I figure it’s been a while since I’ve talked a bit about kitchen science. One of the things that seems to really discourage people from baking at home is the precise nature of it- the chemistry and math involved in particular.
So every now and again, I’m going to do an entry on the scientific and practical aspects of some part of baking. Perhaps it’ll be a process, perhaps it’ll be a product… whatever you all would like!
Along the way, I’ll also include some tips and tricks I’ve picked up along the way to help you along with your own baking ideas- because knowledge is fun, but it’s better if you can use it to make something that’ll go in your face.
In brief, meringue is egg whites that have had sugar and air whipped into them, turning them into a light fluffy substance with a number of uses. Meringues are used in making mousse, some buttercream frostings, and some cakes. It can also be baked in dollops in a very low oven to make tasty sweets, blended with gelatin or other stabilzers to make marshmallows and divinity candy, or piped out to make macarons or dacquois layers.
“How does it work?”
Everyone knows that eggs are a great source of protein. Most of that protein exists in the white of the egg. The yolk has SOME protein, but mostly it contains the fats and cholesterol of the egg. Yolks have their own splendid uses and features, but that’s for another entry.
When you whip egg whites, the violent tearing caused by the beater (a.k.a. “mechanical shear”) makes the proteins in the egg whites denature, or stretch out and change shape. As they do so, air gets trapped in the bubbles of the stretched whites, creating a foam. Allowed to do so for a length of time, more air will be trapped, and the foam will grow lighter and finer. If you remember blowing bubbles in your milk as a kid, you’ve seen this in action.
Sugar is always added in one form or another to meringue. The sugar has two jobs- 1. Bond with water molecules and keep them in the meringue, letting it stay moist enough to keep form, and 2. To sweeten.
Since sugar substitutes don’t behave chemically QUITE like sugar, it’s not wise to use them in trying to make meringue.
There are a number of ways for adding the sugar to your egg whites and creating a meringue- each method creating noticeably different results, and ideal for different purposes.
French meringue is the most common one in home kitchens. As the whites are whipped, granulated sugar is slowly added into the cold whites and is allowed to dissolve in. This is also the most fragile type of meringue, and if it is not to be included in a recipe before baking, it must be served raw. By folding ultra-fine almond flour and confectioners sugar into the meringue, you get the batter for the recently-insanely-popular French Macarons
That’s about all for meringue right now- any questions? Comments? Want me to cover something in the next post? Let me know in the comments, or shoot me a message at the BHB Facebook page or Twitter! You ARE following me, aren’t you?
Hey- what’s the point of learning about meringue if you don’t get to practice?? I’ve got the perfect recipe in mind….
Yield: about 64 half-dollar sized wafers, enough to make 32 sandwiches.
3 egg whites (large eggs)
1/4 c sugar
1 2/3 c confectioners (10x) sugar
1 c almond flour (as finely ground as possible. Seriously, run it through a food processor if you need to.)
Flavoring (preferably water/alcohol based. No flavoring oils!)
Stand mixer with whip attachment (or a whisk and a couple strong arms)
SILPAT baking sheet (you can TRY using parchment, but Silpat works best.)
Piping bag with a #8 round tip
1. Sift the confectioners sugar and almond flour together. If there are any stubborn particles, discard them or rub them through.
2. In the CLEAN mixing bowl (wiped out with a little lemon juice), and using the equally clean whip, whip the white until JUST foamy. Slowly add the 1/4 c sugar, and then whip to soft peaks.
3. Add the almond sugar mix to the meringue, and fold it in, quickly but lightly. Folding is exactly what it sounds like. Using your rubber scraper, bring whats on bottom of the bowl to the top, and keep going. You don’t want to pummel TOO much air out of your merengue- just enough to make it smooth. Here is where you would fold in your flavoring too. You’re going to fold about 30-40 times.
4. Fit your tip into your piping bag, and fill with the batter. You’ll know your batter is the right texture if you pipe a little bit out and it makes a peak that soon spreads and flattens. Lay out your Silpat on your cookie sheet, and pipe out half-dollar sized dollops. Let these sit at room temperature for an hour. Meanwhile, preheat your oven to 285 F (140 C).
5. Once the macarons have sat, bake them for 10 minutes or so, till they have raised slightly and lost their shine, but are NOT browned. Remove from the oven, and wait for them to cool COMPLETELY before peeling off the Silpat. Sandwich them with a bit of your favorite buttercream and enjoy! Keep them in an airtight container at room temperature for 3 days or so.