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The lofty pillow-like quality of meringue is the result of whipping egg whites into a shape-holding foam, adding sugar (usually confectioners' or powdered sugar), and baking it. Some meringues are baked lightly, so their insides are still soft, others are baked until they are crisp all the way through. Most meringues are baked at a very low temperature to keep the egg whites from browning, but when the meringue is used as a topping for other desserts (think Lemon Meringue Pie or Baked... Alaska), it is put in a hot oven or even under a broiler to brown it quickly without heating up the rest of the dessert.
This basic method for making meringue shows you the technique for making meringue in a general way, whether large rafts of the stuff for pavlovas, small buttons like these Forgotten Cookies), the poached "eggs" for the classic Oeufs a la Neige, the base for confections like homemade marshmallows, or meringue-as-frosting for pies and cakes.
Looking for exact amounts? For plain meringue, whether a single large raft, two 8-inch circles, 1 towering pie's worth, or two dozen smaller cookies, use 6 egg whites, 1/8 tsp. salt, 1/8 tsp. cream of tartar (optional, but helps the eggs whip up), and 1 cup powdered sugar.Continue to 2 of 7 below.
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Start With Room Temperature Egg Whites
Fresh egg whites will whip up quicker and be more stable than whites from older eggs. Eggs are easiest to separate when they are cold but easiest to whip up effectively when they are at room temperature. So separate the eggs when they are cold and let the whites sit out for about half an hour to take the chill off them.
Be very careful when you separate the eggs. Any yolk that makes its way into the whites will keep the whites from whipping up as big and fluffy as possible. When separating more... than a few eggs, use the three-bowl method: one bowl to crack the egg into, one to put the whites in, and one to put the yolks in. That way the accumulated whites aren't contaminated by yolk if you accidentally break one.
Put the egg whites in a large bowl. If you have a copper bowl, as pictured, this is the time to use it—the chemical reaction will help them hold their volume and you can omit the cream of tartar. If you don't, not to worry, any large bowl and the cream of tartar will do the trick.Continue to 3 of 7 below.
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Beat Until Frothy and Add Salt
Use a large clean whisk (if you have a balloon whisk, all the better) or clean beaters or the whisk attachment on a standing mixer to whip the eggs just until a bit foamy. Then sprinkle in the salt and cream of tartar, if you're using it (if you're whipping the eggs in a copper bowl, skip the cream of tartar). Both salt and cream of tartar act as stabilizers and will help the egg whites hold their shape when whipped.Continue to 4 of 7 below.
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Whip the Egg Whites
Now it's time to whip, or beat, the egg whites. You're essentially forcing air into the egg whites, causing the protein in the egg whites to stretch and create bubbles around the water within the whites. First the egg whites will reach soft peaks (you can remove the whisk or beaters and a peak will form and then droop), then firm peaks (when you remove the whisk or beaters the peak that forms will keep its shape), and then stiff peaks (not only does the peak on the egg white surface... hold, but so will the peak on the whisk or beaters when turned to peak upwards as shown above). For stand-alone meringue - meringue cookies and pavlovas - you want stiff peaks like those shown here. For frosting-style meringue, soft or firm peaks are usually fine.
Watch these stages carefully, because if you over-beat the egg whites the stretched protein will break and let the water in the whites out, creating a really unappetizing mix of eggy water and foam.Continue to 5 of 7 below.
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Add the Sugar
If you want to be particular, you can sift the sugar into the whipped egg whites to avoid clumps, but sprinkling it tends to work okay too.Continue to 6 of 7 below.
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Whip In the Sugar
Whip or beat the sugar in - know that the egg whites will deflate a bit, but whip to fully incorporate the sugar so it dissolves into the meringue and the egg whites look smooth, fluffy, and a bit glossy as above.
You know have meringue, it just needs to be cooked in some fashion!Continue to 7 of 7 below.
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Bake or Use
To bake meringue, prepare baking sheets by lightly greasing them, using silpat pads, or lining them with parchment paper. I've also been known to line sheets with foil and give the foil a light sprayUse a spatula to spread rafts or create large circles of meringue; use a spoon to dollop on small mounds of meringue; or, get super fancy and use a pastry bag to pipe out designs or shapes as you like.
For classic meringue, bake at 225 F until the meringue is crisp at least on the outside, or all... the way through, if you like. This time will vary from 30 minutes to over an hour depending on how big the meringues are and how baked you want them. To dry meringues out further, you can leave them in the turned-off oven for several hours or up to overnight.
Note: Do not try to bake meringues if it's raining or otherwise humid outside - they will simply keep absorbing moisture when you take them out of the oven and get all sad and weepy.