French meringue recipe and ‘meringue 101’

IMG_0472Please also see my post about the science of making meringues, which has tips and explanations to ensure the best meringue possible. It explains what actually happens to the proteins and amino acids in egg white during whipping and cooking, plus some useful stuff such as why lemon juice or white wine vinegar is sometimes added to the mix, why it’s said you should avoid plastic bowls or why sugar shouldn’t be added before whipping the egg whites. See lower down in this post for some hints and tips on ensuring your meringues always work in a problems/FAQ section. You’d think there wouldn’t be many recipes for meringue, as there are so few ingredients, however there are many variations of egg white to sugar, what type of sugar to use and the inclusion of extra ingredients. You should roughly work on about 50g of sugar to one egg white, plus a little extra ‘for luck’. I’ve tried and tested many combinations in the past and the following recipe that I’ve hit on is one that has been pretty fool-proof for me.

Notes

This recipe is enough for about 26 small meringues, 14 medium, a pavlova or pie topping.

Ingredients

  • 3 large fresh egg whites, free-range preferably
  • 175g caster sugar (fine white if you want classic meringues or unrefined golden caster if you like the taste and want a golden-y meringue)
  • 2 teaspoons vanilla extract (the type with seeds) or the seeds from ½ a vanilla pod
  • an optional extra (pinch of cream of tartar, ½ teaspoon white wine vinegar or ½ teaspoon lemon juice) if you want or if your eggs are more than a couple of days old

Method

  1. Preheat the oven to 120°C (conventional) 100°C (fan)
  2. Whip up the egg whites to soft peaks and slowly tip in the sugar in small batches (about a tablespoon full at a time) while still whipping. Continue to whip until you have stiff peaks.
  3. Add the vanilla and whip a little more until the vanilla is thoroughly distributed.
  4. If you are using one of the extra ingredients (I’ve explained their use and the effect they have on the meringue mix in my science of meringue blog post) add it now and whip again, a little more to ensure it is incorporated.
  5. You can test the readiness of the meringue mix by pulling the whisk out of the mix – the little bit of meringue that’s left on it should stay up as a peak if you hold the whisk pointing upwards. If the meringue flops it needs some more whisking. Alternatively, you could do the ‘bowl upside down over the head’ trick, but that’s a bit over the top when you’re in a kitchen on your own – and you could end up very messy if you hadn’t mixed it enough yet!
  6. Pipe or spoon the meringue onto a parchment-lined baking sheet.
  7. Bake for 40 mins. Turn off the oven, bake for 40 mins more. [Alternatively, turn off the oven as soon as you put the meringue in and leave in overnight]. (See the blog post about the science of meringue as it explains how meringues dry out).

Problems – or ‘meringue 101’

How do I tell when the meringue is ready?

French meringues are perfectly cooked when they are still white but sound hollow when you tap the bottom (the only reservation to this is if you’ve used unrefined caster sugar which would have changed the colour of the meringue anyway). They will also come away very easily from the baking paper once done.

Problems with meringues

My meringue has gone flat while whipping

You’ve over whipped your meringue and the proteins have stretched too far, collapsing the foam. Add in a new egg white and whisk again – this can resurrect the meringue. Is it warm and humid? Or is your kitchen steamy from a kettle or something you’ve got cooking? A high humidity will soften the meringue mix as it introduces too much moisture (you only need what’s in the egg white already). You may need to abandon making meringues for that day or mix up the meringue in another room if your kitchen is steamy.

My meringue won’t whip up

If you put the sugar in before you started whipping you’ve blown your chances. You’ll need to start again. Another reason is that you’ve got some fat/grease in the mix. You can either start again if you think you’ve got a lot of fat/grease in there, or if there’s just a little bit chances are if you give it another few minutes of whipping it may be salvaged.

My meringue has a watery layer/is “weeping” (when making a meringue on a filling, such as a lemon meringue)

This is because you put the meringue on to a cold filling. If you put it on while the filling is hot this starts to dry out the meringue straight away, rather than allowing the water in the meringue to start slowly leaking out as the meringue foam starts to disintegrate over time. (Cooking the meringue fixes the protein strands in the egg white into position – coagulation – so when the water evaporates the structure is still in place. If the meringue stands before being cooked the strands aren’t so strongly bonded together and will being to collapse allowing the water to leak out of the bottom rather than evaporate in a warm oven).

My meringue shrank leaving a gap between the edge of the meringue and the pastry (when making a pie/pastry)

Because drying out (cooking) the meringue causes the water to evaporate and the protein bonds to coagulate fully, there will be a little shrinkage in the structure of the meringue. (Although some of the methods listed above will minimise any shrinkage by keeping the structure as firm as possible, eg whipping in a copper bowl strengthens the chemical bonds during coagulation). You can counteract any shrinking by ensuring that the meringue seals to the pastry edge. Meringue is quite sticky before it’s cooked it should ‘glue’ quite well. Just spread it out so it touches the pastry the whole way round.

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