Macarons vs. Macaroons: What's the Difference?

It turns out they've got more in common than you think.

Macarons vs macaroons
Macarons (l) and macaroons (r).

Roulier/Turiot ; Laura Johansen (Getty Images)

Macarons and macaroons might suffer from the worst case of identity confusion of any baked goods in the world. Nowhere does a single vowel, by its mere presence (or absence), produce a more profound difference in two cookies than it does here.

At least that's what it seems like at first glance. 

For the sake of clarity, we're refering to French macarons (pronounced "mack-ah-ROHN") and coconut macaroons ("mack-ah-ROON").

We'll get to the ingredients and how they're made in a moment, but let's begin by identifying some of the most obvious differences.

For starters, these two cookies are constructed in totally different ways. French macarons are sandwich cookies. They consist of two halves of delicate, airy cookie with a layer of filling in between. Architecturally, they're like brightly colored Oreos.

Moreover, great care and attention goes into ensuring that the size and shape of each cookie is as identical as possible. Color and flavor are what distinguish one macaron from another. The number of multicolored macarons on display in a Parisian bakery is nothing short of dazzling.

By comparison, macaroons are fairly dense, ambiguously shaped dollops of coconut-flavored cookie, baked to a moderate shade of golden brown.

On the surface, the two cookies seem as different as a chicken from a crocodile.

But are they?

Let's take a look at the main ingredients that go into each one.

Macarons and Macaroons: Main Ingredients

When it comes to ingredients, macaroons and macarons share one key ingredient: whipped egg whites.

Beyond that, the components of the two cookies are pretty different.

However, if you squint hard enough, you begin to see that the similarity in names is no coincidence.

First let's look at the typical ingredients for making French macarons:

  • Almond flour (i.e. finely ground almonds)
  • Sugar
  • Egg whites
  • Salt
  • Vanilla extract

The ingredients will also include a few different food colorings for producing the French macaron's signature vibrant hue. And of course, the ingredients for the filling will also vary.

Now let's look at the ingredients for making coconut macaroons:

  • Shredded coconut
  • Sweetened condensed milk
  • Egg whites
  • Salt
  • Vanilla extract

The first thing to note is that fact that neither one of these cookies is made with wheat flour. Both are naturally gluten-free.

Secondly, neither one is made with chemical leavening agents such as baking powder or baking soda. Instead, both are leavened solely by the air that is whipped into the egg whites. In fact, being unleavened has made coconut macaroons a traditional Passover treat.

Macarons and Macaroons: How to Make Them

Because whipped egg whites are what binds both of these cookies together and gives them their structure, the respective techniques for making them are fairly similar.

Making French macarons involves two main sets of steps, one for the egg whites and another for the flour and dry ingredients. The exact steps will differ from recipe to recipe, but in general will look something like this:

  1. Sift together the almond flour and confectioners sugar.
  2. In a stand mixer, beat the egg whites until stiff, add granulated sugar, and beat until glossy. Add any desired flavor extracts and coloring.
  3. Fold the dry ingredients into the egg white mixture and gently mix to form a batter.
  4. Add the batter to a piping bag and pipe rounds onto a parchment-lined baking sheet and bake until set.

Now check out the steps for making coconut macaroons:

  1. Combine the coconut, condensed milk, and vanilla in a large bowl.
  2. In a stand mixer, beat the egg whites and salt until stiff.
  3. Fold the coconut mixture into the egg whites and stir to form a batter.
  4. Drop spoonfuls onto a onto a parchment-lined baking sheet and bake until set.

In some variations, the batter is actually piped onto the baking sheet using a piping bag fitted with the star tip, which is yet one more similarity with the way French macarons are made.

Macarons and Macaroons: Other Differences

French macarons are light, airy and colorful, with a range of traditional flavors that typically include chocolate, pistachio, rose, and salted caramel. The outer shell is crisp, the inner cookie is slightly chewy, and the fillings can resemble buttercream, jam, or ganache, depending on the cookie.

While the overall procedure is broadly similar to that of coconut macaroons, the process is fairly demanding and making excellent macarons is something that requires a good deal of practice and experience. In Paris, high end macarons are sold in patisseries that resemble boutiques, where they're displayed like jewelry.

Other than Paris, look for French macarons at a local French bakery.

Coconut macaroons, on the other hand, are very much less elegant, although what they lack in haute cuisine they make up for in their rustic appeal and the fact that they're so easy to make. One way some bakers like to jazz them up is by dipping the cooled cookies in melted chocolate, or drizzling it over their tops decoratively. Macaroons are more widely available, likely at a bakery or coffee shop.

It might be unfair to think of coconut macaroons as the country cousins of French macarons, but like the chicken and the crocodile, despite their outward differences, it turns out the two cookies are related after all.