipe: Blood Orange Butterscotch Meringue Pie

Total time: About 2 hours

Yield: 8 servings

With a snappy filling of blood orange curd that’s crowned by a glossy brown sugar meringue, this variation on the classic lemon meringue pie is slightly sweeter and juicier than the original, and just as eye-catching with its swirly, golden topping. If you can’t find blood oranges, regular oranges or tangerines make fine substitutes. This pie is best served the day it’s baked, though you can make the dough and filling up to five days in advance. The meringue, however, needs to be whipped up just before the pie is baked. Store leftovers in a sealed container at room temperature.

Ingredients

For the crust:

  • All-purpose flour, for rolling out dough
  • Dough for 1 (9-inch) pie

For the filling:

  • 4 egg yolks (save whites for the meringue)
  • 1 large egg
  • 2/3 cup (133 grams) granulated sugar
  • 2 tablespoons (30 milliliters) freshly squeezed lemon juice
  • 3/4 cup (177 milliliters) freshly squeezed blood orange juice (from 3 to 5 oranges)
  • 1 tablespoon finely grated blood orange zest, plus more for garnish
  • Pinch of salt
  • 6 tablespoons (85 grams) unsalted butter, cut into 1/2-inch pieces

For the meringue:

  • 4 egg whites, at room temperature
  • 1 packed cup (210 grams) light brown sugar
  • 1/4 teaspoon cream of tartar
  • Pinch of salt

Preparation

1. Prepare the crust: On a lightly floured surface, and using a lightly floured rolling pin, roll pie dough into a 12-inch circle, about 1/8-inch thick. Transfer to a 9-inch pie pan (not deep dish); fold the edges over and crimp them together. Prick crust all over with a fork and chill in freezer for 30 minutes until frozen. (Cover with plastic if freezing for longer than a few hours. Well wrapped, it will last in the freezer for up to a month.)

2. Heat oven to 425 degrees. Line chilled crust with foil, fill with pie weights or dried rice, then bake for 12 minutes. Remove foil, lower oven temperature to 350 degrees, and bake until pale golden, 10 to 16 minutes longer. Transfer to a rack to cool while you prepare the filling. (Leave the oven on if baking the pie immediately.)

3. In a heavy saucepan, whisk together egg yolks, egg and sugar. Stir in the orange and lemon juices, zest and salt. Add pieces of butter and cook, whisking constantly, over medium-low heat until the mixture thickens enough to coat a spoon, about 7 to 9 minutes. An instant-read thermometer should register 180 degrees. Inspect the filling: If you think there are any coagulated bits of egg, strain through a fine-mesh sieve into a clean bowl.

4. Pour filling into pie crust and return to the oven to bake until filling is set (it should jiggle only slightly in the center), about 18 to 25 minutes. Remove pie from oven and increase oven temperature to 400 degrees for baking the meringue.

5. As the filling bakes, make the meringue: Fill a medium pot with 1 inch of water and bring to a simmer over medium-high heat. Using a large metal bowl, whisk together egg whites, sugar, cream of tartar and salt. Set the bowl with the egg white mixture into the pot above the water, and whisk constantly by hand until sugar dissolves and mixture is warm (160 degrees on an instant thermometer) and has thickened and lightened in color, 5 to 7 minutes. Remove bowl from heat.

6. Using an electric mixer, beat on medium-low speed and gradually increase speed to high, until mixture is thick, fluffy and stiff peaks form, about 5 to 8 minutes. Be careful not to overbeat.

7. Spread the meringue over the hot filling, making sure it meets the edges of the crust. Using a knife or spatula, swirl in a design if you like, and bake until lightly browned, about 8 to 12 minutes.

8. Allow to cool completely and top with more orange zest before serving.

Recipe: Chocolate Raspberry Meringue Tart

Yield: 8 servings

Scarlet threads of freeze-dried raspberry powder and streaks of bittersweet chocolate add richness and flair to this fluffy-topped meringue tart. It does take time to make, but many of the steps can be done in advance, and this stunning, intensely fruity confection is well worth planning for. The dough, filling and raspberry powder can be prepared up to five days ahead, then make the meringue just before the tart is baked. It’s at its best served on the same day as baking. Store leftovers in a sealed container at room temperature

Ingredients

For the tart dough:

  • 1 3/4 cups plus 2 tablespoons (235 grams) all-purpose flour, plus more for rolling dough
  • 1/3 cup (40 grams) powdered sugar
  • Pinch of salt
  • 1/2 cup (113 grams) unsalted butter, cold and cubed
  • 1 large egg, lightly beaten

For the filling:

  • 2 cups (260 grams) frozen (or fresh) raspberries
  • 1/2 cup (100 grams) granulated sugar
  • 2 tablespoons (30 milliliters) freshly squeezed lemon juice
  • 3 egg yolks
  • 1 large egg
  • 6 tablespoons (85 grams) unsalted butter, cut into 1/2-inch pieces
  • Pinch of salt

For the meringue:

  • 3/4 cup (20 grams) freeze-dried raspberries
  • 1 tablespoon unsweetened Dutch-processed cocoa powder
  • 1 ounce bittersweet chocolate, coarsely chopped
  • 4 egg whites, at room temperature
  • 1 cup (200 grams) granulated sugar
  • 1/4 teaspoon cream of tartar
  • Pinch of salt

Preparation

1. Make the tart dough: Place the flour, sugar and salt in the bowl of a food processor. Pulse to combine. Add butter and pulse until a coarse meal forms. Add egg and pulse just until a crumbly dough comes together. If the dough seems dry, drizzle in a teaspoon or two of water. Press dough into a disk, wrap in plastic and chill for at least 1 hour or overnight (or up to 5 days).

2. Roll the dough out on a lightly floured surface to 3/8-inch thickness (about an 11-inch round). Place dough into a 9-inch tart pan, folding the extra dough in over the edges to build up the sides. Prick bottom of dough all over with a fork; chill in freezer for at least 30 minutes and up to 48 hours. (Cover lightly with plastic wrap if freezing for more than a couple of hours.)

3. Heat oven to 350 degrees. Line the tart crust with foil, and fill with baking weights or dried rice or beans. Bake for 15 minutes. Remove foil and weights and continue to bake until shell is light golden, another 15 to 20 minutes. Transfer to a rack to cool.

4. Prepare the filling: In a medium saucepan, combine raspberries and sugar over medium heat. Cook, stirring, until berries break down, 5 to 8 minutes. Remove pan from heat, stir in lemon juice and use a fork or wooden spoon to mash raspberries to a purée.

5. In a medium bowl, whisk together egg yolks and egg. Slowly add 1/4 cup of hot raspberry purée to egg mixture, whisking constantly. Slowly drizzle the egg-raspberry mixture back into the saucepan with remaining purée, whisking constantly to keep eggs from cooking. Turn the heat to medium-low, and add butter and a pinch of salt to the pan. Cook, stirring constantly, until the mixture thickens enough to coat a spoon, about 7 to 9 minutes.

6. Strain the mixture through a fine-mesh sieve, pressing hard on the solids, into a bowl. Allow to stand for 5 minutes, then whisk briefly to smooth.

7. Pour raspberry filling into the tart shell. Bake until filling is set (it should jiggle only slightly in the center), about 14 to 22 minutes. Remove tart from oven and increase oven temperature to 400 degrees.

8. Start preparing the meringue: Using a blender or food processor, blend the freeze-dried raspberries until you get a fine powder speckled with seeds. (The seeds won’t break down so don’t even try.) Set aside 1 tablespoon of raspberry powder for garnish. Combine cocoa powder with remaining raspberry powder to use for the meringue.

9. Place chocolate in heatproof bowl, and melt in microwave in 10-second intervals, stirring after each, until smooth. Set aside. (Or you can melt the chocolate in a pot on the stove over low heat, stirring constantly.)

10. Fill a medium pot with 1 inch of water and bring to a simmer over medium-high heat. In a large metal bowl, whisk together egg whites, sugar, cream of tartar and salt. Set the mixing bowl with the egg white mixture into the pot above the water, and whisk constantly by hand until sugar dissolves and mixture is warm (160 degrees on an instant thermometer) and has thickened and lightened in color, 5 to 7 minutes. Remove bowl from heat. Using an electric mixer, beat on medium-low speed and gradually increase speed to high, until mixture is thick and fluffy, and stiff peaks form, about 5 to 8 minutes. Be careful not to overbeat.

11. Sprinkle raspberry-cocoa mixture on top of meringue. Using a rubber spatula, gently fold in mixture 2 to 3 times to halfway incorporate, but remains very streaky. (Do not overmix.) Drizzle melted chocolate into meringue and gently fold until just combined and still streaky. Take care not to deflate the meringue very much. (It will deflate somewhat.)

12. Spread the meringue over the hot filling, making sure it meets the edges of the crust. Using a knife or spatula, swirl in a design. Bake until lightly browned, about 7 to 10 minutes.

13. Allow to cool completely and sprinkle the top with a little of the reserved raspberry powder. (Save the extra to perk up oatmeal, smoothies and peanut butter sandwiches.)

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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