Making a meringue can be intimidating, but it doesn't need to be. After a couple of tries, it quickly becomes a repeatable skill. There are three types of meringue:
These different methods produce more or less stable products with the French Meringue being the least stable over time. Italian Meringue is the most stable, but not much more than Swiss. I've had Swiss Meringues last at room temperature for days, so don't worry too much about the stability of Italian vs. Swiss.
I'll just cover the Swiss variation here as it's the most versatile and is slightly easier than the Italian. If you want to read up on the differences and choose which is best for you, check out my writeup on differences between French, Swiss, and Italian Meringues.
The cream of tartar/lemon and salt are optional, but will produce a better final product. The salt helps break down the whites and the cream of tartar (or any acid) will make the meringe a bit glossier.
You can also vary the amount of sugar by 50 grams or so--more sugar obviously makes a sweeter meringue and vice-versa.
We're going to use a water bath to heat the meringue, so bring a pot with 1-2 cups of water to a gentle boil.
While waiting for the water to heat, separate your whites and yolks--you can use the yolks later for pastry cream, crème brûlée, or lemon curd. Put your whites in a metal bowl and whisk to break them up a bit. Then whisk in the sugar, cream of tartar, and salt.
Set the metal bowl with the meringue on top of the pot of simmering water. If you haven't already, turn the heat down to low. We just want a gentle steam heating the metal bowl.
Now start whisking the egg whites over the water bath. They will eventually start to thicken.
Do not let them sit on the heat or you'll get a sugary omelet. The amount of time will vary, but there are a few things to look out for to tell you when it's done. The meringue will turn white and get fluffier. Do not expect it to be a stiff meringue at this point; it will still be soupy when we take it off the heat. You will also want to check the temperature by sticking your finger into the meringue. If it is uncomfortably hot, take it off. If you can leave your finger in for a few seconds, you still have more time on the water bath.
Once your meringue is hot, remove from the heat and pour into a stand mixer or a bowl if using a handheld mixer. It will be quite liquid. Whip until you reach stiff peaks, or when you pull the whisks out, there is a peak that forms and does not fall down.
It should look smooth and creamy, almost like a stiff sour cream. When you pull away, there should be a long strand that forms and retains its shape. This is the final consistency you're looking for.
Congratulations, you've just made a Swiss Meringue! It should last a while in the refrigerator depending on how much you cooked the eggs, at least a week or more. You can spoon onto lemon tarts and texturize with a fork or use a piping bag for a more pronounced form.
As far as I'm aware, you cannot save a broken meringue. You will have to throw it out and start from scratch. To save eggs and headache, avoid these common pitfalls:
The hardest part about a Swiss Meringue is knowing when to remove it from the heat. My advice is to err on the side of caution. Once you start seeing little white specs in the liquid, you're about 30 seconds too late. The whites have started to scramble and you will have to start over. You can use a thermometer, but I typically just stick my finger about 3/4 of the way into the egg whites. If it is uncomfortably hot, take it off the heat. If you can keep your finger in for a few seconds, you can leave the meringue on for longer.
Patience is valuable. Once your water bath is boiling, turn it all the way down just to keep it at a simmer. Remember that once the bowl is on the water bath, it will act as a lid and keep the water boiling hotter. High heat means less control and a higher chance of cooking the eggs too much. Play it safe and go slow.
When you whisk with your wrist, you are using small muscles to make big motions and will tire quickly. Use the big muscles in your arms to make small motions. Unfortunately tired arms are unavoidable for a pastry chef, but using your whole arm will let you keep the meringue in motion longer and heat more evenly.
It is very hard to overwhip a Swiss Meringue once it comes off the water bath, but is certainly possible if you're using an electric stand mixer. Just don't forget about it and check the stiffness every minute or so.
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