Meringue is the perfect topping for many spring pies, but a lot of cooks are afraid of this topping. In truth meringue is fussy, but once you know a few simple does and don’ts, you will find it easy to make and reliable. Meringue itself is really nothing more than a foam, made from the bubbles that are created and trapped when you whip egg whites. Learn how to maximize this process and you will get compliments on the beautiful meringues you create.
Age of the Eggs – If you plan to eat the pie right away then older eggs (3 to 4 days) work best. Older egg whites are thinner and will whip up to a higher volume. If the pie is going to sit for a while, then you will be more concerned about stability than volume, and fresh eggs are a better choice. Thin egg whites allow the liquid film that traps the bubble to drain more quickly and it becomes watery. Fresh eggs (less than 3 to 4 days old) have thicker egg whites and will create a meringue that will hold its shape longer.
Separating the Eggs – It is important to separate egg whites when the eggs are still cold, this is because the whites hold together much better, making sure you get all egg white and no yolk. Separate eggs over a bowl and transfer whites to another bowl with each egg you separate. The slightest bit of fat or egg yolk will ruin a meringue, so it is important to make sure that no yolks gets into your egg whites. The easiest way to do this is to use a separate bowl just for the purpose of separating. Also make sure that your hands do not come in contact with the egg whites; your hands have oils in them that could cause a meringue to fail.
Bring Whites to Room Temperature – While it is best to separate when the eggs are cold you want the egg whites at room temperature before you make a meringue. Warm eggs whip fast than cold, and room temperature will ensure maximum volume when whipping. 30 minutes should be plenty of time to get egg whites to room temperature.
Utensils – Use only copper, stainless steel or glass for mixing egg whites. Plastic is porous and can harbor left over oils that will prevent egg whites from getting stiff. All bowls and utensils should be clean and completely dry. Meringue does not respond well to moisture.
Adding Ingredients – Never add ingredients to the meringue before the whites have formed soft peaks. Adding sugar can double the time it takes for egg whites to stiffen and can cause them to fail completely. The amount of sugar you add can directly affect the structure of the meringue, as a general rule the ratio is 1/4 cup of sugar for each egg. For a stiffer meringue use less sugar.