When you study cuisine, you learn about certain fundamental elements that serve as the base for countless dishes; namely sauces and stocks. In French cuisine, there are 5 mother sauces: Béchamel; white sauce consisting of flour, butter and milk, Velouté; thickened chicken stock, tomato sauce, Hollandaise; emulsion sauce of egg yolk and clarified butter, and Espanol; thickened brown stock. Reducing this final sauce is what gives you demi-glace ; the ingredient without which you couldn’t make most French sauces.
While there are no official designations in pastry, I think that there are certain fundamental recipes that could be considered the pastry equivalent to a mother sauce because they act as a base for many other final products. Meringue is without a doubt a key fundamental component to baking.
Once you master the meringue you’ll be able to make some of the most technically advanced, not to mention sophisticated, desserts in pastry: from the tres chic and trendy French Macarons; Tortes which are gourmet style cakes made with little to no flour and get their lift from the airiness of the meringue, many of which are layered with other meringue based fillings like buttercreams or mousse; and classics which are now coming back into vogue like the Pavlova and so on.
But what is a meringue exactly? Basically, a meringue is a combination of egg whites and sugar. The type of meringue you make is determined by the way in which you combine the sugar and eggs whites, as well as the degree to which you whip them.
The general ratio for any meringue is 1 part egg white to 2 parts sugar.
a.k.a French or Common Meringue is made by simply combining the egg whites and sugar together then whipping them to the desired consistency, either soft, medium or stiff peaks.
One of the most important steps to remember when making this form of meringue is to first whip the egg whites until they are very frothy before adding the sugar, and also to add the sugar gradually. It is also important to make sure sure that you’re using a clean bowl, free from grease or water, as these contaminants will impede the foaming of the egg whites.
This is the least stable of the meringues, so it’s not typically used for piping cookies or other things that need to hold their shape, but it can be used as the base for cakes, such as sponge cakes, tortes and cookies, or as a topping on a pie.
To help stabilize your common meringue, you could add a little bit of cream of tartar (tartaric acid) or salt, just as your egg whites begin to foam, or by whipping the bowl with a bit of lemon juice.
A more stable form of meringue, this version is made by combining the egg whites and sugar and heating them over a Bain Marie (pot of simmering water) until the mixture reaches 74 degrees Celsius or 165 degrees Fahrenheit. Once it has reached this temperature, then it gets whipped. If it’s being used to lighten a batter, i.e. for a cake or mousse, you would whip to a medium peak, whereas for piping applications, i.e. for cookies or to decorate a cake or pie, you would want to whip it to a full stiff peak so as to hold its shape.
Top of the Peak
Before I continue, I would like to clarify the difference between soft, medium and stiff peaks. Some chefs over-simplify describing a meringue as being ready when you can hold it over your head without getting a sugary egg white shower. In reality, as I explained before, the consistency required depends on what you are making so the bowl-over- the-head bit doesn’t really work. While there is not such a huge difference between medium and stiff peaks, there is a very big difference between soft and medium peaks.
A soft peak means that when you touch the meringue or remove the whip, the tip that forms will flop over, drooping into a C and barely holding its shape, whereas a medium peak holds quite upright and stiff with just the very tip having the slightest of curve. A tip of a stiff peak is completely straight with no droop what so ever. So if a recipe calls for medium or stiff peaks, and you only whip your meringue until it is soft, your dessert will not rise or hold. It’s okay to stop whipping to check the consistency, but be patient; it takes time for a meringue to reach a good stiff peak. My trick, just set a timer and walk away.
This is the most stable of all the meringues, and also my least favourite to make.This meringue is made by slowly drizzling a hot sugar syrup into egg whites.
You begin by heating sugar and a small amount of water until it reaches what is referred to in pastry as the soft ball stage: if you were to drop a small amount of this sugar syrup into cold water it would form a soft ball. Soft ball stage is also what is required for making chewy treats such as fudge. In terms of temperature, this means that the sugar much reach 240 degrees Fahrenheit or 116 degrees Celsius.
As the mixture approaches this temperature, you should start whipping your egg whites as they must be foamy before adding the sugar mixture.
Once the sugar has come to temperature, and your egg whites are sufficiently foamy, you must drizzle in the syrup while whipping the egg whites.
I had my first introduction to Italian Meringue in culinary school where I had to execute this task of simultaneous drizzle-whipping by hand. Not fun, and never again. As you add the sugar syrup, the meringue gets heavier and thus harder to whip. My suggestion for this is use a stans mixer! Your forearms will thank you.
As I stated before, meringues serve as the base for many pastry items. One of the most widely used meringue based confections is buttercream.
You could use either a Swiss or Italian meringues to make buttercream. True buttercream is not just whipping butter and confectioner’s sugar together- that’s icing and what we know as buttercream in North America, but real buttercream is made by
whipping butter into either Swiss or Italian Meringue. Unlike common icing, meringue based buttercream has a silken texture that is so refined and elegant, and not overly sweet. Because of their stability and delicate texture and taste, meringue-based buttercreams are traditionally used for special occasion cakes like wedding cakes, or assembled cakes that have multiple layers of mousses, cake and creams.
Mastering the technique of meringue is crucial if you want to be a serious baker. It isn’t hard if you are mindful of the steps and mare sure that your tools are in proper condition to facilitate meringue-making. Meringue based desserts are more refined in texture and taste than regular butter or oil based desserts and are worth experimenting with. I hope you give it a try.