Salut! Did you know that there are three basic techniques for making meringue? Each one originates from a different European tradition. They are known as the French, Swiss and Italian meringues.
Meringue is a foam of beaten egg whites and sugar. Egg foams were used in pastries much earlier, but the name meringue came from a pastry chef named Gasparini in the Swiss town of Merhrinyghen. In 1720, Gasparini created a small pastry of dried egg foam and sugar from which the simplified meringue evolved. Its fame spread and Marie Antoinette is said to have prepared the sweet with her own hands at the Trianon in France.
French meringue is the most basic of the trio and the least stable until baked. It is prepared by beating egg whites until they coagulate and form soft peaks, at which point sugar is added and they are brought to full volume. French meringue is usually spooned or piped into different forms such as dessert shells or cake layers, known as a dacquoise, then baked. They can later be topped with fruit, mousse or whipped cream. It is also used in batters such as lady fingers, sponge cakes, souffles and then baked.
Swiss meringue is prepared by gently beating egg whites and sugar in a bain marie. When the mixtures reaches 120°-130° F and the sugar is dissolved, the mixture is removed from the heat and beaten vigorously to full volume then beaten at a lower speed until cool. Swiss meringue is smoother and denser. It is most often used as a base for buttercream icings.
Italian meringue is made by drizzling 240° F sugar syrup into whites that have already been whipped to hold firm peaks. Whipping continues until the meringue is at full volume, stiff and cool. Italian meringue is often used to ice cakes, top filled pies or to lighten ice creams, sorbets and mousses.
My favorite, of course, is the French meringue. Not just because I love anything French but because it is the simplest to make. They are lighter and crisp, while the Italian and Swiss methods can be dense and candy like.
Now when it comes to making meringue the one thing we tend not to think about is the eggs we use. Should they be fresh or old, room-temperature or cold or does it really make a difference? YES it does!
Eggs are good for up to 45 days but begin aging as soon as they are laid. The chemical structure of a fresh egg is slightly acidic and the membranes are fully intact. The white proteins tend to cluster and be tightly folded. As the egg ages the white becomes more alkaline which causes the proteins to repel each other rather than hold together, making the egg white runny. Proteins are still folded but tend to be looser.
This has consequences when whipping up egg whites for meringues. Whisking causes the protein in the egg whites to unfold, forming films that trap the air bubbles, and the sugar stiffens the foam. Fresh and cold egg whites take more time and force to whip into a foam, however the foam that is created is more stable with small, strong, uniform bubbles.
On the other hand, older or room-temperature egg whites foam up easier and with greater volume. The foam has larger bubbles and a less stable structure. If not used right away the foam will become runny and begin to collapse. A great way to strengthen protein strands is to add an acid, such as cream of tartar or lemon juice, at the beginning the whipping stage.
I definitely recommend using egg whites that are slightly cooler than room temperature and fresh. They make a foam that is easier to work with and have a more delicate and uniform texture. Since most kitchens use a stand mixer and do not whisk by hand it really is not a big deal if it takes a little longer to whip whites into a foam.
Other things to remember is the tiniest bit of fat or egg yolk will wreck a meringue. The fat interferes with the formation of good foam. Copper, stainless-steel or glass bowls work best. Avoid using plastic bowls as they can often harbor traces of grease or fat with will prevent the whites from getting stiff. If you drop a shell into the egg when separating DO NOT use your finger to get it out as the oils on your hand can also prevent the egg whites from expanding. Instead, lift it out with an empty eggshell half. You should make sure all your equipment and utensils are grease free.
BEST WAY TO STORE MERINGUES - Many pastry chefs believe storing meringues on a rainy or humid day is futile because the confections contain a lot of sugar. Sugar is hygroscopic which means it attracts moisture from the air. This will cause the confection to become sticky and marshmallowy. As long as you pack meringues in an airtight container immediately after cooling them the humidity in the air does not matter.