how do I make the perfect meringue?
First of all, wash your hands to remove all traces of any kind of oil (from cooking or lotions). Next, working with two stainless steel bowls (never use plastic bowls with egg whites) and a measuring cup, crack three eggs at a time into one of the small bowls. Carefully scoop out one yolk at a time with your fingers, letting the white drop off, finally gently bringing your fingers together to snip it off. Drop the yolks in the other small bowl. If you break yolk which drips into the whites, pour them out and start over with a clean bowl. That's the reason for the 3-egg rule; 3 whites isn't much of a loss. The smallest amount of fat of any kind (yolks are high in very nice fats) will prevent your meringue from ever whipping up, regardless of how much denial you bring to the task.
Pour your whites into your measuring cup. The average large egg white equals about 1 ounce. When you've got all the whites you need, look at the number of ounces they equal and multiply by 2 to get the number of ounces of sugar you need. If you don't have a scale, a cup of sugar typically weighs 7 ounces, so do the math using that as your reference.
Put a pot with a couple of inches of water on the stove to simmer. Pour both the egg whites and sugar into your mixer bowl. Whisk them together. Set the mixer bowl over the simmering water. Whisk it until it reaches 140 degrees. Remove from the heat and attach it to your mixer. Using the whip, whip on high speed until no residual heat remains when you touch the outside bottom of the bowl. Congratulations! You've just made Swiss Meringue.
You can top a pie with it without having to broil it because you've already cooked it. All you need to do is torch it off for wonderfully dramatic, browned peaks. You can drop it by spoonfuls or pipe it onto a sheet pan lined with parchment and bake it at the lowest heat setting in your oven until dry for heavenly meringue cookies. Maybe even add enough red food color to turn it pink and add some drops of peppermint extract for a Valentine's Day treat. You can ice a lemon cake filled with lemon curd with it, and torch it off the same way you do a pie - now that's dramatic! You can drop in blobs of soft butter equal to your amount of sugar, plus shortening equal to 25% of your butter, along with some vanilla and white rum to make Swiss Meringue Buttercream.
Have fun with it!
Is this for pie or for cookies?
I don't claim to know about perfect, but I use 3 bowls to separate out my egg whites--one for the white, one for the yolk, and then I move the white to the mixing bowl. That way if I break the yolk, I've only lost one egg. I also beat the whites with a pinch of salt in a stand mixer with a whisk, which helps them beat up quickly and hold together well.
There are 3 types of meringue: French, Swiss & Italian. They go from the least stable/strong to the most stable/strong. Depending on what you need meringue for will determine what kind you embark on.
The most important rules of meringue are these:
*everything whites touch must be superclean. you can whisk whites in glass, porcelain or metal, but not plastic or rubber.
*flavorings you add to meringue must be added once meringue has become itself. if you add something to the egg whites before voluminousness has been reached, you will not reach much of anything.
*your eggs should be fresh, preferably from young chickens.
*egg whites can quintuple in size so make sure you're not overfilling your whisking vessel.
*room temperature egg whites are the best egg whites for meringue. you may separate eggs days before you need to make meringue. egg yolks will keep 4 days refrigerated, egg whites will keep up to 1 week unrefrigerated. remember that raw egg whites are not suitable for consumption, especially for very old, very young or people with suppressed/compromised immune systems.
*7x or "Superfine" sugar is best for French meringue.
*you may use light or dark brown sugar to make Swiss or Italian but not French meringue. Raw or Turbinado or Demerara sugars are close to impossible to make work with meringues.
*If you're using a stand mixer to make French or Swiss meringue: increase speed incrementally. You will get more volume this way than if you turn it full throttle at the onset.
*Practice Practice Practice. Meringue comes out perfect when you do it over and over. Be not afraid of failure! Sometimes the most imperfect meringue can make the best tasting dessert-on-the-fly.