Meringues are one of the simplest things to bake, with just two ingredients. But because of this simplicity, there isn’t much room for error. As with many baked goods that are difficult to get right, there is also a wide range of views on what the ideal meringue is like. Some want a completely crisp shell that shatters on the touch of a fork – ideal for something like Eton Mess where the meringue is smashed into pieces.
Others are looking for a chewy centre, almost like nougat. This is often the ideal state of a pavlova base. Finally, there’s the type of soft pillowy meringue used to top a lemon meringue pie.
All these are meringues that use egg whites and sugar – so what’s the X factor?
What is a meringue?
A meringue is an egg white foam that is made more stable by adding sugar. The sugar syrup supports the bubbles, and holds them up while they dry, leaving behind the sugar and egg-white-protein structure. Egg whites are pretty amazing at creating a foam anyway, owing to all these stretchy proteins they have. However, if you keep beating egg whites on their own, they will go too far – first becoming grainy and then collapsing on themselves.
Tips for making meringues:
- Adding sugar to the eggs right at the start will make it slower to foam in the first place, so wait until you have a foam.
- However, unlike egg whites on their own, it’s really hard to overbeat meringue, so if in doubt, add it early on, when the foam is still quite soft (a lot of recipes ask you to wait until you have stiff peaks before adding the sugar, but this isn’t necessary, especially if you’re using an electric whisk or a stand mixer). After the sugar is all added, you can also leave it whisking for a good few minutes to make sure you have a really stiff foam.
- The more sugar you add the more stable the foam – you can use anything from 1:1 sugar to egg white (by weight) to 2:1, with the upper end being more common. For a 2:1 ratio, weigh your egg whites out, and then add twice the weight of sugar.
- The sugar needs to dissolve, so use caster (superfine) sugar or icing sugar, and add it gradually. Warm or room temperature egg whites will make it easier to dissolve. Yotam Ottolenghi has a nice trick for his salted almond meringues – heating the sugar in the oven, then adding it gradually.
- A little bit of acid helps egg whites to foam – you can wipe the bowl with a lemon, add a little cream of tartar or a few drops of vinegar.
And one more thing? Because egg whites are pretty much just protein and water, there isn’t much in them to go off. This means that you can keep egg whites quite safely for several weeks in the fridge. Or they freeze well (but never defrost in the microwave – they cook too quickly!).
For a crisp meringue
Here, we are after a meringue with all of the moisture removed so all that is left is the brittle egg white and sugar structure. To do this, use a ratio of 2 parts sugar (by weight) to 1 part egg white. As a large egg white is about 28g, that means about 110g (4oz) sugar for two large egg whites (or 100g for medium whites).
You also then need a very low temperature and a long time to make sure that all the water evaporates without browning the sugar. Something around 100°C/212°F is about right. When you have finished baking, leave the meringues in the turned off oven to cool, and remove any last moisture.
For a chewy meringue
If a meringue is chewy in the centre, it just means that it managed to hang on to some of the moisture in the foam. You still want a hard shell, so use 2 parts sugar again, or something close to it. You can add things to the mixture to help it hang on to this moisture – a little bit of cornflour being used most often. Chopped or ground nuts, as in french macarons or dacquoise, will also do this, partly by adding a bit of fat.
The other thing that will help make a chewy meringue is to bake them a little hotter and for a shorter time, meaning the centre doesn’t have the chance to dry out. Be careful of baking too hot though – this will cause the meringues to swell, and may overbrown the outside. A temperature of about 130°C/265°F is good.
For a pie meringue
Meringue-topped pies can be difficult. It can be particularly tricky to make sure it sits nicely on top of the topping, and to avoid moisture from the filling moving into the meringue, and making it ‘weep’. But in principle, it’s like the chewy meringue, but more extreme – it needs even more moisture in it, needs to stay stable, and you want the outside to cook very quickly and brown, before the inside dries at all. So add cornflour to stabilise it, and bake in a much hotter oven – around 170°C/340°F – to get a nice crisp top. Felicity Cloake’s Perfect Lemon Meringue Pie is a good guide.
I’ve made a couple of really good meringue recipes recently. Via pinterest, and this blog post by Jillian Leiboff, Yotam Ottolenghi’s salted almond meringues are really lovely – crisp outsides, chewy in the middle, and scented with both toasted almonds and almond extract.
This one, however, is an old favourite – adapted from a recipe in Flo Braker’s ‘Sweet Miniatures’. These are gluten-free, dairy-free chocolate cookies – little drops of meringue flecked with chopped chocolate.
Chocolate Meringue Stars
adapted from Flo Braker’s ‘Sweet Miniatures’
– 100g caster sugar
– 2 large egg whites (55g)
– 45g dark chocolate
Line a baking sheet with parchment. Heat the oven to 110°C/100°C fan/225°F.
Grate or finely chop the chocolate, or grind it in a food processor until fairly fine.
Whisk the egg whites with an electric hand whisk or the whisk attachment of a stand mixer. Whisk slowly to start, as the protein unravels and the egg whites loosen up. Then increase the speed and whisk until a soft foam forms. Add the sugar a few spoonfuls at a time, whisking thoroughly between each, and then keep whisking for about three minutes until you have a very stiff and shiny foam.
Remove the whisk and fold in the chopped chocolate until it is fairly evenly distributed.
Use your finger to put a little meringue on the four corners of the parchment, and turn over to stick the parchment to the baking sheet (this stops it moving around when you pipe onto it).
Scrape the mixture into a piping bag with either a plain or star-tipped nozzle. If you don’t want to pipe them, simply use teaspoons to drop pieces of meringue about the size of a golf ball onto the baking sheet.
Bake for 1 hour. The finely chopped chocolate, combined with a short bake time means the centres should be chewy and chocolatey.
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