Baking · Edibles

1-Month Special, Part 1: Swiss Meringue

Hello, folks! Last Friday (April 22) marked exactly a month since I published my first blog post! To celebrate, I’ll be posting a 2-part dessert special this week. In part 1 (this post), I talk about swiss meringue; one of my favourite things in the world to make, look at, eat and philosophize over. Read on for more about this. Part 2 is a recipe (read: assembly instructions) for a wonderful dessert called Baked Alaska that I make with swiss meringue, although it can and has been made with other kinds of meringue.

Before I get into the real substance, here’s a warning: I am VERY passionate about meringue. To me, a billowing cloud of well-made meringue is the very reason I ever took up baking; it is everything that is right and good and beautiful in this world. If you don’t see the magic in a bowlful of egg whites and sugar, this post is not for you; it mostly involves me rambling on and on about something that is very close to my heart. You understand, right? So do I, if you want to move on to some other article about a subject that fascinates you. So here we go!

What is meringue?

In essence, meringue is a mixture of well-beaten egg whites and sugar – not to be confused with the dessert of the same name, where the mixture is baked to form crisp, airy shells/cookies. Making meringue involves beating egg whites and sugar until the mixture is capable of holding its shape. To learn more about stages (firmness) of meringue, watch this cool video. A small amount of acid such as vinegar, lemon juice or cream of tartar is often added to increase acidity, which eventually forms a more stable mixture that does not deflate or collapse over time.

There are three kinds of meringue – french, swiss and italian. French meringue is the simplest of the three, and is made simply by beating egg whites with sugar until the desired stiffness is reached. Swiss meringue involves heating a mixture of sugar and egg whites over a double boiler, and then beating vigorously until cool. Swiss meringue is much more stable than french, and tends to be silkier in texture than the french kind. It is also denser, almost reaching a marshmallow-like consistency, and thereby making a perfect addition to buttercream by lending smoothness and body at the same time. Italian meringue is also very stable and is often considered to be the most preferred by chefs due to a greater degree of control over the texture of the final product. It is as stable as, yet less dense than, the swiss kind, and the airy, fluffy quality makes it perfect as a topping for many baked desserts. Italian meringue involves beating egg whites to stiff peaks, then adding hot sugar syrup at soft- to firm-ball stage to the egg whites, and continuing to beat until stiff again. The perks of using italian meringue line up closely with those of swiss, but the process is slightly more difficult because there is less room for error – the sugar syrup must be very hot (245F, to be precise) because it can form hard lumps once it hits the cool egg whites or the sides of the cool bowl, and working with such hot syrup is inherently dangerous. Also, making italian merginue without a stand mixer can be a bit daunting, although not impossible.

French meringue has two big advantages – it is very easy to make and has a light consistency that complements heavier desserts. However, if you have ever tasted all three, you will immediately notice a difference in the texture. As I mentioned earlier, swiss meringue almost tastes like marshmallows; it is dense and gooey. Italian meringue is lighter, and is often compared to whipped cream. Both taste better than the french kind, in my opinion. Another big advantage that both swiss and italian merginues have over french is that they do not weep; in simple terms, this means that the egg whites do not release any liquid when left to rest for a period of time. These two are, therefore, superior choices when making a merginue dessert topping because the topping will not move around. Watch this video to learn more about weeping meringue (are you also visualizing a sad meringue face?). Finally, bear in mind that french meringue is uncooked, and italian meringue, while considered to be cooked due to the addition of hot sugar syrup into the egg whites, can be debatable. Swiss meringue is definitely a cooked meringue, and is completely safe for consumption by pregant women and kids, or anyone who does not want to risk salmonella in raw eggs.

I will confess that I have never tried to make italian meringue – the prospect seems much too intimidating to me because I do not possess a stand mixer and I’m way too satisfied with the results I get out of the drastically simpler swiss version. Maybe someday… but for now, let’s stick to the swiss kind.

The science of meringue

Egg whites are composed primarily of water (roughly 90%) and proteins, along with slight amounts of carbohydrates. Proteins are made up of chains of amino acids. Think of the proteins as tangled-up balls of yarn, consisting of several short strings. When agitated either physically (i.e. by beating) or chemically (e.g. through the addition of acids), the bonds between the amino acids break and the protein chains “uncoil”. This is called denaturation of the protein.

Let’s start with physical denaturation. Beating egg whites acts in two ways. Firstly, as the protein chains uncoil, some of the amino acids that are hydrophilic (i.e. water-loving) will get attracted to the water present in the egg whites and form new, stronger bonds. Secondly, as air is incorporated into the mixture by the beating action, the hydrophobic (water-repelling) amino acids will form new bonds with the air. Together, these two new sets of bonds form the foam or froth that eventually develops into the merginue. Sticking to the ball of yarn analogy, what we have at this stage is a woven fabric (consisting of hydrophilic proteins + water) with air trapped in between the weave (consisting of hydrophobic proteins + air). As the untangled protein chains form new bonds, the protein is said to coagulate.

Now onto the chemical aspect: Overbeating meringue can stretch the proteins beyond their capacity, causing them to collapse or deflate over time. Most of you bakers out there have probably experienced this at some point. One way to prevent this is to add elasticity to the protein structure with the addition of sugar. Sugar crystals contain large amounts of water. When sugar is added into egg whites just as they are beginning to get frothy (usually within minutes of starting to beat them), the sugar dissolves into the egg whites, releasing more water into the mix. The proteins now have more water to bond to, more air can now be trapped in and the volume of meringue can increase greatly – up to 6-8 times the original volume! Also, the air bubbles have stronger, more elastic walls upon addition of sugar, which means they don’t pop easily. The final product is a strong, stable, big meringue capable of holding its shape over time.

Acidity also helps promote the stability of meringue. This is why fresh egg whites, which are more acidic, produce greater volume than older ones. Acidity can also be increased by adding a pinch of cream of tartar or a few drops of lemon juice or vinegar. A more acidic environment slows down coagulation, and therefore helps trap more air. Some people use copper bowls to make meringue. Copper molecules bind with a specific protein in egg whites, called conalbumin, and help to form a stable structure.

The creation of meringue
The Creation of Meringue

Meringue at stiff peak stage is typically very strong and capable of holding its structure. A way of testing whether stiff peaks have been reached is to tip the bowl over your head (it’s a real test!) – if it plops all over you, you needed to beat it longer (oops!); if it stays put, good job! Of course, a smarter way to do the same test is by tipping over the bowl slightly – if you detect any slippage, don’t go through to the over-the-head stage! When heat is applied to stiff meringue, the air bubbles expand, the water evaporates, and the proteins set or coagulate. Eventually, we are left with a delicate, yet strong infrastructure consisting of sugar and proteins. This helps explain why swiss and italian meringues are superior to the french kind – applying heat to the eggs while beating them creates stronger, more stable sugar-protein bonds and we end up with a structure capable of holding its shape as well as volume.

How to make swiss meringue

Now that we know exactly what is happening as the egg whites are being beaten, here’s the recipe.

You will need:

  • Egg whites – 2 (roughly 4 tbsp if using pasteurized egg whites from cartons)
  • Sugar – ½ cup
  • Salt – a pinch (optional)
  • Cream of tartar – a pinch OR
  • Lemon juice or vinegar – a few drops

The process:

1. First things first, clean the bowl you will be using and the egg beater attachments. Wipe everything down with some vinegar or lemon juice to get rid of any grease. A single drop of grease can totally ruin your meringue.

2. Put a pot of water on the stove and let it simmer over medium-low heat. This is when there are small bubbles all over the water, but the water is not boiling vigorously. Place the egg whites in the degreased bowl. Add all of the sugar, cream of tartar (or other acid) and salt to it. Place this bowl over the pot of water to form a doubler boiler, making sure that the water in the pot below is not touching the bowl containing the egg whites. Stir often to ensure even heating, until the sugar dissolves. Heating to this point ensures that the egg whites are pasteurized and, therefore, safe to eat. Pasteurization occurs at a temperature of 140-160F. Because sugar dissolves at a temperature of about 150F, all the sugar will have melted by the time the mixture reaches the safe temperature of 160F. A good way to check for temperature if you do not own a candy thermometer is to rub a little of the mixture between your fingers. If it no longer feels gritty or grainy to the touch, the sugar has dissolved and the egg whites have been pasteurized.

{Fun fact: The egg whites will have thickened by this point, meaning the process of coagulation will have begun. Presence of sugar in the mixture delays coagulation and prevents it from happening too fast and at a lower temperature.}

3. Take the bowl off the heat. Immediately proceed to whip the mixture using your handheld egg beater or stand mixer (or elbow grease, if you so dare!). Continue to beat until the bowl is cool to the touch and the egg whites form a stiff meringue. Use as desired.

Now that you have the basic meringue down, you can proceed to make any number of delicious confections. You could pipe little circles onto a baking sheet and bake them in the oven for delicious meringue cookies, or “meringues”. You could make little nests and bake them in a similar way, then fill the shells with custard or fruit. You could make beautiful delicate pavlovas or a baked Alaska. Or you could make my absolute favourite – swiss meringue buttercream (SMBC); if you have never tried it or you usually stick to buttercream made of just butter & sugar, this will change your life! SMBC is smooth, silky, light and not too sweet, and is the perfect complement to an already-sweet cupcake or cake. I tried SMBC once several years ago, and have never looked back! But that is a post for another day.

Ending Notes

I understand this post turned out to be rather long, but I warned you! At the end of the day, a meringue is all about structural integrity. It is delicate and fragile, yet strong enough to support an entire cake. You will find cake recipes that use no leavening (rising) agent other than eggs, and those can be some of the fluffiest, tallest cakes. Meringue can be light and airy, crisp and puffy; it can be the equivalent of biting into a cloud; yet that delicateness is founded on the strength to incorporate nothing but air into what it already contains, and create something new and beautiful. Its duality is what touches me so deeply; even though it is such a simple substance, this strength in delicacy, firmness in fragility is what represents the very essence of life to me. In it is a strength I strive to find in myself; to deconstruct qualities I already possess and perhaps change for the better.

That’s it, folks! Stay tuned for Part 2 of the 1-month celebration, my baked Alaska recipe! Here’s a preview:

IMG-20151213-WA0007

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6 thoughts on “1-Month Special, Part 1: Swiss Meringue

  1. Okay, I’m such a n00b at baking clearly, cos I had no idea there are diffrerent kinds of meringue *mind blown*. I’ve only ever done it to put on top of Brita cake, though. But this doesn’t sound too hard, so I must experiment – possibly with the Brita cake in the summer.

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    1. I suspect you mean to use it as icing? I’m a Finn, and we usually use whipped cream as icing, sometimes mixed with quark. From what I know of buttercream, it’s very sweet, so wouldn’t meringue make it even sweeter?

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      1. American buttercream, which is just sugar & butter, tends to be very sweet & heavy. Swiss meringue buttercream is made by adding butter to swiss meringe. It’s much lighter than American buttercream & much less sweeter bc you don’t have to add as much sugar to thicken it up! It’s also very stable & can hold large amounts of puree or other liquid without getting runny. I think I might post a recipe soon 😀

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