For the lemon meringue pie I made at SURF-IT, I used, almost without modification, the second recipe on this page (Ultimate Lemon Meringue Pie). The recipe is from Cook’s Illustrated, so no one should be surprised that it worked perfectly… you do need to let it cool, though. Don’t get me wrong, it’s delicious while hot — but the filling doesn’t set properly until it cools completely, so the pie is messy until it cools.
I’m going to take the rest of this post to talk about some general tips for making meringue. At the end, there’ll be a bonus recipe: an alternate crust for the lemon meringue pie I linked above — a graham cracker crust, which is absolutely delicious!
Meringue comes in a number of varieties, from the soft meringue that makes up the top layer of a lemon meringue pie to the hard, crumbly meringue in meringue cookies. Most of these tips apply to all kinds of meringue.
Make meringue when the weather’s dry. Humidity can prevent the egg whites from whipping up properly and baking well. For the same reason, don’t let any moisture get into your whites; dry your bowl and your mixer blades well (after cleaning them, of course; see below).
The material of the bowl in which you whip the egg whites is important. Use a metal bowl if you can. Copper is said to be best, though I haven’t tried it; stainless steel is also good; enameled steel (which is what I use) is decent. Glass is second best. Avoid plastic bowls! It’s almost impossible to completely wash a plastic bowl’s surface clean of the oils left by previous contents, and since plastic scratches very easily, grease can collect in those cracks. Fats are death to whipped egg whites!
Clean your mixing bowl well! Wash it — with dishwashing solution, not just water; dry it thoroughly; wipe it down with a splash of vinegar; then dry it again.
Use a good mixer. Don’t try to whip egg whites by hand; you simply won’t get the same volume — all you’ll get is a sore wrist/shoulder. Use a stand mixer, or a good hand mixer (though make sure it’s one with a strong motor; some older or cheaper hand mixers have weak motors that aren’t up to the task of whipping egg whites).
Clean your mixer blades! The bends and grooves in the blades of a stand or hand mixer can accumulate bits of food. Get in there and make sure it’s really clean — and dry.
Separate your eggs when they’re cold, then let the whites come up to room temperature. Eggs are much easier to separate right out of the fridge; you’re less likely to get some yolk in your white (remember, fats are death to whipped egg whites!). But they whip up much better at room temperature, so make sure you’ve got time to let your whites warm up. If you have to, you can place them on the stovetop while your oven’s preheating — but don’t actually heat the whites on a burner!
Be careful when separating the eggs; don’t let any yolk get into the whites! The method I use is this: crack each egg; separate it using the shell, letting the white drop into a small bowl; dump the yolk into a separate bowl; throw the shell away, then dump the white from the small bowl into your big mixing bowl. Repeat with each egg. The advantage of this is that if you accidentally let some yolk get into the white, you haven’t ruined all your egg whites; just discard that one egg white and try again with another egg.
The exact technique for separating the eggs using the shell needs illustration, and takes practice. You can also use an egg separator; there are many different kinds. I prefer the eggshell method. One thing you should definitely not do is separate the eggs with your bare hands! The oils on your skin will get into the whites, and they won’t whip up well. Once again: fats are… actually, this needs its own paragraph:
Fats are death to whipped egg whites. Oils on your skin, grease on your mixing bowl or mixer blades, fat in egg yolk — any of these can ruin your meringue. Follow the tips above and don’t let your egg whites get contaminated.
Most meringue recipes will call for cream of tartar; don’t ignore this ingredient! If you don’t have and can’t get cream of tartar, substitute a teaspoon of lemon juice — but add the juice after you’ve whipped the whites into soft peaks.
When you’re adding sugar to the egg whites (after you’ve got the whites nice and foamy), add it slowly, a tablespoon or two at a time, beating to incorporate the sugar between additions. In general, the more sugar you add to the egg whites, the harder and crumblier the meringue will be.
Take your time when beating the egg whites! You want the peaks to retain their shape well. Once you’ve whipped the whites to the soft peak stage, it might not seem like further beating is having an effect; be patient. However, don’t over-beat the egg whites either! A recipe will generally tell you to what point to whip the egg whites.
Don’t let whipped egg whites stand! Beating the egg whites should be the last step in your recipe; once you’ve whipped them up, use them — put the meringue on your pie, spread it on the baking sheet, or do whatever else you plan to do with it, then stick it in the oven — but don’t just leave the beaten egg whites in the bowl while you go off and do other things.
Finally, egg whites behave a bit differently at high elevation above sea level. High-altitude baking is its own topic, and one I don’t have a lot of experience with; just be aware that if you live far (a thousand feet or more) above sea level, you’ll want to find a version of your recipe (especially if it’s a meringue recipe) that’s modified for high altitudes.
11 graham crackers
1/4 cup packed dark brown sugar
6 tbsp butter
Part 1: Crush graham crackers.
Crush the graham crackers into crumbs. You can do this in a food processor; or you can put the crackers in a large ziplock bag and pound thoroughly with a round-edged frying pan or crush with a rolling pin.
Intermission: Melt butter.
Melt the butter in a small saucepan.
Part 2: Prepare crust mix.
1. Add butter and sugar to graham cracker crumbs and mix well (if you crushed the crackers in a food processor, add the butter and sugar right into the food processor and process until combined).
2. Press into bottom of pie pan.
3. Chill in refrigerator for 20 minutes.
Intermission: Preheat oven.
Preheat to 350 F.
Part 3: Bake.
1. Bake for 15 minutes, or until it just starts to brown.
2. Remove from oven and chill in refrigerator while you prepare your pie filling.
Note: This recipe replaces steps 1 through 6 of the Ultimate Meringue Pie recipe linked above.