There are a few things they don’t tell you about making meringue when you first attempt it. Most recipes far underemphasize, or fail to mention entirely, a few key technical points that are of utmost importance for beginners, of which I was one before this summer. The good news is, once you know what the crucial factors are, it’s far less scary to make a successful meringue.
My first attempt was last May, making a 7 minute icing (pretty, right?) for a trial coconut cake—trial for my sister’s wedding. Like actual wedding day. No pressure or anything. Let’s just say it’s a dang good thing I trialed it. While the icing is not a meringue by strict definitions, it involves the same concept—whipping egg whites and sugar into a puffy, marshmallow-y cloud. Other ingredients may play a role, but achieving that fluff is up to the egg whites and sugar at the core.
So what did I do wrong? Pretty much everything. Here’s the rundown:
- Used a plastic bowl
- Got a teensy weensy drop of yolk in my egg whites
- Worked with chilled eggs
- Used organic sugar
- Didn’t dry beaters of the mixer
- Stopped the mixer to check progress
These may not be the only factors deciding the fate of your meringue, but they are, in my opinion, the most overlooked crucial elements.
Fat is Bad
What I learned upon further research is that even a minute (my-noot, not minute like time) drop of fat in your meringue can keep the air from incorporating into and fluffing the mixture. A piece of yolk, no matter how small, adds that dreaded fat. Have a few extra eggs on hand, because if you mess up separating the yolks from the whites, then yes, you do need to toss that one and start fresh. Annoying but true. Less obviously, plastic mixing bowls, more porous than metal or glass, retain oils even after thorough washing, which provides another means for fat to enter the picture. No wonder the Kitchen Aid mixer bowls are all made of either metal or glass! I was pretty proud of myself for figuring that one out.
Take the Chill Off
Some recipes, such as the one for my icing, call for beating the egg whites with a hand mixer in a bowl set over, but not touching, a pan of simmering water. First, unless your saucepan is clear, it’s difficult to ensure that the bowl is positioned correctly just over the water, and to monitor the temperature of the water without visual cues. Second, this is a major yogic feat for someone like me who stands under 5’ 5” tall. After stacking the pan and the bowl, I literally, and I wish I took a photo of this, had to stand on a step stool in order to last 7 minutes with any mobility left in my shoulder.
The moral of this story is that the eggs perform better when heated, but I found all the hullabaloo about the stovetop, hand mixer, and simmering water to be unnecessary. A simpler way to achieve eggs that are not ice cold, and thus whip more quickly and submissively into meringue, is to let your eggs come to room temperature. This can be tricky, as separating eggs is easier when they’re chilled. The best approach, I found, is to separate the eggs when cold, place the whites in a bowl at room temperature, and allow them to sit out, covered, for 30 minutes to an hour.
Although almost every recipe for meringue or 7 minute icing calls for use of a hand mixer, I stowed mine (which I had purchased expressly for this project) and achieved success with a standing Kitchen Aid mixer and whisk attachment. I’ve since tried the technique again with the hand mixer, applying all my lessons from above, and I’m confident that either method works. I have to admit, though, I did feel really cool and retro using the hand mixer.
Now for those last few mistakes I made. Most of the time, I would vote for organic sugar in a recipe. However, for meringue, the typically coarser crystals of organic cane sugar don’t lend themselves as well to dissolving into the meringue, especially not with any speed. This is one time you may want to spring for the real (more processed—eek!) thing. #balance
Definitely wash your mixing attachment, whether for the stand or hand mixer, before making meringue, to avoid fluff-killing fat bits (see above). Just make sure to thoroughly dry it before getting started. I like a paper towel because I know it’s clean, whereas kitchen dish towels, unless freshly washed, may be carrying food or fat particles.
No matter how impatient you might be, you can make meringue. Try to breathe deeply and just keep mixing, and above all, resist the urge to stop the mixer once you’ve started. It’s building momentum and doing science-y things to the egg whites and sugar, a process that takes time (hence, 7 minute, not 2 minute, icing). I did a lot of things wrong the first time I attempted meringue, but maybe if I had the resolve to just keep mixing and stay optimistic, I would have gotten some semblance of icing, instead of just a warm, curdled-looking puddle and a sore arm.
If you’re itching to try your hand at the technique, proving how much better you can be at this than me by getting it right on the first try, stay tuned for a no-bake s’mores pie recipe coming within the next week! I still have a little fine tuning to do, but the wait will be worth it.
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Top photo credit: Keane Eye Photography