The Mystery of Meringue

Lemon Meringue Pie Meringue. Most are familiar with it from keylime pies and the delectably light and crisp melt in your mouth cookie variety. It makes macarons crunchy and chewy at the same time. It sets royal icing so...

Lemon Meringue Pie
Lemon Meringue Pie

Meringue. Most are familiar with it from keylime pies and the delectably light and crisp melt in your mouth cookie variety. It makes macarons crunchy and chewy at the same time. It sets royal icing so our gingerbread houses stand up long enough to be devoured. It fluffs our souffles and boosts our mousse. Yet, so many of us avoid making all of the above because we dread the mystery of meringue.

Like that one friend who is moody and overwrought, we avoid making meringue because we feel we never know what to expect. Sometimes, it's perfectly agreeable and you can do no wrong. Then suddenly, it begins weeping, falling to pieces, and becomes nothing more than a hot snotty mess. This, of course, can really send your own emotions into a tailspin and really, who wants to deal with all of that drama trauma when all you wanted was pie?

Although spastic friends may be more difficult to handle, meringue is not as unruly as it may seem. Really, it's very simple and once you learn how to anticipate its few needs, you'll be best pals for life.

Firstly, meringue is very partial to metal and glass. Maybe it's just plain snobbery, but try using a plastic bowl to whip up those sweet peaks and you'll be whisking for hours only to end up with goop. Of course, that's not really meringue's fault. You see, the micro-scratches in plasticware fill and retain fats and oils which do not get along with meringue. It prevents the meringue from being able to cling to the sides of the bowl and climb up to its fluffiest best. If your meringue is trying to get a grip, help it along by using only glass or metal bowls. Even if you have scrubbed and sanitized your plastic bowls ten-times over, they'll just never be quite clean enough for meringue. The same goes for your whisk or any other utensils you are going to use with the meringue. They need to be clean and dry. Once your meringue is fluffy and to the stiffness you desire, you can use a rubber spatula to gently scrape the bowl. It's particular, but not entirely unreasonable.

Meringue Cookies
Meringue Cookies

If you need to sweeten up your meringue, and generally you do, then you might as well start right away, don't delay! Many meringue recipes advise gradually adding a spoonful of sugar at a time once the egg whites have been beaten to a foamy state. You must go slowly, or else the sugar doesn't dissolve and again, you end up with goop. Rather than waiting until the egg whites have been beaten and accosted to start sweetening it up, use a double-boiler. Investing in one for your kitchen is worthwhile, as they come in handy for gently cooking numerous sauces, desserts, and fondue.

If you don't have a double-boiler, you can rig one up with a regular old saucepan and a glass or metal bowl. Kitchenaid stand mixer bowls

work well for this and then you can transfer straight to your mixer. Either way, you don't want the water in your lower saucepan touching the base of your chosen bowl, and you only want the water to come to a simmer (steam should be coming off of it but no bubbles). Placing both the egg whites and sugar into your top bowl, all at once, heating them until the sugar is dissolved. Check often by dipping your index finger and thumb into the egg whites and rubbing them together. If you can't feel the grittiness of the sugar, it's dissolved! The time will vary depending on the quantity of meringue you're making but for the amount needed for most recipes, it takes less than five minutes. Take it off of the heat, transfer to your mixer and whip away! This method is actually more structurally sound, meaning your meringue is less likely to break down or weep at any point. The only caveat is if you're not paying close attention or your heat is too high, your egg whites can overheat and start to cook. If this begins to happen, immediately turn off the heat and using a fine sieve, strain your egg whites and sugar mixture. However, if you keep your heat low and keep an eye on it, this will rarely, if ever, happen.

Also when it comes to sweetening up your meringue, stick to the ratio of two tablespoons of sugar for every one egg white used. You can also use raw granulated sugar, which will impart a more caramel color and flavor to your final meringue.

Finally, just know that you can push meringue too far. We all have our limits and if you endlessly beat it up, it's bound to break down. Chemically, over-whipping your egg whites will break down the protein structures that hold in the air causing it to weep, melt, liquefy, and ruin your day. So if you're after stiff peaks, stop and check often. Once you've achieved them, STOP WHIPPING. If you've been listening to Michael Jackson's "Just Beat It," for inspiration, accept that you've won, put the whisk down, turn off the music, and walk away. But finish making your pie, souffle, or mousse first. Otherwise, your meringue will feel ignored and deflated, and will literally deflate. As they say, use it or lose it.

Life with meringue can be a truly rewarding and sweet experience. As with any new relationship, it takes time to work out the kinks and learn what one requires of the other. However, after a little trial and error and readjusting, there's nothing but bliss. Don't let meringue be a stranger in your life. Pick up a double-boiler, a nice new set of glass or metal mixing bowls, and if you're looking to tone up your arms, a good ole balloon whisk and whip it up!

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