Meringue is deceptively simple. A classic meringue is made from just two basic ingredients -- sugar and egg whites. Some pastry chefs incorporate food coloring and flavorings, as well as cream of tartar, to stabilize their meringues. Whether you prefer a classic two-ingredient meringue or one with added ingredients, you will need to set your oven to its lowest setting to achieve a light, airy dessert.
Evaporate, Don't Bake
Preheat your oven to its lowest setting, usually 200 degrees Fahrenheit, before you bake your meringue. You are really just evaporating the moisture from the egg whites out of the meringue, leaving the protein and sugar behind. This is the key to crispy meringue cookies that keep for months in an airtight container. They are essentially dehydrated, rather than baked.
The ideal meringue cookies come out of the oven perfectly white, without any caramelization. Keep the oven at its lowest temperature to ensure that the inside of the meringue has time to set before the outside browns. A beautiful meringue pie is enhanced by a little caramelization. The best way to achieve perfectly browned meringue tips on a lemon meringue pie, for example, is to use a creme brûlée torch. This small propane-powered culinary tool gives you perfect control over the browning process, allowing you to brown the tips of the meringue without overcooking the rest.
Meringue, whether you plan to use it for cookies or pies, begins with raw egg whites. Or you may use meringue powder, which is made from dehydrated egg whites, but it can taste artificial. When using fresh eggs, use a probe thermometer to check the internal temperature of the meringue at the end of the baking process. It must come to 160 degrees F to kill the bacteria that can cause illness.
Meringues can split if they are baked at temperatures that are too high. High heat makes the outside set before the inside dries out. Keep the temperature low to achieve solid meringues. Avoid making meringue on a humid day. The extra moisture in the air makes it difficult to achieve a crispy, dry meringue. As soon as the meringue comes out of the oven, it begins to absorb moisture. Meringue cookies will become soggy, and meringue pies will "weep" or show beads of liquid.
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