Meringue expertise needed
June 14, 2009 7:51 PM   Subscribe

What am I doing wrong when I make meringue?

Whenever I try to make a meringue, the same predictable pattern occurs: I'm beating the egg whites with my hand mixer, and everything's looking good. The meringue's getting lots of volume, and it reaches a soft peak stage. Then I slowly add the sugar while continuing to beat the meringue, and suddenly the whole thing becomes glossy and, although the meringue is still voluminous, the peaks are so floppy and stretchy that they could no longer properly be called peaks. I try beating it a bit longer and there seems to be no improvement, so I give up for fear of overbeating the whites.

I have watched the angel food cake episode of Good Eats multiple times, so I think I have a decent handle on the general concepts of meringue. There are a few possible problems that occur to me:

-I'm overbeating the whites. My hand mixer is a piece of crap that I bought at Walgreens for $10, and its lowest speed is still really fast. But the meringue doesn't seem coagulated like overbeaten whites supposedly are -- it's very smooth and glossy.

-I'm underbeating the whites. The glossiness and limpness when adding the sugar is normal and if I just kept up the beating it would eventually reach hard peaks. But I've tried continuing to beat for a while and there seems to be no change in the consistency.

-Fat is somehow getting into it. I use a metal bowl and I try to wash my beaters thoroughly, but my kitchen hygiene isn't perfect. But if this were the case, wouldn't the meringue be messed up from the start and not seem to be going well until I add the sugar?

Help me, kitchen experts!
posted by pluckemin to Food & Drink (16 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
What type of beater is one your hand mixer?

Is it a wire-whisk kind of beater, or a more flat type?

Because, in my experience whipping whites for angel food cake in school, the latter type works better at creating stiffer egg whites, while the thin wire-type beaters can actually interfere.
posted by peggynature at 7:58 PM on June 14, 2009

Mm. Wow. I . . . think you might be doing it right. I mean, meringue IS stretchy and the peaks will flop right over when you pull them up. In fact, that's a kind of decorative effect my mom always used on her lemon meringue pies: slap the back of a big spoon all over the top of the meringue to pull up peaks that then slump over in kind of DQ curls. The key is that, flopped over or no, they should hold their shape, clean and sharp, and not soften back into the main body of the meringue.

I really wish I could take a look at the consistency you're getting; is the meringue wet? That's bad; that's what happens when you have "accidental fat" or when it's humid as all hell out. Or even just a bit humid. Humidity and meringues are not friends. The meringue will start to weep and break down and will never be meringue. Very sad.

What happens when you bake it? I mean, egg whites are cheap; you have tried baking this stuff, right? Is this for the top of pies or for delicious meringue desserts? MMMmmm. Delicious meringue desserts . . . If it is for desserts, form it into the cups or layers or whatever and try baking it according to recipe directions. (Egg whites: cheap; experiment!)
posted by miss patrish at 8:09 PM on June 14, 2009

You might try reading this section of On Food and Cooking, by Harold McGee. In particular, from the section "Dry Peaks and Beyond" (emphasis mine):
Just past the stiff-peak stage, the foam is even firmer, takes on a dull, dry appearance and crumbly consistency, and begins to leak some liquid, so that it slips away from the bowl again. At this "slip-and-streak" stage, as pastry chef Bruce Healy describes it, the protein webs in adjacent bubble walls are bonding to each other and squeezing out what little liquid once separated them. Pastry makers look for this stage to give them the firmest foam for a meringue or cookie batter; they stop the incipient overcoagulation and weeping by immediately adding sugar, which separates the proteins and absorbs the water. They also start the beating with about half the cream of tartar per egg that a cake or soufflé maker will, so that the foam will in fact progress to this somewhat overwhipped condition.
posted by Johnny Assay at 8:10 PM on June 14, 2009 [2 favorites]

I'm not sure about your process, but I always have much more reliable results if I let the eggs warm up for a half hour or so before I crack them. If I pull them right out fridge I'll get your results from time to time.

I use a hand mixer with the whisk type beaters without any problems.
posted by Barnsie at 8:13 PM on June 14, 2009 [1 favorite]

peggynature -- I'm using the flat type of beater.

miss patrish -- When I try to pipe the resulting meringue into cookies, the pretty little dollops slump into flat lumps. The grooves from the star tip disappear almost immediately. Baked up, they are edible but a bit chewier and denser than a meringue ought to be. I made an angel food cake this evening (for the first time) and I just tried a piece; it's really sticky and tastes like egg. (That might be due to other problems, like not baking the cake long enough or not folding properly, though.) I'm not sure how to tell if the meringue is wet; when I poured my batter into my pan, there was a bit of liquid left in the bowl at the end.

Johnny Assay -- thanks, I will try following those directions next time I'm whipping up meringue, if I can figure out how they translate into actual visuals!
posted by pluckemin at 8:21 PM on June 14, 2009

No, that's not right. Meringue should hold its shape really well and not have water under it; when you scoop some out of the bowl, the spoon should cut right through it and the remainder should stay where it was in a little cliff.

Seconding room-temp eggs. And let us know how Johnny Assay's advice works; I'ma have to try it too, to see if that can get me around the humidity problem; that would be so cool, because here in St. Louis, we have about ten non-humid days a year I think, and I loves me some meringue!
posted by miss patrish at 8:35 PM on June 14, 2009

My first guess is that you are adding your sugar too early. You can beat the egg whites almost all of the way to stiff peaks and still add the sugar. You might also try adding a pinch of cream of tartar or a pinch of salt to the egg whites before you start beating them. The cream of tartar will strengthen egg whites and allow them to hold a peak better.
posted by calumet43 at 9:23 PM on June 14, 2009 [2 favorites]

Seconding calumet43- you want to beat them fluffy, then add your extras. You should even be able to add vanilla at this point and still get good, stiff peaks.
posted by headspace at 10:02 PM on June 14, 2009

If I was unsure if I was underbeating or overbeating, I would purposefully beat the crap out of a batch of meringue just to see what it looks like as it becomes obviously overbeaten. I would also compare several meringue recipes from reputable sources to see how mine measures up. Maybe yours has ingredient proportions or instructions that are messed up.
posted by Foam Pants at 11:43 PM on June 14, 2009

I would suggest a couple of things. You mentioned using a metal bowl and that's great, to make sure that fat, etc. is not present (as much as possible anyway) i've had success with wiping the bowl down with lemon juice, other something else slightly acidic (and then wipe the surface dry with paper towel). I would also recommend using a normal hand-powered whisk, and not an electrical mixer. The action of the whisk vs. the mixer blades is different, and that could be a factor here. Good luck!
posted by alchemist at 12:42 AM on June 15, 2009 [1 favorite]

Baked up, they are edible but a bit chewier and denser than a meringue ought to be.

That, to me, means it's too humid. I know that here in New Jersey, I would not have tried making anything meringue-like this past week—it's been far too damp for them to succeed.

Also, what kind of egg whites are you using? The only other thing I can think of is that you're using whites from a box instead of actual separated egg whites but didn't mention it, and some stabilizer or chemical is interfering with the process.
posted by bcwinters at 5:29 AM on June 15, 2009

This happened the first and last time I tried making meringues, and my friend who was over said, "Oh my god, you're not switching direction when you're stirring the beaters around, are you?" and I was like, "Yeah... why?" and she was convinced that this was why everything got all floppy and ended up cooking flat. So perhaps keep an eye on that and make sure to stir the beaters in one direction. I haven't been brave again to try again and ensure that this is the key, but she was laughing at me pretty hard for not knowing this apparently obvious trick to making meringues.
posted by heatherann at 6:54 AM on June 15, 2009

You mentioned using a metal bowl and that's great, to make sure that fat, etc. is not present (as much as possible anyway) i've had success with wiping the bowl down with lemon juice, other something else slightly acidic (and then wipe the surface dry with paper towel).

A little fat won't impede meringue if you are using an electric mixer. Herve This has done some work on the matter.
posted by dirtynumbangelboy at 8:11 PM on June 15, 2009

I made mint chocolate meringues tonight. The best thing about meringues is that you can always blame humidity if they don't come out right. I always add my cream of tarter first, and then my sugar very slowly right from the beginning in a steady stream. I only let my whites sit out to warm up when I'm making macarons. I also scoop them with a spoon since I don't like them getting all warm and deflated and losing half the "batter" in my pastry bag.

You could always try an Italian or Swiss meringue, which are much more stable since you cook them as you go. People always seem intimidated with the sugar syrup or the eggs on a double boiler, but it isn't that tricky. Just pipe it and bake it afterwards to dry it out. Added bonus is that no one will scold you for licking the bowl if it's been cooked.
posted by IWoudDie4U at 9:02 PM on June 15, 2009

Thanks for all the responses -- I don't think it's the humidity, since I've had this problem every time I try to make meringue, including in the dead of a Chicago winter (which is definitely not humid). dirtynumbangelboy seems to suggest that fat probably isn't the issue either, since I'm using an electric mixer. So it seems like adding the sugar too soon is a likely culprit. To answer other questions: my whites are at room temperature, I'm not using the carton stuff, and I've both used cream of tartar and left it out with the same results.

I especially like Foam Pants's (eponysterical?) suggestion to go ahead and overbeat a meringue just to see what happens -- 50 cents seems like a small price to pay to understand what exactly I'm doing. And I'll look into Italian and Swiss meringues as well.

Will update this thread if I ever figure it out!
posted by pluckemin at 8:16 AM on June 16, 2009

Fat can be an issue if there's (relatively) lots of it. Let me see if I can dig up the link for you... Here's one.
posted by dirtynumbangelboy at 10:42 AM on June 17, 2009

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