I know you’ve been dying to know, after the Pavlova fail, if I would ever be tempted to try wasting another ten eggs on making meringue. Well, let me tell you, it was worth it when I had the spontaneous urge to make an Italian meringue the other evening. After three more egg whites and a cup of sugar wasted, I would not be daunted and tried again. Success! And here’s what I’ve learned.
But let’s start from the beginning. Say you don’t know that there are three basic types of meringues. That’s a bit fundamental. There are:
French Meringue – Egg whites whipped at room temperature. To this can be added up to twice the weight of the eggs in sugar. It’s typically considered the easiest but also least stable meringue. Personally, I don’t find it to be the easiest as the process of adding sugar is tricky, having much to do with timing as you add scoop after scoop of sugar. But be careful not to start before the eggs are whipped enough. Don’t go too fast and don’t go so slowly that the whites become over-whipped before all the sugar is in! See what I mean?
Swiss Meringue – Mmm … simplicity at it’s finest. Stir some egg whites with sugar over a pot of simmering water until the sugar is completely dissolved. Then whip. Easy! Technically, it will be most accurate to heat the whites to about 130 F, but if the sugar is dissolved, you’re good to go. Plus, this is a much more stable meringue than French. And it makes Oh! such lovely and pure Swiss meringue buttercream frosting.
Italian Meringue – Honestly it’s a bit tricky, but with the right equipment and know-how, still easier than scooping sugar by spoonfuls into a French meringue. But I know not everyone will agree with me. (Pssst… try the Swiss version first if you’re unsure!) Italian meringue consists of sugar, with a touch of water, that is boiled until it reaches a minimum of 240 F and no more than 250 F. While the sugar/water mixture is cooking, the egg whites are whipped to soft peaks. Then the hot sugar syrup is slowly drizzled into the egg whites while whipping, but not onto the whisk, of course, unless you’re a fan of hot sugar spinning everywhere. That’s the part I was most concerned with the first time I made it, but I had nothing to fear. I did put on my glasses, though, as a protective measure. Ha!
Italian meringue is the most stable meringue and also sets up the most stiffly, as you can see in the photo at the top of the post. I chose that photo in black and white because it is easy to see the sharp lines of the stiff meringue, which is how it appeared right after I took out my beater. I also had zero lighting options because it was 9pm and completely dark other than my kitchen lighting. So black and white it was.
Because Italian meringue is so sturdy, it makes a killer buttercream base — or so I’ve heard, as I have yet to test this out — that can withstand even the hottest and most humid days. I have made Swiss meringue buttercream on a hot day, and I can attest to it’s durability as, after piping, I saw no change in consistency or shape, and it remained soft. But if you have particular questions about IMBC, I suggest Google as an expert resource.
You know what else this stuff is good for? Marshmallow fluff! Just add vanilla at the end and briefly whip it in. I added way too much vanilla extract, and it lost a tad bit of structure but was still stiff and held it’s shape to pass the test of tipping the bowl upside down without it moving. Great work, meringue! But next time I would do it correctly.
So, here’s a pro tip learned the hard way. Don’t ever try to use store-bought marshmallow fluff to frost anything. It just kind of slowly slides off. But fluff made with Italian meringue? Awesome. It’s the perfect choice for frosting and can be used as is without turning it into buttercream, which, incidentally, means just whipping softened butter in. Go figure.
Here’s where I figured out that things were going wrong for me after a failed Pavlova, a first failed attempt at Italian meringue last week, which only whipped to soft peaks, a failed attempt tonight, and finally success!
- Don’t over-whip the whites before adding the sugar. My hand mixer, which I still love, goes about Mach 3 at the lowest setting. Three egg whites whip up past even the stiff peak stage in about 30 seconds or less, I swear. Tonight, while my sugar cooked, I whipped up 3 egg whites, trying to reach soft peaks. After testing, they were just looking grainy and over whipped. As I thought about it, I realized I had done this with all my previous meringues. I was sad about this, but I was also glad to have a possible clue to my previous failures. I also wasn’t about to waste my time with my super speedy electric mixer again only to risk more over-whipped whites. So instead of three whites with a machine, I whipped two whites by hand until I was satisfied that the peaks were firm enough. It takes a surprisingly long time to whip egg whites by hand! That’s why I only did two. And my sugar was almost cooked, so man did I ever book it those last 30 seconds. Good thing I work out. So, if you find yourself making Italian meringue and you’re doing everything else right but it never really gets thicker than Elmer glue before it cools down, or if it separates later, really examine the consistency of your whipped whites.
- Actually, I think it really did make all the difference not to have over-whipped all the elasticity out of my egg white proteins. The rest of the recipe is fairly objective (e.g. an exact temperature of the sugar syrup). If you use a stand mixer, you can pour a tiny bit of sugar syrup into the whites with it off and whip immediately on high. Then pour in a larger amount with the machine off and whip again. Lots of people suggest pouring the sugar down the side of the mixing bowl of a stand mixer, but this runs a huge risk of crystallizing the sugar, unless you added an acid like cream of tartar or citric acid, or corn syrup, to the sugar to prevent crystallization. I used powdered citric acid, as it’s readily available in the grocery stores in Germany. And it makes life so much easier to be crystallization free.
- Thirdly, you can manipulate the final stiffness and durability of your meringue by heating your syrup to a higher or lower temp. The maximum allowable that I’ve seen is 250 F and the minimum, 235 F. Rose Levy Beranbaum of The Cake Bible says that 248 F creates the most stable meringue. I’d definitely suggest removing the pan from the heat at 245 to 248 F and using it immediately. Each degree higher means more water is boiled out, which makes the final product set more and more stiffly, which is how you make any candy between soft caramel and lollipops. It’s just a matter of the temperature of the sugar, aka, less or more water. Anything above 250 F begins to create a texture closer to a hard candy than a soft one, and you definitely want to maintain pliability in your meringue.
As most Italian meringues use a ratio of 2 parts sugar to 1 part egg white, by weight, a kitchen scale should be used. Then no recipe is even needed once you are familiar with the method.
And if you don’t have a kitchen scale, I highly recommend acquiring one. It’s one of the most useful tools for precise baking that I can think of. I believe mine cost about $20 at Target and, like anything, will last a long time if cared for. It’s handy to have a digital one with options for switching between units of weight. Grams are a much more precise weight measurement than ounces, as most scales only round to one-tenth of an ounce.
That’s really all I have to say about that topic, but I’ve amassed a pretty great list of resources that I consulted as I spent hours researching the topic. It’s always best to be informed if you want the most success. Then you can reason out why mistakes are happening and are able to account for any possible hiccups. So here are some of the resources I found most useful on the topic:
- Best visual guide to whipping egg whites! Or, how I realized that my hand mixer usage had completely skewed my understanding of whipped egg white texture.
- All about French meringue, baking it and the pros and cons of different ratios of sugar.
- Swiss meringue, the easiest of them all, a visual guide.
- Swiss meringue buttercream recipe, explanation, and visuals.
- Italian meringue basic recipe. You can add 1 tsp vanilla extract to make it taste like a marshmallow.
- Popular “marshmallow fluff” recipe using the standard American measurements by volume.
And finally, here’s a somewhat standard recipe for Italian meringue. Happy baking!
The stable and versatile Italian meringue can be used as is for frosting, and is stiff enough to hold its shape when piped.
It can be made into a buttercream with the addition of softened butter after the meringue is whipped until completely cool. The meringue by itself can incorporate a small amount of liquid extracts for flavoring, or even more in the way of paste, such as a vanilla paste or scraped vanilla bean. And it can incorporate a decent amount of melted and completely cooled chocolate, though it must set a bit before piping, which can be achieved by letting the meringue rest or by continuing to whip the freshly-made meringue on a medium speed until chocolate has set and meringue is slightly firmer.
Size the ingredients up or down however much you'd like, though I don't recommend trying to make it with any fewer than two egg whites as it might be more difficult with a small amount. But you're free to experiment, as always.
- 8 oz (226 g) sugar, reserve a small spoonful
- 2 oz (56 g) water, this is also 1/4 C or 50 ml by volume, so you don't need much
- 4 oz (113 g) egg whites, room temperature
- This can be 3 or 4 eggs, hence using weight measurements.
- 1/2 tsp cream of tarter or a pinch of powdered citric acid
- Citric acid is 8x as powerful as cream of tartar. In small amounts, you need not be so picky about reducing the amount, though I still recommend reducing it by at least half, or you may somewhat taste the acidity in the final meringue.
- And another pinch of cream of tartar or citric acid
- Start by separating your egg whites.
- You will want to do this while they are cold, or the yolks will be too soft and easily broken. I suggest separating each white into a small bowl and, once successfully separated with no yolk, shell, or other odd pieces of matter that you sometimes find inside of an egg, pour it into your large bowl that you will be making the meringue in. I like to also remove the chalaza, which is the white bundle of tough fibers that connects the yolk to the shell, as it doesn't break down easily.
- Mixing bowl note. It must not be aluminum, as that is a reactive metal. Try to use a thin stainless steel bowl if possible, because ceramic and glass retain heat longer, and this meringue relies on whipping it until it's cool.
- Let the egg whites sit in the bowl until room temperature, or set them over a pot of hot water for a couple minutes until no longer cold to the touch.
- If you're experienced at whipping egg whites, you can do that after the next step, putting your sugar/water mixture on the stovetop. If you're not experienced, do it now so that it's not under a stressful time crunch as your syrup cooks.
- To whip the whites, start your electric mixer on a lowish speed until they get a little bit foamy. Then add your reserved spoonful of sugar and your 1/2 tsp cream of tartar or pinch of citric acid. Bump up the speed of the mixer a little until you reach a soft peak stage. Then stop and proceed to the sugar syrup.
- A useful note: When whipping either egg whites or cream or anything for which the purpose is to build volume by mixing in air, you may start on a low speed and increase the speed as you go, but then don't go back down to a lower speed as it could cause loss of volume.
- Sugar Syrup: In a small, heavy-bottomed saucepan if you have it, pour the water and sugar and a pinch of cream of tartar or citric acid. No need to stir. Cover with a lid and set over med-high heat until you hear it boil. Leave it for another minute or until the sugar is completely dissolved and the mixture appears clear.
- Covering the pot allows the steam of the mixture to drip down the sides of the pot to wash away any errant sugar crystals, which are a curse to candy-making, producing crystallization. By adding an acid, you've already taken a step to prevent crystallization, but better safe than sorry.
- It's always good practice to use a pot appropriate to the amount of sugar you're cooking. It should come no more than halfway up the pot to leave room for foaming and hot, spitting sugar. Yet at the same time, don't use a pot that is too large as the surface area for evaporation will be large and may cause the temp to climb faster than you're prepared for.
- Once the sugar is dissolved, take the lid off and clip a candy thermometer to the pot. Turn the heat down to medium and once the temperature rises to 245 or 248 F (118 - 120 C), remove the pot from the heat and turn off the burner.
- Now is the time for speed and also safety. You need to slowly pour your hot syrup into your egg whites while mixing at a high speed. Avoid pouring directly onto the beater and the side of the bowl. This can be achieved in two ways. One, simultaneous pouring and mixing at high speed either with a helper or by your own cunning. Or two, pour a tiny bit in with the mixer off then immediately whip on high speed for a couple second. Then pour a larger amount in and do the same until it's all incorporated. Whichever way, make sure to use a spatula to retrieve the last of the sugar from the pot.
- Once incorporated, keep whipping on high until the bowl is cool to the touch. A couple minutes in, you should see and feel the mixture turn significantly thicker so that it holds its shape and distinct lines. Keep whipping until cool, which will take a number of minutes and depend on the amount of meringue you're making and the material of the bowl you're using.
- Once cool, you may add any flavor additions, such as 1 tsp of vanilla to turn it into marshmallow fluff.
- The best time to use it for piping or frosting is immediately. It can sit out on the counter or in the fridge or freezer, though once you start messing with it again by stirring or whipping or mixing in any way, you risk deflating it somewhat and making it it more fluid. Honestly, it will still hold it's shape quite well (I've done it), but the very best quality will be had from using it right away.
If you want to scale the recipe at all, say you have 3 egg whites that equal just over 4 oz, just remember that the total sugar in the recipe should be twice as much as the total weight of egg whites.
Very small adjustments in the amount of sugar and whites should not change the amount of acidic ingredients used, as these are somewhat arbitrary and also negligible, as a very experienced baker could get away with not including them at all. They do, however, provide a nice assurance and a cushion against small errors in whipping or syrup making.
Experiment with flavor add-ins, but avoid anything watery or juicy. Happy baking!