I have a very fond memory of eating French meringue as a child. It was one of my father’s specialties. I would be his assistant and throw a tablespoon of sugar every now and then into the egg whites. I took my job very seriously and constantly asked him whether it was time to add another spoon!
It’s hard to resist meringues, with their crisp shell and chewy interior. Or maybe you prefer them crispy throughout? Well, today we’re going to have a long chat about meringues. But before we do anything, go ahead and check the weather forecast! Yes, I’m serious! Meringues don’t like humidity! So if it’s going to rain, save yourself some frustration and make the meringues another day!
What Is A Meringue?
A meringue is an egg foam that is made by whipping together egg whites and sugar. How much sugar you add to the egg whites and the way you prepare the meringue will determine what type of meringue you get. There are 3 types of meringues1: French meringue, Swiss meringue and Italian meringue.
Also called the “common meringue”, French meringue is usually the one used to make meringue kisses, nests, pavlovas, macarons. It is made by whipping egg whites with double their weight in sugar. So for 60 g egg whites (2 large eggs), you need 120 g of sugar.
It is possible to use equal amounts of egg whites and sugar (not less) but you will get a much softer meringue. Soft meringues made with less sugar are more suitable for mousse, souffle or as a topping on pies. The more sugar you add, the crisper the meringue will be.
French meringue is usually baked at a very low temperature (about 90°C/ 194°F) for a long time. What you are actually doing is drying out (as opposed to cooking) the meringues to get the crisp shell.
When making Swiss meringue, the eggs whites and sugar are first heated together, in a bowl placed over boiling water. It is important to keep whisking so you don’t end up with scrambled egg whites! Once the temperature reaches 40°C (105°F) to 71°C (160°F), the bowl is taken off the heat and the egg whites and sugar are whipped on medium-high speed until stiff peaks form.
Uses: Swiss meringue is more stable than French meringue. It can be used to make Swiss buttercream, an incredibly smooth and silky cream for your cakes. Like French meringue, it can be used to make meringue cookies and as a topping for pies. You should however be mindful of bacterial contamination. If you won’t be baking this meringue, you should heat the eggs to 71°C (160°F), which is considered the safe temperature.
This meringue is slightly harder to make than the other two meringues. You have to first prepare a cooked sugar syrup by heating sugar and water together. Once the temperature of the syrup reaches 119°C (246°F) to 121°C (250°F) (firm ball stage), the syrup is slowly added to whipped egg whites. The egg whites are then whipped again for a few more minutes until the meringue cools down to about 32°C (90°F).
Uses: An Italian meringue is a cooked egg foam since the hot syrup cooks the egg whites. It can be used without further baking to lighten a mousse, in sorbets, as a topping when making baked Alaska for example and to make Italian buttercream. You can also make macarons with Italian meringue.
Just to quickly sum up the difference between these 3 meringues:
- French meringue: egg whites are whipped with sugar without heat.
- Swiss meringue: egg whites are first whipped with sugar in a bain-marie (over boiling water).
- Italian meringue: egg whites are whipped and heated with cooked syrup.
Today, we’ll be focusing on French meringue. Let’s see what exactly happens when we whip the egg whites.
Whipping Egg Whites
Egg whites are made up of mostly water (about 90%) and proteins (10%). When you start whipping the egg whites, two things will happen2:
- You will introduce air bubbles into the liquid.
- The egg proteins which are coiled up, will start to unfold. These proteins will travel through the liquid and find a comfy spot around the air bubbles. Once there, they will start to bond with their neighboring proteins, forming a protective network between the air bubbles and the liquid. The stronger the bond, the more stable the foam.
Egg white foam isn’t stable enough to hold on its own and will quickly deflate and release water. There are a few things you can do to stabilize the egg foam, and certain things to avoid.
What Affects The Stability Of Meringues?
You want to be able to pipe your meringue or fold it into other ingredients without it deflating immediately. So let’s talk about the different things that will help you get a stable meringue.
Sugar slows down egg protein unfolding
When we were making lemon curd, I mentioned that sugar protects the eggs from curdling. The reason for this is that sugar slows down the unfolding of the egg proteins. And when the egg proteins do unfold, they have more trouble finding other proteins to bond to, as the sugar is in the way.
Now if you like looking at the cup half-empty, you might be thinking that adding sugar will make whipping the egg whites harder and slower since the egg proteins can’t move around freely. You are correct. And you won’t be able to whip the egg whites to their full potential if you add sugar.
But… adding sugar will protect the egg whites from overwhipping! And let’s face it, when we are starting out, the likelihood of us overwhipping the meringue is quite high! When you overwhip a meringue, the proteins bonds become so tight that they eventually squeeze out the air bubbles and water they were holding in. The sugar reduces the risk of this happening.
Sugar forms a viscous syrup
When you add sugar to the egg whites, the sugar will dissolve in the water (from the egg whites). As a result, a thick syrup will form and it will protect the air bubbles. Joanne Chang talks about the science of sugar during a Harvard talk if that interests you (20:13, how sugar stabilizes egg foams).
How And When To Add Sugar
You’ll find various ways of adding sugar in recipes but let’s talk about the science so you know exactly what to do and why.
- Whip the eggs until foamy, then add the sugar: Adding sugar from the beginning will prevent the egg proteins from unfolding properly and protecting the air bubbles. As a result, the network formed will be weaker and will only manage to hold in small bubbles. The texture of the meringue will be dense. If on the other hand, you add the sugar too late, the sugar won’t dissolve properly. There won’t be as much syrup formed to stabilize the meringue. And you will probably end up overwhipping the meringue while waiting for the sugar to dissolve. It’s best to wait until you see air bubbles in the liquid before adding any sugar. America’s Test Kitchen has an interesting video on why timing matters.
- Add the sugar slowly: If you add the sugar in one go, the weight of the sugar will deflate the foam created. You should add one tablespoon at a time. The sugar must have fully dissolved before you add more. If there are undissolved sugar crystals in your meringue, they will attract water. And you might end up with baked meringues that have drops of syrup.
- Don’t use sugar with a very large crystal size: It won’t dissolve as easily. If you can, it’s best to grind the sugar beforehand in a blender or food processor or use superfine sugar. Another thing a few bakers do is replace half of the sugar with powdered sugar. They simply fold in the powdered sugar at the end of the whipping process since it dissolves easily. Don’t replace the full amount with powdered sugar however, as it contains cornstarch. You won’t be able to whip the whites properly3.
Fats and oils
If you are having a very hard time whipping the egg whites, then one thing to consider is whether or not there was a trace of fat in the egg whites. This could be from:
- A little bit of egg yolk that broke into the white.
- A bowl with fat residues such as plastic bowls, which are so hard to rid of butter for example.
Why the bad rep?
The lipids (fats, oils, emulsifiers) will coat the proteins and prevent them from unfolding and bonding. But they also rush to the surface of the air bubbles before any protein who stood a chance gets there. Problem is, lipids can’t form proper bonds to protect the air bubbles. As a result, the air bubbles keep expanding until they eventually pop.
But once the egg whites are properly whipped, it is possible to add egg yolks to make soufflés for example.
Crack eggs in a separate bowl
Don’t crack the eggs straight into the mixing bowl. If you happen to break one, you might ruin the whole batch. Crack each egg into two small bowls (one for the yolk, one for the white) and only pour the egg whites into the mixing bowl if they are free from any egg yolk.
According to Corriher4, if you tend to use your fingers to separate the eggs, you might inadvertently be adding some oil from your hands.
Now I have a confession to make. “Sometimes” I do get lazy and crack the eggs straight into the mixing bowl. I did end up with yolks in my egg whites and I removed whatever I could with an ice cream scoop (wiped with vinegar) which really worked. I found that using a spoon just spreads the yolk everywhere.
I’m not saying you should crack the eggs straight into the bowl as you might not be able to whip them at all. Just don’t immediately throw in the towel if you happen to spill some yolk in there. Give it a chance. Start whipping the egg whites and if nothing has happened after 2 minutes, then you can start from scratch.
You might have noticed cream of tartar in some recipes. Cream of tartar is an acid and lowers the pH of the meringue which makes it more stable. And also yields a whiter meringue. You will usually need about 1/8 teaspoon for every egg white.
If you have trouble finding it in the store, you can just use lemon juice or vinegar in very small amounts. The acid used should be added from the beginning.
Temperature of the eggs
There is some debate regarding whether the eggs should be cold or not. I would recommend using room temperature eggs, ideally at a temperature of about 21°C (70°F). They will whip up faster and I’m guessing it will be slightly easier to dissolve the sugar if the eggs aren’t too cold.
Freshness of the eggs
You might have noticed that the older the egg, the harder it is to separate the egg white from the yolk. This happens because the egg yolk is protected by a membrane that gets weaker with time. The yolks also get runnier with time as they absorb moisture from the whites. This makes it harder to hold onto them when separating the eggs.
Older eggs will whip faster and more than fresh eggs. But they won’t be as stable. You can use either one but when making meringues, it’s generally recommended to go with stability, so fresh eggs.
How long to whip the eggs
This is probably the hardest thing for a beginner to figure out. If you underwhip the egg whites, the network formed by the proteins won’t be strong enough yet. It won’t be able to hold in the water properly and you might notice weeping (syrup leaking) during baking. If you whip too much, the network formed is no longer flexible. The meringue will lose its shine and if beaten further will get grainy.
One thing I strongly recommend if you are just starting out or if you are making a small quantity is to avoid using a stand mixer. It is so powerful that it is very easy to overbeat the meringue. You could use a hand mixer, or a whisk if you want to exercise your arm!
Other things to mention which you might see in recipes are:
- The use of copper bowls: Whipping egg whites in this type of bowl helps stabilize the meringue. They will have a slightly golden color though.
- Salt: Although some recipes recommend adding salt, you should actually skip it as it will affect the stability of your meringue.
- The type of whisk used: The more tines the better to incorporate more air bubbles.
I know this is a lot of information. Let’s go through some step-by-step pictures now and I’ll remind you about some key points along the way.
Making French Meringue
- Line a baking sheet with parchment paper and preheat the oven to 90°C (194°F), conventional setting. Prepare a piping bag fitted with desired piping tip (optional).
- If you are not able to use superfine sugar, grind granulated sugar in a blender or food processor until fine. You can grind a larger batch so you don’t have to do this step every time you make meringues.
- In a clean bowl, free of any fat residues, start whipping the egg whites with cream of tartar on low speed. Why low speed? To give the egg proteins a chance to unfold before stabilizing the air bubbles incorporated.
Tip: Wipe off the bowl with vinegar before using it to get rid of any fat. And avoid using a plastic mixing bowl.
- Once the eggs are foamy, start adding the sugar very slowly, about one tablespoon at a time. Try to stay away from the sides of the mixing bowl so you don’t get any sugar there. If needed, scrape down the sides of the bowl to get rid of any sugar.
- Once you have added all the superfine sugar, increase the speed to medium-high to thicken the meringue before folding in the powdered sugar.
Make sure the sugar has dissolved before adding more. You can test this by rubbing meringue between your fingers.
The meringue is done when…
- The meringue looks smooth and glossy. The sugar has fully dissolved. It will no longer feel gritty between your fingers.
- When you lift the whisk, the meringue holds on to it and stiff peaks form (both on the whisk and in the mixing bowl). One test I like to do is move the whisk in all directions. If the peaks don’t change shape at all, you’re there. If you tilt the mixing bowl or even turn it upside down (not recommended!), the meringue shouldn’t move.
- Using a spatula, gently fold in the powdered sugar. Be careful not to deflate the meringue. Only mix as much as needed.
- Fill the piping bag (or simply use a spoon) and pipe a few dots of meringue onto the baking sheet to hold the parchment paper in place. Pipe desired shapes onto parchment paper.
- Bake in the lower third of the oven for 1h30 to 2 hours. The more you bake them, the drier the center will be. If you like them chewy, bake slightly less. Optional (but recommended): Open the oven halfway through baking to release some steam. This will ensure the meringues dry out properly.
- Once the meringues have fully baked, turn off the oven and open it slightly. You can use a wooden spoon to hold the oven door. Let the meringues cool down slowly in the oven.
The meringue is ready when you can easily peel it off the parchment paper. It’s best to let them cool down in a turned off oven (door slightly ajar) to avoid cracks on the meringue.
How To Serve French Meringue Cookies
Meringues are delicious eaten on their own. To be honest, my family barely waits for them to cool down before digging in. But here are a few ideas:
- Make meringue sandwiches by sticking two meringues together with whipped cream. Or cover completely with whipped cream and coat with chocolate shavings to make a merveilleux.
- Dip in melted (and slightly cooled) dark chocolate.
- Pipe meringue nests and use up the egg yolks by filling with raspberry curd, pastry cream, lemon curd.
Even “failed” meringues taste amazing. But let’s go through some things that might go wrong, and how to fix them.
The sugar won’t dissolve
The three most important factors to consider are:
- The type of sugar used.
- How quickly you added the sugar.
- How long you kept beating the meringue after all the sugar was incorporated.
I’m going to talk about each point separately as I struggled the most with this issue.
1. The type of sugar used
Ideally, you should be using superfine sugar. But I think it’s quite hard to find for some people (myself included). If that’s the case, the best thing to do is grind the sugar you have in a blender or food processor. Do this several times until the sugar looks powdery. If you manage to get to that point, you should be good to go. You can skip the powdered sugar and use only the ground sugar.
However, your blender might not be powerful enough and you won’t be able to get to that powdery state. I tried to blend the sugar so many times but always ended up with some larger crystals. Here are a few solutions:
- After grinding the sugar as best as you can, add it one tablespoon at a time through a fine mesh sieve. This way you’ll get rid of the larger crystals. You can weigh whatever amount of sugar you had to discard and add more sugar to compensate if you’d like.
- Replace part of the sugar with powdered sugar. Do not bother adding the full amount of sugar if you can’t make superfine sugar. It won’t dissolve. Add only the weight of egg whites in sugar and fold in powdered sugar with the remaining weight. So if you used a 30 g egg white, and you recipe calls for 60 g of sugar (twice the weight of egg whites), use 30 g ground sugar and 30 g powdered sugar. Although I would recommend decreasing the amount of sugar to 45 g (1.5 times the egg white weight). It’s still very tasty (and sweet!) and you won’t struggle as much dissolving the sugar.
- And if the sugar still won’t dissolve, I would recommend making a Swiss meringue next time. The egg whites are first whipped with sugar in a bain-marie so the sugar melts with the heat.
2. Adding the sugar too quickly
Adding the sugar needs a lot of patience. If you get bored and try to rush it, you’ll end up spending much more time waiting for it to dissolve in the end. And you’ll probably ruin your meringue by overbeating it.
I’m saying probably because to be honest, I’ve baked meringues which were still gritty because the sugar just wouldn’t dissolve. And they turned out really tasty. We couldn’t feel a grainy texture at all when eating these baked meringues (pictured here).
But if it’s even slightly humid in your kitchen, the undissolved crystals will absorb moisture from the air. Your meringue will have drops of syrup and the texture won’t be as nice.
3. Keep beating until all the sugar has dissolved
When you have added all the sugar, don’t just switch off your mixer and call it a day! The meringue should form stiff peaks when you lift the whisk. But most importantly, you should make sure all the sugar has dissolved. Rub a little bit between your fingers to test this.
Egg whites won’t whip properly
You’ve been whipping the egg whites for a few minutes but nothing, or very little, seems to be happening.
Traces of egg yolks
If you spilled a bit of egg yolks into the egg whites, you’ll have trouble whipping them. See the section on fats and oil if you want to know why. Solution: Crack the eggs in two small bowls next time, before adding them to the mixing bowl. This way, if you accidently break the egg yolk, you can set that egg aside without ruining the whole batch of egg whites. Wipe your mixing bowl with vinegar before adding the egg whites.
The sugar was added too soon
The egg proteins have to unfold and migrate towards the air bubbles, creating a protective layer. The sugar interferes however with the unfolding. If you add it too early, the air bubbles created won’t be protected by anything and will immediately deflate. Solution: Don’t add the sugar from the beginning. Wait for the egg whites to become foamy before adding the sugar.
The sugar was added too quickly
If you add too much sugar in one go, you’ll weigh down the foam. You should wait for the sugar added to dissolve in the meringue, before adding more. Solution: Add the sugar, one tablespoon at a time.
The quantity is too small for the stand mixer
This might sound obvious but I thought I’d mention it anyway. If you are making a small amount (2 egg whites for example) in a stand mixer, and the meringue won’t increase in volume, try using a hand mixer instead.
The meringue weeps / Sugar beads
Syrup leaked from your meringue while baking or there are sugar beads on your baked meringue. This will be especially noticeable during a humid day so it’s best to check the weather forecast before making meringues.
1. Undissolved sugar
You probably added the sugar too quickly. The undissolved sugar crystals attract water and form a syrup. This is made even worse if there is humidity in your kitchen. Solution: Add the sugar one tablespoon at a time, wait for it to dissolve before adding more. If you are adding slowly but the sugar won’t dissolve properly, try grinding the sugar first to make the particle size smaller. Or, if using granulated sugar, try swapping half of it with powdered sugar which you gently fold in at the end.
2. High oven temperature
Another reason could be that the oven temperature was too high. During baking, the water in baked goods starts to evaporate. But if the oven is too hot, the egg proteins will coagulate (the protein network tightens) and squeeze out water before it has a chance to evaporate5. You’ll notice caramelized spots on your meringue. Solution: Try baking at a lower temperature next time.
3. Overbeaten egg whites
If you whip the egg whites too much, the protein bonds that are holding in the air bubbles and moisture will get stronger and tighter until they eventually squeeze out water (and air). Solution: Stop beating when glossy, stiff peaks form and the sugar has dissolved. If the meringue starts losing its shine, stop whipping immediately.
4. Egg whites were not beaten enough
If the egg whites weren’t beaten until stiff peaks formed, the foam created won’t be stable. The protein bonds will be weak and won’t be able to hold on to the water in the meringue, causing weeping during baking. Solution: Don’t stop whipping before stiff peaks have formed.
If you whip for too long, your meringue might turn grainy and lose its shine. But we could also mention here the possibility of undissolved sugar, which gives the meringue a gritty texture. Solution: If you are using a stand mixer, don’t leave it unattended. Stop the mixer often and check whether or not stiff peaks have formed. If the sugar hasn’t dissolved properly, follow the tips outlined in the section “The sugar won’t dissolve”.
If your meringue had the right consistency but then became runny, you might have deflated it.
- If you are folding in ingredients when the meringue is ready, such as powdered sugar, do it very gently and not for too long.
- If you are piping your meringue, don’t fill the piping bag as you will deflate it by pushing on it constantly. Fill the bag and pipe in batches.
- A meringue doesn’t wait. Once it’s ready, you should bake it quickly or it might soften.
This could be due to the oven temperature, or the type of sugar used.
- If you baked at a temperature higher than 100°C (212°F), the sugar in the meringue will start to caramelize and the meringue will have a golden color. Solution: Reduce the temperature to 90°C (194°F) next time. You could also experiment with the oven shelf. If you baked on the middle shelf, try baking on the lower shelf. Using cream of tartar will also help if you want white meringues.
- Using golden caster sugar or too much vanilla extract might tint the meringue a little.
If it’s very humid, the sugar in the meringue will absorb moisture from the air and your meringues will get sticky. Solution: Avoid baking when it’s very humid. Store in an airtight container at room temperature.
Gap in the meringue
If your meringue has a gap, like an air pocket, you probably baked it a high temperature. The water in the meringue converted to steam and acted as a leavener, like it does in choux pastry. Solution: Having a gap isn’t necessarily a bad thing. It will yield a lighter meringue. But if you don’t want this gap, reduce the temperature to 90°C (194°F) next time.
If the meringue feels very dense, there was an issue with the air bubbles incorporated in the meringue.
- You might have deflated the meringue when folding in other ingredients or piping.
- You added the sugar too early and the egg proteins didn’t manage to unfold properly and stabilize the air bubbles. They could only hold in smaller air bubbles.
- You overmixed the meringue. The protein bonds got stronger and the network holding the air bubbles tightened, squeezing them out.
Solution: Add the sugar when the egg whites are foamy, not earlier. Once the meringue is ready, be careful not to deflate it.
The oven temperature might be too high. The water in the meringue will quickly start evaporating, causing cracks on the surface. Solution: If you baked the meringues at a temperature higher than 100°C (212°F), try baking at a lower temperature next time.
Another reason could be that you removed the meringues from the oven as soon as they finished baking. The difference in temperature might cause the meringues to crack. Solution: Let them cool down in a turned off oven leaving the door slightly ajar. You can use a wooden spoon to hold the oven door. Don’t remove the meringues from the oven before it is completely cool.
And that’s it! I covered everything I could think of. Hopefully you won’t have any issues when making them. Next week, I’ll show you how to make chocolate whipped cream to coat our meringues and make chocolate merveilleux. You have to try them, they are insanely tasty!
In case you missed it, head over to the meringues baking calendar to see what we’ll be learning this month.
Using The Egg Yolks
- Pastry Cream
- Raspberry Curd
- Chocolate Pastry Cream
- Lemon Curd (use 2 egg yolks for every whole egg)
- Crème Brûlée
Or head over to the egg yolk section for more ideas.
1Suas, M. (2008). Advanced Bread and Pastry: A Professional Approach (1st ed.). Delmar Cengage Learning.
2Figoni, P. (2011). How Baking Works (3rd ed.). Wiley.
3Uracca, P. (2017). Pâtisserie: French Pastry Master Class. Chêne.
4Corriher, S. O. (2008). Bakewise: The Hows and Whys of Successful Baking. Scribner.
5McGee, H. (2004). On Food and Cooking: The Science and Lore of the Kitchen. Scribner.