Food Facts

How to Troubleshoot Your Meringue

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What is the Purpose of Egg Whites in Baked Goods?

Beaten egg whites add volume to baked goods. The beaten eggs foam and become light and airy, and you then fold them into the batter. This results in a lighter, fluffier product; you will often see beaten egg whites in recipes for waffles and some types of cake.

You can also use beaten egg whites to make a soft meringue like what you find on lemon meringue pie or baked Alaska. Alternatively, you can bake meringue until it is crispy such as a pavlova or meringue cookies. Or, you may add other ingredients like nut flour to make a meringue-based treat, such as macarons or dacquoise.

The Science Behind Meringue

Egg whites have the incredible ability to increase 6-8 times in volume. When beaten or whipped, the proteins in the egg whites denature (unfold) into smaller protein strands. This leaves the protein molecule with a hydrophobic (water-repelling) and hydrophilic (water-attracting) end. Egg whites are about 90% water and 10% protein.

The protein strands essentially form a film between the air and the water in the egg whites. Bubbles form with the hydrophilic end pointing towards the water and hydrophobic towards the air. When meringue is baked, the proteins coagulate and create a solid network around the trapped air. This results in crispy, fluffy meringue.

How to Know When You Have Stiff Peaks

So when you first beat egg whites, you will go from foamy whites that don’t hold their shape to what is called “soft peaks.” When you turn your whisk upside down, and the peaks are barely starting to hold. They are very soft and melt back into themselves after just a second.

Next, they get to “firm peaks,” when you turn the whisk upside down, the peaks hold and will have more distinct ridges. However, most of the tip will still fold over.

Lastly, you get to “stiff peaks.” Now, when you turn the whisk upside down, the peaks will stick straight up without collapsing or with just the very tips folding slightly. They should be thick and heavy with a glossy, moist appearance. If you rub the meringue between your fingers, the sugar should be dissolved and should not feel gritty.

pink meringues on a white background

Why isn’t my meringue getting stiff peaks?

The answer to this question is tricky because there are numerous reasons your meringue isn’t working, including fat getting into fat has gotten into your mixture, adding sugar too quickly, not adding an acid, or not beating for long enough. Read on to learn the top 7 reasons why you can’t get your meringue to stiff peaks.

1. You Haven’t Beaten Your Meringue Long Enough

Thankfully, this is a fixable problem. If you are beating your meringue with a stand mixer or hand mixer, it can take up to 10 minutes or so to achieve stiff beaks. Also, if you are trying to hand beat your meringue or beating them at a slow speed, they will take quite a while to get to stiff peaks.

Start beating your egg whites at slow speed but then increase your mixer to medium speed as you add sugar and they begin to stiffen. If you are beating your egg whites by hand, it can take 20 minutes or so (and quite a bit of arm strength and endurance) to get them to stiff peaks.

2. You’re Using Too Small of a Bowl

If beating three egg whites or fewer, use a small bowl. But if you’re beating four egg whites or more, you will want a large, deep bowl. This allows your whisk to reach more surface area of the egg whites so they can achieve stiff peaks more quickly.

3. The Egg Whites are Cold

Your meringue will whip up more quickly and reach its greatest volume if eggs are at room temperature. Room temperature egg whites have decreased surface tension, allowing them to foam more easily. Egg whites are easiest to separate when cold, so separate your whites, then let them sit at room temperature for 30-60 minutes. Cold egg whites will still whip up, but it will take longer, and it is easier to overbeat them.

4. You’ve Skipped the Acid

Acid, whether vinegar, lemon juice, or cream of tarter, will help you make a stiff, stable meringue. Acid makes proteins less likely to interact, preventing too many protein strands from connecting. It allows the foam to form more slowly, giving you a stronger and more stable network around the air bubbles giving you the perfect stiff peaks. It also helps prevent overbeating.

5. Fat Has Gotten In

When it comes to making meringue, fat is your greatest enemy. Just like protein, fat has a hydrophobic and hydrophilic end. The fat competes with the protein for forming the film around the air bubbles. The problem is that fat, unlike protein, won’t create the bonds needed to make a stable structure to hold the network of gas bubbles.

Even a tiny bit of fat, a bit of egg yolk, or a little fat left in the bowl from something else you’ve made will completely ruin your meringue. Make sure there is no yolk in your whites and that your mixing bowl is spotless.

6. The Sugar Was Added Too Fast

Sugar is critical for making meringue. The sugar helps coat the air bubbles, making the foam stronger and stiffer and preventing overbeating. While a single egg white can hold 1/4 cup (50 grams) of sugar, it needs time for the sugar to dissolve into the meringue.

If you add sugar too quickly, the egg whites cannot dissolve it quickly enough. This will make your foam fall, and you’ll have difficulty achieving stiff peaks. Be sure to add your sugar slowly, giving time for it to dissolve before adding more sugar.

7. You Added Salt

While many recipes call for salt in meringue, you need to be careful. Salt makes the proteins coagulate. So you may have to beat the egg whites longer to unwind the protein strands so they can form the thin film needed to encase air bubbles and make the egg whites foam. Salt isn’t really necessary in meringue but if you’re going to add it, do so after you’ve gotten your meringue to stiff peaks.

Can You Overbeat Meringue

Absolutely. If beaten too long, the protein bonds in the egg whites break, the air escapes, and the foam loses its volume. If you overbeat your meringue, you’ll end up with a dry, grainy, lumpy meringue. Unfortunately, you cannot fix overbeaten meringue. It will have to be tossed and started over. Make sure to follow the recommendations listed above to avoid overbeating your egg whites.

slice of lemon meringue pie on a plate

Why Is My Meringue Weeping?

Weeping is when brownish drops of liquid appear all over the top of baked meringue, or a layer of moisture forms between the top of the pie and the base of the meringue. This can be due to not adding an acid, over-or undercooking your meringue, or excess humidity.

1. You Skipped the Acid

Weeping can happen if you don’t add cream of tartar or another acid. While forming a protein network is critical when making meringue, it can make the protein network break if the bonds are too strong. This essentially causes the water to be squeezed out of the meringue, causing it to “weep” (aka syneresis). The acid helps prevent too many bonds from being formed, creating a stable network that will keep water in the meringue, where it’s meant to be.

2. It is Over-or Undercooked

The meringue is undercooked or overcooked. To avoid undercooking, add your meringue while the pie filling is piping hot. This allows the steam from the filling to rise and move through the meringue rather than pooling underneath.

Once your meringue has turned light brown, remove the pie from the oven to avoid overbaking.

3. Too Much Humidity

It’s a humid day. Humidity can make the sugar absorb the extra moisture in the air. This can turn the meringue sticky or cause it to form small beads of syrupy liquid. Make meringue pie on a dry, sunny day and allow it to cool fully before you slice and serve it. Also, serve your pie on the day you make it as storing it in the fridge (which is very humid) overnight can also cause it to weep.

pink and white meringues on a white plate

Why Aren’t My Meringues Crispy?

Meringue cookies are delightful! They are crispy and airy and melt in your mouth. So it can be pretty disappointing to have gummy, chewy meringues. A couple of different things can cause chewy meringues.

1. It’s too Humid

As I said above, humidity is the enemy of meringue. It can make it difficult to dry out your meringues properly and get them crispy. Try to bake your meringues on a sunny, dry day when possible.

If your meringues are still sticky, you can put them back in the oven for another 10 minutes to crisp up a bit. You can also add 1 tsp of cornstarch to the sugar on a humid day to help keep your meringues dry.

2. They Haven’t Been Baked Long Enough

It is essential to bake meringues at a low temperature for a long time. They also need time to dry after baking. Turn the heat off and allow them to finish drying in the oven for at least a couple of hours or even overnight.

3. The Meringue Wasn’t Stiff Enough

If you don’t get your meringue to stiff peaks, you’ll not have crispy, airy meringues. As stated earlier in the article, you’ll want your meringue to be thick and glossy, and when the whisk is pulled from the meringue and turned upside down, the meringue should hold its shape and stick straight up without falling over.

Now you’ve got the tools you need to make the perfect meringue! Happy baking!

Hello! I'm Nichole and I am a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist. I have a bachelor's degree in Nutrition, Dietetics and Food Science and a master's degree in Nutrition and Dietetics. I love cooking, baking and anything food related. I look forward to teaching you more about food and sharing my favorite recipes with you. Enjoy!

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