Your new boyfriend’s parents are coming over this evening and the menu is all planned out. You’ve spent hours slaving away on an almond torte.
Then the boyfriend texts to remind you that his dad is extremely allergic to nuts, and you shouldn’t even have them on the table. Now what?
Try a new take on an old classic: Meringue.
Sound intimidating? It doesn’t have to be!
Maybe Grandma’s lemon pie is an old family tradition, but you’ve yet to try her recipe because of that fear of meringue. Heck, even trying to spell the word is complicated!
Or maybe you’ve learned that Baked Alaska is your new boss’s favorite dessert and you really need to butter him up, but you can’t seem to get the meringue down.
Some of the simplest desserts, like pudding pies or basic cookies, can become sophisticated just by using the magic of meringue. A few egg whites, sweetener, and a mixer are all you really need to turn dull into dazzling, average into astounding.
Plus, because egg whites are a low calorie food that is high in protein and free of fat, it is possible to create a scrumptious looking (and tasting!) dessert that actually has some nutritional value. Egg whites are also rich in calcium, magnesium, potassium, and phosphorous—all of which are important to a healthy diet.
Also, meringue is gluten free and dairy free, which can be a big deal these days, with food allergies on the rise.
What about making a vegan creation? No problem!
How Do Meringues Work?
The science of meringue is actually rather simple. The protein in the egg whites is unfolded during the beating or whisking process. As the protein unfolds, it forms a film that traps air bubbles, while the sugar creates stiffness in the mixture.
As beating time increases, the bubbles minimize in size and become more numerous, thus increasing the volume and creating a stable, stiff constitution.
Clean, dry bowls and utensils are critical for making the best meringue. Any type of moisture can ruin the eggs’ ability to be whipped. This means that you may even want to avoid planning to make meringue on a particularly humid day, in order to get the best results.
Stainless steel, copper, or glass bowls are best for meringue making. Chefs often prefer copper because it seems to react well with the egg white, producing a great deal of fluffiness. (If using a copper bowl, clean it with salt and vinegar first). But stainless steel and glass are effective as well.
Unlike plastic, glass or metal bowls are not likely to hide trace amounts of grease or fat. Basically, fat = death to fluffy egg whites.
Even the tiniest bit of oil from your hands can cause problems with meringue, so it’s important to wash your hands and avoid touching the parts of the beaters and bowl that will touch the egg whites – treat it kind of like you’re scrubbing for surgery.
Using a stand mixer is best for making meringue. A hand mixer will also work, but may cause a great amount of fatigue because of the long time that it could take to get your peaks to form. A fine wired whisk is likely to be most effective when making a meringue, but regular beaters will work also.
Because there is some fat in the yolks, it is important to be sure that your eggs are well separated, and that any traces of yolk are eliminated. Cold eggs are easier to separate, so start with eggs straight from the refrigerator.
Some people like to use various pieces of equipment for separating eggs, but nothing is really required except for two bowls, where you will place the egg yolks and whites as you separate them. Of course, whatever you use needs to be super clean and grease free.
The easiest way to separate yolk from white is to gently crack the side of the egg on a flat surface. Using the corner of a counter or bowl increases the possibility that the yolk will be punctured, and the egg will not separate well.
Hold the egg upright for a moment to allow it to settle in one end of the shell. With the egg poised over one of the bowls, gently open the shell with your fingers, and transfer the yolk back and forth from one side of the shell to the other. This should cause the egg whites to drain into the bowl, until there are no traces of white left in the shell. Transfer the yolk to the other bowl and start over with the next egg.
Separate eggs individually into small bowls before placing them into the larger batch. This will keep the batch pure, and you’ll only lose one egg if you are not able to get it separated well, rather than contaminating the whole lot. This makes it a bit easier to pick out any pesky shells, too.
Once the eggs are separated they should be brought to room temperature before making the meringue, as cold eggs will not whip as well. Letting egg whites stand at room temperature for about 30 minutes should do the trick.
What to Do with the Egg Yolks?
Of course, when making recipes with egg whites, it is important to make sure you use the egg yolks instead of wasting them. After separating eggs, place the yolks in a storage container that is airtight, adding a small amount of water on top to seal in freshness. Yolks can be stored for two days.
The Importance of Sugar
Although sugar is great because it sweetens the meringue, it is also essential for creating the stiffness that holds the meringue up.
If you need to try a sugar-free version, it is possible to obtain an effective meringue with powdered erythritol sweetener (like Swerve) but it may require a bit of cream of tartar to allow it to stiffen.
A tiny pinch of cream of tartar can also be helpful in a sugared meringue to make it as stiff as it needs to be, but this may be more of a trial and error situation.
Beat egg whites on medium speed to form soft peaks — simply meaning that the curls will fall over when you pull the beaters out. Make sure that your egg whites form soft peaks prior to adding sugar — otherwise, you’ll find yourself spending all day beating, and feel like you’re getting nowhere!
Turn the mixer up to high speed and add sugar slowly, one tablespoon at a time.
Once you’ve added the sugar, you’ll continue beating until it is completely dissolved. (Do be sure to make certain that the sugar is dissolved in order to avoid beading). Beat on high until stiff, glossy peaks are formed. Stiff peaks are indicated when the beaters are removed and the tips stand straight up, rather than curling over.
Topping Your Pie
At this point, if you are using your meringue for a pie topping, go ahead and spread it over the hot pie. This way, the meringue will begin to cook slightly, and this will help to keep it from pulling away from the sides of the pie, or “weeping.”
It may help to make the meringue prior to the filling, so that the meringue is given time to set up prior to use.
Then you can bake your pie at 425°F for just a few minutes, in order to brown the peaks. Four to five minutes should be enough, but watch carefully to be sure you do not burn it.
Options for Flavoring
Various options exist for flavorings, but this requires care, to be sure that what you add will not be detrimental to your recipe setting up. Some people like to add a bit of lemon juice prior to mixing, around ¼ teaspoon, to brighten the flavor of meringues made for use in fruit pies.
For a sweeter alternative, try folding in 1 teaspoon of vanilla extract at the end of the mixing process, prior to topping the pie.
Mastering the art of meringue may be something that you can become famous for among your friends. Just don’t tell them how absolutely easy it is!
Here’s a simple and easy recipe for when you need to whip something up for dessert, and you don’t want to go to the grocery store:
Melt in Your Mouth Meringue Cookies
Try these for a basic meringue recipe before advancing to anything more fancy.
You can use a frosting or icing applicator when adding them to the cookie sheet if you want a fancy shape, or just blob them on there if you aren’t too concerned about it.
Also, you can use a microplane or grater to peel a little lemon zest to add for a bit of tanginess.
About Julie Workman
As a freelance writer for over 15 years, Julie Workman has been published in various magazines, books, and online media. She holds a college degree in Home Economics which she uses every day in overseeing her household and making her home a happy place for her family.