May 03, 2018
You might think that something as simple as a whipped confection of egg whites and sugar would involve an equally simple, or at the very least, straight forward technique. Yet the process of making meringue-based treats can be quite daunting for many home cooks. Add onto that swapping out the traditional egg whites for vegan aquafaba, and the intimidation factor probably increases. Today, we’re going to demystify the meringue to show you that with a little background knowledge, and perhaps a mini pep-talk to yourself before you start, you too can make a successful meringue-based dessert!
One of the reasons meringues are not all that straight-forward is because there are three main ways to make them: French, Swiss, and Italian. All three deal with sugar and aquafaba, but the ways in which they vary lead to significantly different products. Knowing which one will suit your dessert best is half the battle.
The French Meringue Technique
First up, French. These are arguably the simplest to make: no candy thermometers, no scorching-hot sugar, no dirtying up multiple bowls. Beat your aquafaba to soft peaks, then slowly incorporate granulated sugar until the mixture reaches full volume and stiff peaks. In an ideal world, the granulated sugar should be “superfine” or “caster” – smaller granules that prevent a grainy meringue – but you can make your own by food processing granulated sugar in a pinch.
The meringue is then spooned or piped into various forms and baked into a beautiful dessert. French macarons are probably the first that come to mind, but this method is also often used for shatteringly crisp dessert shells of various kinds, such as classic vacherins and pavlova. Another traditional meringue recipe using this method is a dacquoise, where finely chopped nuts are folded into the meringue prior to baking; dacquoise is often used for cake rounds and layered with pastry cream, buttercream, or ganache.
Less formally, a French-based meringue can also be folded into a variety of batters to add lightness and volume, such as is the case with lady fingers, sponge cakes, and soufflés.
A traditional French meringue made with eggs can be a bit temperamental, giving aquafaba more than just a nutritional edge for this technique. Unlike egg-based French meringues, an aquafaba meringue made using this method cannot be over-whipped, making it a much more forgiving base. However, the French technique - whether applied to eggs or aquafaba - is the least stable of the three, and must be baked soon after it whips to prevent deflation. This makes it a less ideal choice for any unbaked meringue recipe, such as the topping for lemon meringue pie.
The Italian Meringue Technique
The difference here primarily lies in the sugar: instead of granulated, as with the French method, you have to first make a sugar syrup on the stove. Granulated sugar is dissolved in water and heated to 240 degrees Fahrenheit (the “softball” stage of candy making); this temperature is important, as how hot you get your syrup will determine how hard it will be when it cools down to room temperature. The hot syrup is then drizzled into whites that have already formed firm peaks; continue beating that mixture until the whole thing cools down.
This is your go-to method if you want that fluffy, “marshmallowy” type consistency; it is, in fact, the method we use for our vegan marshmallows here at meringueshop. This method lends itself to holding up better for longer periods of time, so it is often used as a topping for already-filled pies (think lemon meringue, classically) and frosting cakes (either by itself or incorporated into a buttercream).Because Italian meringue can be frozen without deflating, it is also an excellent choice to lighten-up sorbet, ice cream, or mousse, or to make semi-freddos or frozen souffles. The addition of just 2 tablespoons of meringueshop’s meringue powder to the whipped aquafaba before pouring in the hot sugar will add an extra punch of stability to keep the meringue in the fridge or freezer without compromising its integrity. (Curious? Stop by for our next post for a recipe on how to make a stabilized vegan Eton Mess!). Italian meringue can also be baked, and some French macarons are, ironically, made using this method.
Here, too, as with the French method, the replacement of eggs with aquafaba has advantages that extend beyond basic nutrition: since this method can stand up to some degree of storage without being baked, it is often used “raw” in recipes. And, while raw or undercooked eggs is controversial, consuming an unbaked aquafaba meringue is perfectly safe!
If you want to take a stab at this one, timing is key: if you finish heating the sugar syrup before the aquafaba has finished beating, for example, the sugar is at risk of hardening before you’re ready to incorporate it. More advanced home cooks may be able to juggle the two tasks without feeling overwhelmed, but beginners may want to focus their full attention on each of the two tasks individually. (Tip: start with the aquafaba; it can’t sit and hold volume forever, but it buys you more time than the finished syrup will.)
The Swiss Meringue Technique
Some argue that the Swiss meringue method is actually the simplest; at the very least, that it requires less juggling than the Italian method. With this method, you place both the aquafaba and the sugar on the stove top (in a pan set above boiling water, taking care to ensure the bubbling water never touches the pan). When the mixture gets to 120-130 degrees Fahrenheit and the sugar has completely dissolved, remove the mixture from the heat and beat vigorously to full volume. At full volume, reduce the mixer’s speed and continue beating until cool and very stiff.
Swiss meringue yields an incredibly smooth and silky meringue, though it tends to be less voluminous because adding the sugar from the get-go inhibits a bit of that loft that aquafaba is able to achieve on its own. The beauty of using aquafaba over eggs? While eggs are at risk of curdling during this method, aquafaba can’t - so you don’t need to babysit it while it’s heating over the water!
Swiss meringue is, perhaps, most famous for its incorporation into the temperamental but luxurious Swiss meringue buttercream.
Traditional Meringue Resources for the Adventurous Home Cook
Looking for a less-traditional, plant-based meringue? Check out our other blog posts for more on how we create our eggless riffs on classic meringue-based treats:
Guest contributor, Jessica Serdikoff
Jessica has been driven all her life by a passion for food. Getting her informal start in her grandmother’s kitchen many years ago, she took a brief culinary hiatus to become a registered dietitian and certified personal trainer. Her curiosity and enthusiasm for food, recipe development, and kitchen creativity never left her, though, leading her most recently to graduate from the chef’s training program at the Natural Gourmet Institute of NYC. Now she has the know-how to geek out about food and the science behind it!
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