Mastering Meringue

Bowl of beaten egg white and other baking ingredients of meringues on wooden table
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A meringue can form the basis of some wonderful low-fat or fat-free desserts and cookies. Making a meringue ought to be simple—after all, you only need some egg whites, sugar, and cream of tartar. Despite this, many a cook has been frustrated by limp and chewy meringue, or simply avoid making this sweet treat altogether. By following these tips while making meringue, you can achieve the perfect result.

The Eggs

Since egg whites are the main ingredient in meringue, the recipe heavily relies on their ability to whip up into that beautiful white fluffiness.

The eggs need to be at the right temperature. You can separate the eggs while they are cold, but you need to beat the egg whites when they are at room temperature. Waiting about 30 minutes after separating should do the trick.

There should be no specks of yolk in the egg whites. Any trace of yolk will ruin your meringue. If a bit of yolk is in the whites, resist the temptation to dip in a finger to get it out. Some people use a piece of bread or a cotton swab to remove the yolk. Ultimately, it’s best to discard that egg and start again.

For this reason, separate eggs one by one into a small bowl, and then add the egg whites individually into the bigger mixing bowl. That way, if a yolk slips through, you need only discard one egg white and not the whole batch.

The eggs also have to be beaten to stiff peaks. Soft peaks are fine for a pie topping, but for a dessert base such as a pavlova, you need stiff, glossy peaks. Keep beating until the whites stand up straight when the whisk "scoops up" some of the whites.

The Sugar

It is the sugar that makes the meringue sweet, but adding it in the proper way is also what makes the meringue the right consistency. Sugar needs to be added tablespoon by tablespoon at the soft-peak stage. This is laborious, but don’t be tempted to add the whole lot at once. Undissolved sugar attracts moisture, which can ruin your meringue. Superfine sugar dissolves more quickly.

The Equipment

Although you will only be using a mixer and the oven, both of these pieces of equipment do have certain requirements. Metal or glass mixing bowls are best for yielding voluminous beaten egg whites. Plastic can retain fat and grease, which inhibits the volume of the egg whites. Whichever type of bowl you use, be sure it’s spotlessly clean.

When it comes to baking, you need a low temperature to ensure the gradual evaporation of moisture from the meringue. If the oven is too hot, the outside will be crunchy and browned, and the center will be sticky and chewy. It is also important to allow the meringue to remain in the oven after baking. This helps dry it out further.

The Weather

Believe it or not, the weather can affect the success of a meringue. Try to avoid making meringues on a humid day. The sugar in the meringue attracts moisture and makes it chewy. It also can take longer for the meringue to bake and dry out in the oven.