Science of Meringue

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About: Michael's Test Kitchen - FOOD - SUGAR - RECIPES

Most of us have probably observed the phenomenon of an egg white, once whipped, taking a fluffier, whiter, and more structured form, which is taken advantage of in many types of baking, from souffles to angel cakes, to waffles.

(Also see this post coming soon on my blog: Michael's Test Kitchen !)

Confusing as to the precise language of the term “meringue,” Encyclopedia Britannica describes Meringue as a “mixture of stiffly beaten egg whites and sugar that is used in...desserts” [emphasis added], while many seem to use it to refer to the specific Meringue Cookie, the recipe we will be studying in this post, which is the meringue mixture basically piped into a cookie shape and baked to harden.

This is the most straight-forward dessert, regarding its simple and obvious use of egg whites, in my opinion, so that is why I will be using this form of meringue to explain the science in a basic manner. You will have probably used meringue or seen it used to top Lemon Meringue Pie. Whipped fluffy, then spread over the top, the meringue mix solidifies in the baking process in some sense, but keeps its soft and airy characteristics.

I'll include little basic science notes about each step of the process.

Enjoy!

Step 1: Ingredients

Ingredients:

5 egg whites

1 cup sugar

½ teaspoon cream of tartar

½ teaspoon vanilla

Pinch of salt

Step 2: Preparation

Preheat oven to 225 degrees. Line a cookie sheet pan with wax or parchment paper. Set aside


SCIENCE OF:

You’ll want a low oven temperature so that you give plenty of time for all of the water to evaporate from the egg white before the tops brown too much.

Step 3: Start the Whipping (Denaturation)

In a medium bowl, whip egg whites until they are frothy, 1 minute.

SCIENCE OF:

By beating the eggs, you are breaking apart the “building blocks” of protein, unraveling the amino acid chains. This is called denaturation. Unraveling the chains will give the egg white more surface area and structure, because, once separated from each other in long strands, the aminos will connect to form “networks,” which in turn trap the air bubbles.

You’ll need to make sure that there is no moisture like water or grease in your bowl of egg whites, and of course no small bits of egg yolk. All of these things will interfere with the denaturation and prohibit peaks from ultimately forming in the way you need them to. Another thing that is helping the egg white to foam up is obviously lots of air. Air is getting trapped in the egg whites, expanding them, and the proteins are holding everything together.

(See picture graphic [image from wikipedia])

Step 4: Cream of Tartar & Soft Peaks

Add cream of tartar, and continue to whip until soft peaks form.

SCIENCE OF:

Even though the proteins are connecting together and structuring themselves, they have a tendency to fall apart after a lot of beating and whipping. In order to keep the proteins from falling apart from their networks of bubbles as easily, recipes such as this one call for you to add cream of tartar as a stabilizer which increases the acidity of the mixture, which aids the proteins by making it harder for them to collapse back to their original state.

Step 5: Sugar & Stiff Peaks

Now add a pinch of salt and gradually add sugar by tablespoons, as you continue to whip egg whites. Stop whipping once you have stiff peaks. Stir in vanilla.

SCIENCE OF:

Egg whites can’t expand a great deal without added strength. By adding sugar you are adding strength. Why? Because the egg white proteins can “only expand so far” and so the way to give them more structure is by adding sugar, which bonds with the proteins and “lends them water.” This makes the whole thing a lot less likely to simply collapse, and gives it more potential for expanding and holding shape.

Step 6: Piping the Meringue

Add meringue mixture to a piping bag with a larger star tip. Pipe mixture into cookie shapes on your lined cookie sheets. You’ll need to bake everything at once so make sure you have room to fit all of your mixture.

Step 7:

Bake in preheated oven for 45 minutes - 1 hour. Turn off oven, but leave cookies in oven without opening the door for 1 hour before taking out and finishing cooling.

SCIENCE OF:

When you apply the correct amount of heat for the correct amount of time, the water will evaporate and the air bubbles present in the egg whites will expand. At the same time, the proteins will all permanently bond together, or coagulate. For meringue cookies, all of the water should be cooked out, and the result should be much drier than meringue that tops pies, which is generally baked for a much shorter period of time than these cookies.

Step 8: Consume and Enjoy!

Consume. While not consuming, store in an airtight container.

If you leave them out of airtight containers, then the moisture in the air will eventually seep in and ruin the texture and structure.

Enjoy.

SCIENCE OF:


Not sure what the science is for this part, but they sure do taste good!

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    9 Discussions

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    SusieS7

    Question 6 months ago on Step 1

    Why does the vanilla have to be stirred in instead of beaten in with the mixer?

    1 more answer
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    MichaelsTestKitchenSusieS7

    Answer 6 months ago

    Probably because the right amount of whipping is precise, so once you achieve the desired consistency of egg white, you don't want to beat it anymore, otherwise you could possibly mess it up. So instead of whipping, you'd want to just stir a bit for the vanilla at the end.

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    mlaiuppa.

    6 months ago

    I've researched a bit on meringue, trying to recreate a childhood treat from a trip to Italy. Turns out I was eating Pavlova.

    A few suggestions.

    Get a copper bowl. A copper bowl is supposed to eliminate the need for cream of tartar as the egg whites react with the copper of the bowl. For the environmentally fussy, it is fine to use a bare copper utensil as long as you are also using sugar. That is why pots for cooking on the stover are tinned on the inside.

    Try hand whipping rather than a mixer.

    Use a very fine sugar rather than the regular stuff in the pink bag. This helps it to dissolve better for the meringue.

    There are three types of meringue. You are making French meringue with is just mixing stuff. That's usually the stuff that's on the top of lemon meringue pie. There are two other types of meringue that are increasingly more stable: Swiss and Italian. Both involve heat. For one, you put the bowl over a pan of boiling water as you beat your whites and add your sugar. For the other, you actually make a sugar syrup on the stove with water and sugar until your solution is supersaturated, then as you beat the eggs you drizzle a stream of the sugar into the egg whites as you beat. A thin drizzle so as not to cook the whites as you're beating.

    Look up Swiss and Italian meringue. Hopefully some of those articles will also mention the copper bowl and the super fine sugar.

    Another note about sugar. Don't use confectioner's sugar. It has cornstarch in it to keep the fine sugar dust from clumping.

    When you experiment with your Swiss and Italian meringues you might want to try making a disc of meringue and then piping a short wall around the edge, sorta like a nest. Then when they are baked and hard, fill your nest with vanilla ice cream. That's Pavlova. Embellish to taste, then dig in. I think Pavlova is my favorite desert of all time. Unfortunately you don't see it on many restaurant menus any more.

    3 replies
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    onetruegodmlaiuppa.

    Reply 6 months ago

    "...fill your nest with vanilla ice cream. That's Pavlova". Umm, no it's not. Pavlova is meringue topped with cream and fruit.

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    mlaiuppa.onetruegod

    Reply 6 months ago

    You're right. The ice cream was the treat I ate in Italy as a child. All of the ice cream parlors at the time stocked the merigue shells and you could have your ice cream in a dish with a cookie or in a meringue shell. All gone now. You get your ice cream in a cone, like Americans.

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    BLASTFEMI

    6 months ago

    I always have wanted to try and make these! Thanks for sharing!