At its basic, meringue is whipped egg whites. Usually sugar is involved, but not always. There are three types of meringue with largely overlapping uses.
I think of this as "regular" meringue. This is the most fragile and familiar of meringues. It appears often as a component of a cake or torte recipe, where it contributes air to the batter and functions as a part of the leavening.
French meringue is most recognizable in the form of crunchy sweet meringue cookies, meringue shells, and meringue layers. It is also the base of the famous New Zealand dessert, Pavlova, which includes a little cornstarch and is baked at a slightly higher temperature to form a crunchy crust with a soft, marshmallow-y interior.
How it's made:
Egg whites (hopefully with cream of tartar and usually at room temperature) are whipped until they form soft peaks. Then, sugar is whipped in gradually to form stiff, satiny peaks. How stiff the peaks are depends on the amount of sugar, which in turn depends on what the meringue will be used for.
- Relatively small amounts of sugar are included when the meringue is a component of a cake or torte batter, and some waffle batters call for whipping the eggs whites without any sugar at all!
- Meringue used for making meringue cookies, shells, torte or cake layers, or Pavlova may require as much as 2 parts sugar to 1 part egg whites (by volume). Sometimes only 1/2 to 2/3 of the sugar is whipped in, and then the remaining sugar is folded in. As always, situations alter and variations abound.
This is the firmest and most stable meringue of all. It is used as a base for French buttercream, marshmallows, certain frozen desserts, mousses, and ice creams, as well as a topping for meringue pies and in some very famous French macaron recipes (go figure!). Conventional wisdom has it that Italian meringue is safe from salmonella bacteria, but this is not true (unless you use my hack).
How it’s made:
Sugar syrup cooked to soft-ball stage (242° F) is poured into egg whites that have been whipped to soft peaks—all while continuing to whip them to a firm glossy meringue. For a home cook, the tricky part of making Italian meringue is pouring a small amount of hot syrup down the sides of the mixer bowl next to, but not directly into the beaters—lest the syrup end up splattered and congealed around the sides of the bowl instead becoming one with the egg whites. (My hack solves that problem, as well.)
This is a kind of hybrid meringue that is used for many of the same things that Italian meringue is used for. It can also be made safe from salmonella if the heating step is (carefully) continued long enough to raise the temperature of the eggs white and sugar mixture to 160° F or to maintain it at 140° F for a few minutes.
How it’s made:
Egg whites and sugar are heated gently, with constant stirring, in a double boiler or directly in a pan of almost simmering water (my preference) until the sugar is dissolved. There is no precise temperature mandated for this (so long as the eggs whites don’t scramble!), as sugar dissolves with time anyway. Then, the mixture is whipped into meringue. Normally, Swiss meringue is removed from the heat before whipping. (American seven-minute frosting is actually Swiss meringue that is whipped while still over heat, and maybe even long enough to kill bacteria.)
Making a small amount of classic Italian meringue buttercream is tricky to do without splashing much of the hot syrup against the sides of the mixer bowl. Because of this—and because the classic method does not heat the eggs enough to kill salmonella bacteria—I reinvented the recipe to avoid the first problem and solve the second.
If you look closely, you will notice that I decreased the water normally used for the Italian meringue syrup (because there will be no boiling to evaporate it) and changed the method to resemble a Swiss meringue, but with extra heating.
The result is the easiest Italian meringue buttercream you will ever make.
- 4 large egg whites, at room temperature
- 2 tablespoons water
- 2/3 cup (130 grams) sugar
- 2 pinches salt
- 3 sticks (12 ounces/340 grams) unsalted butter, softened enough to be pliable
- Flavorings, as desired: vanilla extract, vanilla bean, espresso powder, citrus zest
This is French-style buttercream, which is very different from American “buttercream” frosting made with confectioners' sugar and butter. If it is too thick or too soft, always adjust it by vigorous stirring and either gentle warming or chilling as necessary: Never adjust by adding more butter, sugar, or liquid.
What's your go-to method for meringue and buttercream? Tell us in the comments below!