4 Days Until Passover: Egg Whites 101: How To Make Meringue

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Chef Laura Frankel
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I remember my son Ari watching in awe as I whipped egg whites into big, fluffy clouds of glossy-white air. He announced I DIDN’T KNOW EGGS COULD DO THAT!

Eggs are one of the most important tools in a cook’s arsenal and making the most of them is key to making great dishes. In the simplest form, Meringues are a dessert made from egg whites and sugar. In a more complex recipe, meringues are thin layers of crisp egg white, sugar and finely ground nuts.

Here are some meringue basics:

THE EGGS

Quality: Since a meringue is made of mostly eggs, you certainly want to purchase the best eggs possible.

Variety: There is a lot of confusing labeling for eggs: Pasture raised, free range, organic, omega 3 enriched and more. I want the chickens laying my eggs to have lived the best “chicken life” they possibly can so I go with pasture raised. It is as close to having my own chickens as possible (until I purchase some egg-laying gals!). Check your labels and do your homework, but always purchase eggs that are fresh, free from cracks and use the eggs within 5 weeks of purchasing them.

Refrigerate for storage: Old habits die hard and we here in the US store our eggs in the refrigerator. Most of the rest of the world stores their eggs at room temperature. Even though I have been in many kitchens around the world and have eaten eggs that were stored out of refrigeration, I still keep my eggs in the fridge.  That's because the USDA insists that egg producers power wash the eggs to remove any biological matter from the surface. That wash removes a protective coating naturally present. This makes the eggs more porous and potentially susceptible to contamination. Since eggs are only sold in the US under refrigeration and Americans aren’t used to the “beasties” in eggs that other folks around the world can easily digest, I vote for refrigerating eggs!

Room temperature for use: The paradox is that a meringue will be much fluffier and lighter if you start with room temperature eggs. I pull my eggs out of the refrigerator a couple of hours before I make the meringue. If you forget to do that, you can warm the eggs, gently, in warm water before whipping them.

WHY USE A STABILIZER?

The science behind egg whites turning from a thick liquid to an airy foam is because of the proteins that make-up the whites. Proteins are coiled up bundles in the whites. The agitation of whipping them causes them to uncoil and then to bond with each other, all while gently cradling air in those bonds. 

Whip your whites enough, to medium or stiff peaks, and you have clouds of gorgeous foam, ready to puff your soufflés, lighten your custards and aerate your macarons. 

Keep whipping and you have tight clumps of foamy mess that are unusable. 

Keep whipping and your foam goes back to a liquid at which point you need more eggs whites as those overbeaten whites are shot! 

Those whites can only hold so much air before they collapse and go back to a liquid. And NO, you cannot re-beat them. You need to start over with fresh whites.

What’s a home cook to do? Use a stabilizer! 

Copper ions from a copper bowl, vinegar, lemon juice or cream of tartar all act as stabilizers. Acids don’t affect the proteins’ bonding sites directly, though by changing the pH of the mixture they increase the number of free hydrogen molecules which help plug up the sites where the bonds form. In short, stabilizers help to protect the whites from over-beating, keep the meringue white and bright and give your meringue more “hang” time.

THE EQUIPMENT

BOWL: The best bowl to whip your eggs into a froth of white clouds is a copper bowl. Copper bowls produce a yellowish, creamy foam that is harder to overbeat than the foam produced using glass or stainless steel bowls. When you whisk egg whites in a copper bowl, some copper ions migrate from the bowl into the egg whites. The copper ions form a yellow complex with one of the proteins in eggs, conalbumin. The conalbumin-copper complex is more stable than the conalbumin alone, so egg whites whipped in a copper bowl are less likely to denature (unfold).

No copper? No problem. I use stainless steel bowls and glass bowls at home. The only bowl you cannot use is a plastic bowl. Oils and fats cling to the bowl and no matter how much you scrub the plastic, some fat molecules stubbornly cling to it.

WHISK: I cannot tell you how many homes I have cooked in and have asked for a whisk only to get a blank stare. Sigh….you know who you are!

A fork, no matter how vigorously used will not produce an airy foam. A whisk is essential for achieving a good airy foam.

I recommend a metal (not plastic whisk-you know who you are!) balloon whisk. This type of whisk will easily produce a bowl of white clouds.

MIXER: A mixer is also a meringue lover’s best friend. I prefer the stand mixer with a heavy duty motor for my large amounts of egg whites. But for small amounts of whites, I go for the old fashioned hand whipped method.

THE TECHNIQUE

The worst mistake when whipping whites is to over whip them. 

I like to start out slowly with room temperature whites in a clean (grease free) bowl, with either a whisk (also grease free) or whisk attachment on a mixer. Whisk the whites until they are quite foamy, and then increase the speed gradually. You want the whites to mount a bit at each speed before increasing the speed of the mixer or your arm.

To check if the whites are at a soft, medium or stiff peak, slowly pull the attachment or whisk from the whites and hold it up. If the whites fold over they are a soft peak. If they stand up almost straight they are medium peak and if they stand up tall and proud…they are at stiff peak.

THE TYPES

There are several different types of meringues and each has its own uses.

French Meringue, also called cold or simple meringue. After the egg whites are whipped to soft peaks with a small amount of sugar, the remaining sugar is folded in gently. French meringue is the lightest and most fragile of all meringues and must always be baked or incorporated into a batter and then cooked. Excellent for lightening batters and topping desserts.

BITTERSWEET CHOCOLATE SOUFFLE

non dairy chocolate souffle

Italian Meringue, a dense, stable meringue that is extremely smooth and shiny, created by slowly pouring hot sugar syrup into the egg whites during whipping. When baked, it has a more melting texture than the other meringues. Since it has been cooked by the hot sugar syrup, Italian meringue may be served with no further cooking. Ideal to spread on filled pies and folded into puddings. This is my favorite meringue. The meringue does not “weep” when cooked, for a lemon meringue pie for example, and can hold for hours or longer.

ITALIAN MERINGUE COFFEE DACQUOISE

Italian Meringue Coffee Dacquoise

Dacquoise is a Swiss meringue with finely chopped almonds or hazelnuts folded into it. Also known as a Japonaise meringue, dacquoise is traditionally piped into spiraled rounds and then baked to form cake layers.

Swiss Meringue, also known as warm or cooked meringue, since the sugar (usually confectioners') and egg whites are beaten over hot water to dissolve the sugar completely and increase the height of the egg foam. It is a sturdy meringue and can be stored in the refrigerator for several days. This meringue can be used in icings and decorations. This is the meringue I use to make homemade marshmallows, a worthy endeavor for those of you who like bouncy, delicious marshmallows!

FLOURLESS CHOCOLATE CAKE WITH MERINGUE TOPPING

flourless chocolate cake

VACHERIN

Vacherin

To make vacherin from meringue, hollow out the bottom center of the baked meringues and pipe ice cream or sorbet into the meringues. Freeze the stuffed meringues and serve with your favorite dessert sauce!