Many recipes, both sweet and savory, incorporate meringue into a batter for lightness and leavening. Soufflés, mousses, and even cakes use it. Meringue is a crucial culinary technique, and one that can be intimidating. But there are only a few rules to be concerned with. Once you try it, you’ll master it.
When whipping egg whites, the bowl and the whip must be clean. Any speck of fat in the mix will inhibit the whites from taking in air. Egg yolks are full of fat, and are a common culprit. When separating the eggs, don’t let any yolk into the white bowl. The smallest amount can drastically reduce the amount of air an egg white can hold.
Some recipes call for a French, simple, or common meringue, with raw egg whites whipped until they are stiff, and granulated sugar sprinkled in at the medium or stiff peak stage. Sprinkle the sugar in slowly so that the weight of it doesn’t slow down the process. This is an unstable method, so it is important to stop the whipping at the appropriate time. Meringues do not always incorporate sugar, which technically means they are not a meringue, but just a boring whipped egg white. Nevertheless, the rules of engagement are still the same. To judge the peak stage, spoon a bit of meringue out of the bowl and hold it up right. If it makes a peak that stands erect at the tip of the spoon, it is a stiff peak. If the peak bends over a bit at the tip, it is a medium peak. If the peak flops all the way over, it is a soft peak.
A Swiss meringue is a little more stable, because it is essentially cooked. Egg whites and sugar are warmed over simmering water until the sugar dissolves. The eggs and sugar are then whipped until they are stiff and cool.
Some the recipes call for hot sugar syrup to be poured into the whipping whites. This method is known by many names including Italian Meringue, 7-Minute Icing, White Mountain Icing, and Boiled Icing. It is important to cook the sugar to the proper stage. Use a candy thermometer or the traditional ice test for best results. Once the syrup is ready, pour it slowly but steadily into the whites as you whip. The movement is important to prevent the heat of the sugar from overcooking the eggs. If you do not have an electric mixer, get a friend to drizzle in the sugar while you whip. If you don’t have a friend (sorry ‘bout that), you can secure the bowl of egg whites by placing it on a damp towel.
The following recipe is for Italian meringue, which I use on top of pies (its ready to eat), like lemon meringue, key lime, or chocolate cream. It also makes a great frosting for cakes (try it on Red Velvet Cake), and it is the snow of a baked Alaska. It does not bake crisp, so don’t try that.
1 cup sugar
1/2 cup light corn syrup
1/4 cup water
1/2 tsp. salt
4 egg whites
1 tsp. vanilla extract
- Combine sugar, corn syrup, water and salt in a large saucepan. Bring to a boil and cook over high heat until it reaches the firm ball stage, 245˚F.
- Meanwhile, in a large bowl using a whisk or an electric mixer, whip the egg whites to stiff peaks. When the sugar syrup is ready, continue whipping while slowly drizzling it in. Add vanilla and whip until stiff peaks are formed.
Use immediately to top cakes, pies, or other desserts. It doesn’t keep long. You can brown it before serving by placing under a broiler for 30 seconds, or by using a blow torch.