There are few transformations in cooking as miraculous as turning an egg into a meringue.
With only some sugar, air and a small amount of effort, a bowl of modest egg whites can become extravagantly glossy and puffed, ready to dress up all manner of swoopy, fancy confections — festooned on cakes, piped into pavlovas and kisses, or swirled onto pies.
While it may seem difficult, making meringue is a whole lot easier than you might think. Any home cook with a set of electric beaters — or a balloon whisk and perseverance — can whip one up in a matter of minutes. It’s well worth the work, whether you’re looking to impress your friends and family, your sweetheart on Valentine’s Day or yourself any time you crave something sweet.
Because while perfecting something as special as meringue is a thrill, the real enchantment happens when you eat it.
Meringue at its most minimal consists simply of sugared, beaten eggs whites. Sometimes it’s heated, sometimes not, and recipes date back to at least the 16th century. Before electric mixers, making meringue was an endurance test, a showy display of a pastry cook’s skill and upper-arm strength. Until the wire whisk was popularized in the 19th century, this vigorous mixing was accomplished with birch branches, knives or bundles of straw. Just think of that the next time pulling out your mixer seems daunting.
In reality, creating foam from a liquid isn’t hard: If you beat, shake or agitate it, you’ll incorporate air, and end up with a temporary froth. The tricky part is getting the air to stay. Think of blowing bubbles with a straw into your glass of chocolate milk, then watching as they pop when you pause to take a sip.
But the specific proteins in egg whites (and aquafaba) allow them to inflate into a billowing mousse — and remain that way longer — before the air escapes and the whites collapse.
As Harold McGee wrote in his food science compendium, “On Food and Cooking,” eggs are remarkable for their ability to harvest air and form something new. Beat a single egg white, he wrote, and you’ll end up with “a cupful of snowy white foam, a cohesive structure that clings to the bowl when you turn it upside down.” (Don’t try that with chocolate milk.)
As they are beaten, the proteins in egg whites uncoil, trapping air in tiny bubbles. The more you beat them, the thinner these proteins become, and the more air they’re able to capture as they become aerated. Adding sugar or heat, or both, to whipped egg whites helps stabilize them by firming up the proteins so their structure remains intact.
The Three Faces of Meringue
There are three types of meringues, each with a different character.
The simplest, commonly called a French meringue, is made from beating uncooked egg whites and sugar, and it’s the lightest and most voluminous of the three. But it’s also the least stable, liable to break down fairly quickly unless baked until hard. French meringue is often folded into the batters of baked goods to lighten them, such as sponge cake and macarons, or formed into pavlovas and meringue kisses to make crunchy, brittle-sugary treats.
Swiss meringue is made from egg whites and sugar heated in a double boiler until the sugar melts, then beaten until buoyant and creamy. More stable than French meringue, Swiss meringue is thicker and not as light. You’ll find it used to top pies and tarts (as in the recipes here), as the base for buttercreams and as a frosting for cakes on its own. (The pastry chef Stella Parks says seven-minute frosting is just a Swiss meringue in disguise.)
The densest, smoothest and most stable of the three is Italian meringue, but it can also be the most challenging. It starts with a molten sugar syrup heated to 240 degrees, then carefully beaten into a bowl of whipped egg whites until the mixture cools, becoming silky verging on sticky. Italian meringues can be used more or less interchangeably with Swiss meringues, but are preferable when increased stability is required, as in professional kitchens and candy making.
Meringue Plays Well With Others
For all of its sweetness and airy mouthfeel, meringue on its own doesn’t contribute much taste, but it pairs brilliantly with other ingredients. Without any fat to coat the palate, meringue is an excellent flavor carrier, allowing whatever you’re mixing in to shine through brightly.
For example, using brown sugar instead of granulated sugar yields a rich, caramelly butterscotch meringue that makes an unexpected pairing with blood orange curd.
Spices, extracts and citrus zest can be incorporated toward the end of beating, and a little lemon zest sprinkled into the topping of a lemon meringue pie increases its tanginess immeasurably.
Then there’s freeze-dried fruit powder, that darling of pastry chefs, which can lend both color and verve. And despite its high fat content (because fat is the enemy of egg-white fluffing), small amounts of melted, cooled chocolate can be folded into meringue, as long as you use a light hand so you don’t deflate the eggs.
Going a step further, combining raspberry powder and bittersweet chocolate makes a complex-tasting, fuchsia-streaked meringue that’s an absolute knockout dolloped on a raspberry tart.
Of course, marshmallowy mounds of meringue perched on nearly any dessert will make it seem like magic. And you don’t need to be a wizard in the kitchen to get there.