With fall comes the return of baking season. At my house, dessert in summer months usually consists of fresh fruit because of the abundance. With cooler temperatures, it feels good to heat up the oven and to make old-fashioned desserts.
Cream pies have always been a hit, especially when having company over. However, most cream pies are topped with meringue, a sweet topping that is made by baking a mixture of stiffly beaten egg whites and sugar until crisp. This simple sounding treat can be a lot trickier than it sounds.
Sometimes my meringue is high and fluffy like it should be and at other times, well, it leaves a lot to be desired. Even though I make it the same way each time, the results are not always the same. So, I did a little research to see what the deal was on why making meringue is sometimes a tricky chore.
What I found out was that it has to do with a lot of factors. The method of whipping, the utensils, temperature and humidity all play an important part in creating a fluffy mouth-watering meringue. Here is the skinny on how chefs do it:
How you treat your eggs is probably the biggest factor in whether your meringue is successful or not because meringue essentially consists of…eggs or, more precisely, egg whites. Having even the smallest speck of fat in the egg whites will cause them to deflate. The most likely culprit here is a tiny piece of yolk from imperfectly separated eggs. Not wanting to spoil the whole batch, I have quickly dipped out the tiny amount of yolk that fell into the whites when I was separating. Wrong. I should have just tossed the egg whites and started over because it did ruin the meringue in the end anyway.
Cold egg whites are easier to separate but whites warmed to room temperature are loftier when whisked. So, the best practice is to separate the eggs while cold and then allow the whites to stand at room temperature, covered, about 30 minutes before beating them.
Another tip is to crack eggs on a hard surface like a countertop instead of on the edge of the bowl like most of us are accustomed to doing. This reduces the chance that a shred of shell will pierce the yolk, allowing it into the whites.
Make sure that your whisk and bowl are clean and dry. No matter how well washed they are, plastic bowls may retain traces of fat from previous uses. Copper, glass and metal bowls are preferred. Many chefs swear by copper when making meringue because a chemical reaction between the copper and the egg whites tends to produce fluffier, more stable peaks. Just before using a copper bowl, clean it thoroughly with salt and lemon juice or vinegar, rinse with cold water and dry well.
I couldn’t cook without my stainless-steel mixing bowl set. It also seems to work well when making meringues.
Sugar not only sweetens the egg yolks, but also helps to create a thicker structure than egg white alone. Individual sugar molecules help to support and stabilize the protein in egg whites. Superfine sugar dissolves easier than granulated. You can make your own by processing regular sugar in a food processor for 2 minutes or you can also use confectioners’ sugar.
Another important factor is to add the sugar gradually, usually a tablespoon at a time. This allows it to get fully incorporated into the egg whites.
Cream of Tartar
Most meringue recipes call for a small bit of cream of tartar. This small amount will mimic the reaction when using a copper bowl. It makes the meringue stronger and less likely to deflate. The general rule of thumb is to use 1/4 teaspoon of cream of tartar for every 2 to 3 egg whites. If you don’t have this on hand, lemon juice can be substituted at a rate of 1/2 teaspoon for each 1/4 teaspoon of cream of tartar that is called for.
Next to the eggs, this is probably the next important factor in creating a good meringue. It takes a while for egg whites to become frothy and cloud-like. Beaters with more tines like standing mixers or hand-held mixers will incorporate air better into the whites than a standard whisk will. If using a copper bowl, many chefs prefer whisking by hand because it produces fluffier and more stable whites and also reduces the likelihood of overbeating.
Knowing when enough beating is enough is truly an art. With meringue, there is a fine line between too little and too much. It should be smooth, glossy and flexible with stiff peaks. If it doesn’t peak, it is probably over-whipped.
Avoid making meringue on a humid day or when it is raining as these conditions will only add to your chances of failure. Sugar absorbs moisture which will result in a meringue that is soft and one that will be impossible to get thick, stiff peaks. Humidity will also cause the finished meringue to weep or soften.
This point brings us to the trouble-shooting of “What did I do wrong?” if your meringue still doesn’t turn out. The most likely causes are:
Sometimes beads of moisture appear on the surface of the meringue after it is baked. This is most likely caused from over cooking. Try increasing the temperature and decreasing the cooking time. This will keep the internal temperature from getting too hot. Just be sure and watch it closely so as not to burn the meringue.
I have also found that letting the pie cool completely after the meringue is baked before putting it in the refrigerator will also keep it from beading (or as we refer to it as “weeping” although that is a completely different issue).
My Aunt Sharlene and I always have this problem of beading and she just refers to the beads as “angel tears.” This has been my standard explanation to company whenever I serve weeping meringue!
This term actually refers to a small pool of liquid between the meringue and the pie filling. To remedy this, always spread your meringue over hot pie filling instead of letting the filling get cold first. The heat from the filling helps to cook the meringue from the bottom while the oven heat is cooking it from the top, insuring that it is cooked thoroughly.
Be sure when spreading meringue on the hot filling to anchor it clear to the edge of the crust. This helps to prevent shrinking.
This is another delicate feature. You want your meringue lightly browned but not burned. Especially if using a higher temperature to prevent beading, watch it closely, you have a tiny window here. To achieve the golden brown, you can place the pie in a 500* oven or under the broiler for a couple of minutes.
Meringue powder can be purchased and used in place of real egg whites. It is essentially dehydrated egg whites. Some have sweeteners and stabilizers already added so that all you need to do is add water. These have a long shelf life and are convenient to keep on hand.
Don’t let all these specifications scare you away from trying your hand at meringue. It really isn’t that hard if you follow the rules and don’t get in a hurry. Mastering it takes experience. Practice plus patience makes perfect. The practice part isn’t so bad, just think of all the pies you will have while on the road to perfection!
Photo by Plush Design Studio on Unsplash
Homemade Meringue Recipe
• 4 egg whites
• 1/4 teaspoon cream of tartar
• 1/4 cup sugar
1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees F.
2. Beat egg whites until frothy then add cream of tartar and beat until soft peaks form.
3. Gradually add sugar, beating until sugar is dissolved, and stiff, glossy peaks form.
4. Spread over warm pie filling of choice.
5. Bake 4 inches under heat for about 10 minutes or until browned.