Recently, we were contacted by a cook who shared tales of meringue* woe: cracked surfaces (though we see here a natty, rustic charm) and leaky pearls of sugar. We felt their pain because few things can spoil a day quite like a meringue gone wrong.
It’s a recipe you follow for a birthday, dinner party soirée, a chance to amaze the office with your baking prowess. But while on paper the method looks a cinch, the fiddly nature of this beast means the line between ‘aha’ and ‘argh’ is a fine one. Only a teensy gap separates sky-high peaks from a curdled state that looks every inch as forlorn as the way it makes you feel.
To anyone who’s ever been afflicted by a meringue gone wrong (count us among you), we’ve this to say: you’ll get it right eventually, because learning to make meringue is a lot like learning to ride a bike. First, you’ll make mistakes – we all do. But soon it’ll start to feel more manageable (with the help of stabilisers, but more on them later). After a few further bumps along the way, you’ll have gone up through the gears and mastered the craft.
A humid kitchen can be the downfall of a meringue base – so before you start, make sure the air-con is on. It’s also a good idea to use eggs that are at room temperature. A cold egg white takes a long time to whisk to stiff peaks, but a warmer white whips more easily and helps the sugar dissolve faster.
Now, grab a bowl, but not just any bowl – make it one that’s clean as a whistle, dry as a bone and hasn’t a slick of grease in sight.
One reason a baked meringue can leak sugar relates to the type of sugar used and the way it was incorporated into the egg whites. Given its fine nature, caster is the most reliable variety, but we’ve fond memories with soft brown sugar too. Whichever you choose, make sure to thoroughly beat it into the whites. A good way to test this is to scoop out a finger of the whisked mixture and press it between your thumb and forefinger – it should be completely smooth.
TIP: If you’re concerned the pursuit of a smooth base will result in you overbeating the mixture, add a drop of lemon juice or white grape vinegar with the egg whites at the start. This will strengthen them, stabilise the mixture and make it less likely to collapse.
Cracks in your relationship with meringue appear if the baked result is exposed to a sudden a shift in temperature. To avoid this, simply leave the meringue to cool in the oven with the heat off and door kept shut. This is an ideal opportunity to concentrate on your decorative touches – vanilla-poached nectarines, chestnut-marbled cream, a simple mint sugar.
Now you’ve read the meringue 101, bake our number one meringue recipe. It might not change your life, but it will make your weekend (and consign meringue woes to a thing of the past).
*We’re talking French meringues. If you’re searching for the perfect Swiss meringue method, head here. Or if it’s the Italian version you’re after, take a trip to a land of vanilla marshmallows.
If you’re now left wondering what on earth the differences are among the three, here’s a quick explanation:
French meringue – The most basic of the kind, where sugar is beaten into egg whites. Once light and smooth, the mixture is then baked.
Italian meringue – This technique starts with a sugar syrup which, having reached a specific temperature, is slowly whisked into already beaten egg whites. Commonly used for marshmallows and frostings.
Swiss meringue – The densest of the three, egg whites and sugar are gently heated together in a bowl set over a pan of hot water. Most typically prepared for buttercreams.