Meringues may not be a Greek invention, but ask any Greek if they really care. Hint: they don’t.
Meringues are a common treat found in the many, many, many sweet shops in Greece, and are a great way to use up extra egg whites you may have from recipes that only wanted egg yolks. They are truly easy to make, but they can be picky. And hey, even if they don’t turn out “perfect” you can always pass it off as something you meant to do anyway. That pickiness thing can result in different textures in the final product, all of which will taste good.
Called either bezethes or pezethes in Greek, meringues that are properly made should result in a light-as-a-feather, crispy treat that simply dissolves in your mouth, kind of like cotton candy if it were solid. If it doesn’t completely work, you may end up with a treat that shatters on the outside (like it should), but might have a slightly marshmallow-y texture on the inside. You see, it’s still all good.
To get to that perfect meringue, you need a little science. Keep reading! Really, it’s important. Meringues are made with egg whites, an acid like lemon juice or cream of tartar, sugar, and flavoring like almond or vanilla extract (almond is best in my opinion). Egg whites are nothing more than proteins and water. Think of raw proteins like tangles of ribbon held in their shape by molecular bonds that act like tiny magnets.
- Can you start with cold egg whites? Sort of, but it’s better to have them room temperature. Those protein ribbons will stretch out when you start beating them and they will do this better if they’re not all clumped from being cold. You want them stretched out to trap air to form the little bubbles that will get your meringues all nice and fluffy. Think tight balloon versus a loose one.
- Is it really a big deal if egg yolk or other fats get into your egg white? Yes! When separating eggs it is really important to keep fats out of the whites because they interfere with the ability of those proteins to form bonds that will hold them to each other. Think of putting a piece of wood between two magnets, they won’t stick to each other. If the proteins can’t stick to one another, they can’t form the net-like structures around those air bubbles you want.
- Can you skip the acid? Not really. Acids form hydrogen ions that also act like little magnets. These magnets will help hold the proteins together around those air bubbles and keep them from shrinking back up and popping the bubbles after you stop whisking. It’s like tying the knot on those balloons.
- Can you skimp on the sugar? Why would you? And actually, no. Sugar is hygroscopic, which means it attracts water. Eggs whites are roughly 90% water. You need something that will hold on to that water to keep your egg whites from separating into a dry, tasteless foam floating in a pool of liquid. Bleh. The sugar is also what creates that dissolve-in-your-mouth crunch that meringues are famous for.
- Do you really need to worry about humidity when making meringues? Yes! Remember that sugar-is-hygroscopic thing? Meringues are not really baked, but actually oven dried. If you try to make them on a humid day, or decide it’s a good idea to start boiling a large pot of Gigantes beans in your kitchen right next to the oven (seriously, who does that?? Oh, that might be me), you will find yourself having a very difficult time getting the meringues to properly dry out. They will also absorb moisture from the air after they are removed from the oven and get all sticky again, so plan ahead and be sure to package them up into an air tight container once they are done.
- Can you make multiple batches all at once? Unless you have a super giant mixer with multiple people getting them on to the trays all at once, it’s best not to. Too much at once crowds the mixture and keeps those bubbles from getting larger. If the meringue mixture sits for too long, this also allows time for the bubbles to deflate. Both problems cause flat meringues that don’t dry well and won’t have the light, spongy texture.
Okay, so on to the recipe!
- 4 egg whites (about 1/2 cup), at room temperature (egg whites can be frozen, by the way, so you can save them from another recipe and keep them until you want to make these meringues!)
- 1 tsp. lemon juice
- 1 cup granulated sugar
- 1/2 tsp. almond extract (vanilla, lemon, and orange are other good flavors to try)
- food coloring (optional), if you want to make some pretty colors, add a drop or two at the same time as the flavoring
Preheat oven to 215° F. Line a cookie pan with parchment paper. Don’t use silicone mats, I found out the hard way that they keep the meringues from properly drying well.
In a large glass or metal (plastic often will have a greasy residue no matter how clean you think it is) bowl put the egg whites and begin beating on medium speed. Once the whites have started to get foamy, add the lemon juice and continue to beat for another minute. Turn the speed to high and start adding the sugar in a slow and steady cascade off to one side of the bowl. Do not add the sugar all at once or you will begin to deflate your egg white foam. It should take a few minutes to add all the sugar, so go slow and steady. You could also just sprinkle in a tablespoon at a time. After the sugar is all in, add the flavoring. Stop and scrape down the sides if there is sugar stuck to the bowl and then continue beating.
Continue to beat the egg whites until the sugar is completely dissolved (no grittiness), and the foam is stiff enough to hold it’s shape. You will know it’s done when a peak doesn’t flop over when formed.
The easiest way to form your meringues is with a pastry bag fitted with a wide tip, otherwise you can scoop them with a spoon onto the parchment paper. Work quickly to form your meringues. They should be about the size of a golf ball, avoid making them too big as they will take too long to dry.
Place the meringues in the oven on a rack in the middle and set a timer for 10 minutes. Every 10 minutes you will need to crack open the oven for a few seconds to allow moisture to escape. Repeat this process until the meringues are completely dry and lift off the parchment paper without breaking, likely at least an hour. You should test one to see if it is completely dry inside. If they are still moist, keep them in the oven for another 10 minutes at a time.
Once they are dried through, take them from the oven and allow to cool for about one minute before trying to remove them from the parchment paper. Set them onto a cooling rack until completely cool. Place them into an air tight container once they are cool. They can be frozen if you want to store them for a longer time. If they start to get sticky due to humidity, they can be placed back on a cookie sheet into the oven set at 150° F until dry again, cracking the oven every so often. Or if you have a food dehydrator, you can place them in there at a low temperature until dry.