I have topped pies with meringue for as long as I can remember. At least, since I was a pre-teen. I remember my mom making Lemon Meringue pies and I would watch intently as she made the meringue. I found it quite amazing that you could transform egg whites from this slimy gel-like substance to huge billowy clouds!
The art of mastering the perfect meringue is something that takes time, patience and practice. Hopefully, though, I can help demystify the process and make it a little easier for you to become a meringue expert.
There are three basic types of meringue:
- French Meringue – The one that I remember my mom making and which is most commonly used at home is French meringue. It is made by whisking sugar into beaten egg whites.
- Swiss Meringue – is made by beating egg whites and sugar together over a pan of hot water until the sugar has dissolved, then beating until the mixture reaches stiff peaks.
- Italian Meringue – is made by whisking a hot sugar syrup into beaten egg whites – it is the most difficult to make but is popular with bakers and caterers as it holds its volume well.
The one that I am showing you today is the more commonly used, French Meringue.
This meringue, the easiest to make, is made with room temperature egg whites, sugar and a little cream of tartar. It is also quite versatile and can be used to top a lemon, butterscotch, chocolate, banana cream, or coconut cream pie. This meringue can also be piped or spooned onto a parchment lined baking tray and baked in a low-temperature oven until crispy for a lighter than air cookie.
The key to a perfect meringue is all in the degree of whippedness. (I made up that word…but you know what I mean!)
Since this is a basic meringue, I thought now would be a good time to talk about the different degrees of whippedness (Used it again, I’m calling Websters to have it added to their dictionary…lol).
Recipes usually instruct you to whip egg whites to a particular firmness, or peak stage. Referred to as:
- Soft peak
- Medium peak
- Stiff peak
Frequently checking your beaters or whisk is the best way to determine the peak of your egg whites. Your egg whites can transition from soft to stiff peak in no time at all. The entire “stiff peak” process from start to finish only takes a few minutes.
These photos below will show you what those stages should look like.
Above is a Soft peak – When you invert your beater, the whites immediately flop over.
This is a Medium Peak – The meringue is flopping over a little but is beginning to hold its shape and has a slight curl at the tip.
Finally, this is a Stiff Peak – When you invert your beater, the meringue stands upright with no bend at all.
I also wanted to add in a few meringue making tips that I have picked up over the years:
- For best results, eggs should be at least 3 or 4 days old.
- Don’t omit the Cream of Tartar; it is essential to stabilize the egg whites.
- Don’t make meringue on a rainy or really humid day. The moisture in the air will adversely affect the meringue.
- Make sure your bowls, beaters, and any utensils are immaculately clean, free from any grease and completely dry.
- Never use plastic. Plastic can harbour oils and you may not be able to get your egg whites to properly whip.
- Carefully, separate your eggs. Even a little speck of yolk (which is fatty) and your whites won’t whip correctly.
- Room temperature egg whites are more flexible than cold and will result in a higher volume of meringue.
- Gradually add the sugar a few spoonfuls at a time and continue beating the whole time.
- Don’t overbeat your meringue, when it gets to the stiff stage, stop. Overbeating can cause the meringue to “weep” — small droplets of moisture forming on the top of the meringue. Moisture in the air can also cause weeping.
- Put the meringue on your pie when the pie filling is still hot or very warm.
- This type of pie is best served the same day it is made. However, if you are storing leftovers be sure to refrigerate any cream or pumpkin-based fillings. Non-cream based fillings such as lemon can be stored at room temperature. Either way, cover pie with an inverted bowl or a cake topper.
All of these tips and soft peaks versus stiff peaks make it sound like making meringue is a difficult task, when really, it isn’t. It may take a little practice, but you’ll soon be a pro!
- 4 Room Temperature Egg Whites
- 1 tsp. Cream of Tartar
- 1 cup White Sugar
- In a large glass or metal bowl, beat egg whites and cream of tartar with a stand (or electric hand) mixer until foamy.
- Beating at one level below high, very gradually add sugar, beating until mixture forms stiff peaks
- Pile this heavenly cloud onto your prepared pie (lemon, butterscotch, chocolate, banana cream, coconut cream...etc)
- Spread to the edge of pie crust being very careful to completely seal the pie with the meringue.
- Some people make little peaks with the meringue, but I just use the back of my spatula and go back and forth to make little waves.
- Bake in a 375-degree oven for approximately 4 minutes or until lightly browned. While it is baking, watch the pie closely as oven temps vary.