Though seemingly simple, the road to achieving a perfect meringue is fraught with risk. There are strange terms like “soft peaks” and “firm peaks”, multiple methods, and a host of contradicting advice. Here we have compiled the most important points to be mindful of when attempting to make your own.
1. Cutting the Fat
The first rule for achieving a shiny, billowing egg white meringue with an impressive amount of volume and the internal structural integrity to maintain its size, is to make sure your tools are clean. Before making meringue, wash and dry your utensils to be sure they are thoroughly clean and free of any grease or fats. Running a cut lemon over the interior of the bowl and the whisk attachment you’re preparing to use is another good idea to help rid your tools of any oily residue.
2. The Right Bowl Makes a Difference
Avoid plastic and wooden bowls when whipping egg whites at all cost, they harbor residual fats and can be the demise of your meringue. Aluminum bowls should also be avoided, as they can cause egg whites to turn grey during the whipping process. Stainless steel, glass, or copper are all good alternatives.
3. Over Whipping
The possibility of over whipping egg whites is another common pitfall. Because the proteins in egg whites are not very stable, they can rather easily turn grainy and start to separate if whipped too long. In order to prevent this, they need to be stabilized by something else. Enter copper, a long time favorite of pastry chefs for its natural ability to stabilize these unruly proteins.
When beating egg whites in copper bowls, copper-ions migrate from the bowl into the whites. These ions successfully bind to a protein in eggs called conalbumin. Together this copper-conalbumin complex stabilizes the egg whites and prevents them from being over whipped. But copper is expensive, so using a small amount of lemon juice or cream of tartar can also help to stabilize the whites.
4. The Three Bowl Method
I am normally a proponent of using fewer dishes, and I realize that the three bowl method for separating eggs seems overly cautious. It is a complete departure from my usual approach to baking. Perhaps it seems like overkill but, there is nothing worse than breaking the yolk on the twelfth egg and contaminating your entire batch of whites. The presence of even a small amount of fat (yolk) can be enough to ruin your meringue rendering it flat and useless. By separating the whites from the yolk over a separate bowl, then adding the whites into the large bowl of your standing mixer one-by-one, you eliminate all risk of introducing fat into the whites. With just one extra dish separating you from guaranteed success, that sounds like a pretty good trade-off.
5. Separation Anxiety
Separating cold eggs is easier than those at room temperature, however greater volume is achieved by warm egg whites. It’s best to pull your eggs out first, separating them right out of the fridge, then allow them to warm as you prepare everything else for your recipe. If pressed for time you may set the bowl of egg whites into a larger bowl of warm water for 5-10 minutes speeding up the process considerably. Counter-intuitively, the older the eggs are, the better volume you can achieve with them.
And there you have it. The five common mistakes made when trying to whip egg whites. By keeping these rules in mind whenever making any type meringue, be it French, Swiss or Italian nothing short of a freak accident of nature, should prevent the achievement of a lovely white meringue forming beneath your well-informed and capable hands.