Making Perfect Egg White Meringue is much like blowing air into a balloon while whipping. Beating or whisking causes the protein in the egg whites to unfold, forming films that trap the air bubbles, and the sugar stiffens the foam. A perfect egg white meringue is really nothing but a foam, and foam is a big collection of bubbles.
Age of Eggs:
Meringue recipes work better with eggs that are at least 3 or 4 days old. Thin, older egg whites whip more easily to a higher volume than thick, fresh egg whites. Once whipped, the foam from thin whites is less stable because the liquid film drains more easily from the bubbles. If volume is more important than stability, then older eggs are better to use. For better stability, a good rule of thumb is to use fresher eggs for meringues, saving older ones for general baking.
Do not make egg white meringues on a rainy or really humid day (remember that they are mostly air and if that air contains a lot of water, it will have an effect).
Cold eggs separate more easily than those at room temperature because the whites hold together better.
Cracking the egg: Crack eggs on a flat surface, such as your counter top, rather than the edge of a bowl. This reduces the chance that a shard of shell will puncture the yolk.
To separate an egg: Crack the egg and hold the shell halves over a bowl. Transfer the yolk back and forth between the halves, letting the white drop into the bowl. Do not cut the yolk (whites containing any yolk will not beat properly). Transfer the yolk to another bowl.
The tiniest bit of fat or egg yolk will wreck a meringue, as fat interferes with the formation of good foam. When separating eggs, if a speck of egg yolk falls into the egg whites, lift it out with an empty eggshell half. Do not try to fish it out with your fingers; the oil on your skin will prevent the egg whites from expanding.
Avoid letting your fingers touch the areas that will come in contact with the egg whites. That way, you will avoid leaving oils from your hands on the utensils you just washed.
Room Temperature: After separating, bring egg whites to room temperature to ensure volume when beating (as warmer eggs whip faster than cold eggs). Egg whites right out of the refrigerator will not whip well. The ideal temperature to whip a common meringue is room temperature, about 70 degrees F. (21 degrees C.). Usually 30 minutes is adequate to obtain room temperature.
A beaten egg white can foam to 6 to 8 times its original volume if the egg whites have been at room temperature for 30 minutes before beating.
Bowls and Utensils:
Copper, stainless-steel, or glass bowls work best for making meringues. Avoid using plastic bowls for whipping egg whites as they can often harbor traces of grease or fat, which prevents the whites from getting stiff. Whichever type of bowl you use, be sure it is spotlessly clean. Make sure that all your utensils are immaculately clean, completely grease-free, and completely dry. Meringues are very sensitive and they do not like any moisture.
Place the egg whites into a large, tall bowl and set your mixer to medium-high speed. NOTE: I would not hand beat a meringues (too much work). Beating or whisking causes the protein in the egg whites to unfold, forming films that trap the air bubbles, and the sugar stiffens the foam. As the mixing time increases, the bubbles become smaller and more numerous; this increases the volume and makes a more-stable structure.
Do not add sugar before whipping the egg whites. Adding sugar at the beginning can double the time you have to whip the egg whites to get a foam. Add the sugar at the very end when the whites have formed soft peaks.
I like to use superfine sugar when making meringue because it dissolves faster than table sugar. When beating egg whites and the recipe calls for sugar, Gradually add the sugar, a few spoonfuls at a time and beating the whole time.
For optimum volume and smoothest texture, sugar should be added gradually, beating after each addition until sugar is dissolved before adding the next. Adding some or all of the sugar before beginning to beat will result in less volume.
By varying the amount of sugar in the final mix, you control how hard or soft the final meringue will be. As a general rule, add a total of 1/4 cup of granulated or superfine sugar for each egg white. Do not make meringues that have less than 2 tablespoons of sugar per egg white. If you use any less, the foam will not set and the meringue will shrink. To tell if the sugar is dissolved when you are beating egg whites for meringues, rub a bit of the foam between your fingers. If it feels gritty, the sugar is not dissolved, so keep beating for a few minutes. It should feel completely smooth when the sugar is dissolved.
Tips below from Milk Street Magazine, Fall 2017:
Soft peaks – Place egg whites in a clean glass or metal bowl (not plastic), and beat with an electric mixer on medium speed or with a rotary beater until egg whites form gentle peaks with tips that curl over when the beaters are lifted.
Perfect egg whites: To check that you have the perfect egg whites, remove the whisk from the bowl, scoop up some of the whites, and hold the whisk upright. The foam should form gentle peaks with tips that curve back, apostrophe-like, onto themselves.
Mixing soft-whipped meringue with batter – Do not completely fold the soft-whipped egg whites and batter together. Leaving streaks in the mixture is desirable as this helps prevent deflation of both the whites and batter which help produce lighter baked goods.
Stiff peaks – Continue beating egg whites on high speed until they form peaks with tips that stand straight when the beaters are lifted. Once you start a making whipped egg whites, continue it straight through and finish it off. Do not stop halfway to take a break. The meringue is done when it is not runny and when you can hold a spoonful of it upside down and none of it drops off. Also when you swirl a spoon through it and the swirls hold their shape indefinitely.
Make the meringue first – then prepare the filling (such as pie filling).
Place meringue on the piping-hot filling to begin cooking the bottom of the meringue. The residual heat carried by the filling cooks the base of the meringue ever so slightly, making it less prone to leaking or shrinking. Make sure the meringue completely covers the hot filling right up to the edge of the crust. This helps the bottom of the meringue cook and stick to the filling so it will not slide off the when it is cut. Use a small spoon or spatula to make high peaks and decorative swirls in the meringue before baking.
Meringues will become more done if you bake them at a lower temperature for a longer time. Bake the meringue at 325 degrees F. for 20 to 30 minutes or until a cooking thermometer registers 160 degrees F. Remember a hot filling is important.
This is the type of cooking and meat thermometer that I prefer and use in my cooking. I get many readers asking what cooking/meat thermometer that I prefer and use in my cooking and baking. I, personally, use the Thermapen Thermometer shown in the photo on the right. Originally designed for professional users, the Super-Fast Thermapen Thermometer is used by chefs all over the world.
To cut baked meringue into serving pieces, use a knife dipped in cold water.
There is no simple solution to this problem of storing a meringue-topped pie. This type of pie is best served the day it is made.
Remember, meringue pies only last a day or two, and then the meringue starts breaking down. If you place any cooked meringue in the refrigerator (no matter how long you baked it), it will bead and weep. Prepared meringue pies should be stored under an inverted bowl at room temperature.
However, custard and cream meringue-topped pies (especially when using eggs in the filling) always have to be kept refrigerated because the filling is perishable. Any pie containing pumpkin, custard, or cream pies are very good breeding grounds for bacteria.