Italian Meringue, Swiss Meringue, and French Meringue: How Are They All Different from One Another?
Said to have originated in the village of Meiringen, Switzerland, the ethereal egg white confection we call meringue can be served in a variety of ways—piped atop a pie, baked slowly for a crispy pavlova, folded into soufflés, as a base for buttercream frosting—the list goes on! Just what is meringue you wonder? Simply put, meringue is egg whites that are whipped with sugar until light and fluffy. Transforming viscous, yellowish clear egg whites into a pure white, cloud-like meringue is truly one of the great shows of science in cooking, and there are three traditional methods of preparation: French, Swiss, and Italian. The three techniques range in difficulty. The tricker the preparation, however, the denser and sturdier the meringue is. Here we explain the differences between these three types of meringue and share tips for making them.
French meringue is thought to be the simplest to prepare, since it doesn't require any heat; it's simply combining egg whites with sugar. Using a stand mixer is the easiest and most efficient method to whisk egg whites, and sugar is gradually added one spoonful at a time. Caitlin Haught Brown, a food stylist and former editor at Martha Stewart Living, knows her way around meringue. "When I'm using French meringue to make a pavlova, I really do find that superfine sugar is helpful to get the best result since you aren't heating the meringue at any point—a process that helps dissolve the sugars in Swiss or Italian meringues," she says.
Swiss meringue calls for whisking the egg whites and sugar in the bowl of a stand mixer over a double boiler in order for the sugar to melt and dissolve. The trick here is constantly whisking so that the eggs don't cook into firm whites. Once the sugar is dissolved (rub a bit of the mixture between your fingers to check for any grit), set your bowl inside your stand mixer and whisk away, starting at a low speed and gradually increasing in order to avoid big air bubbles. "I'm unequivocally on Team Swiss meringue!" says Brown. "I know meringue can be intimidating, but I promise Swiss meringue is pretty much foolproof. It's more stable than French, less fussy than Italian." Brown says her favorite Swiss meringue recipe is our Swiss Meringue Buttercream. "I really do use it almost anytime a recipe calls for meringue," she adds.
The trickiest of the three, Italian meringue, requires making a sugar syrup that is slowly drizzled into whisking egg whites. The heat of the syrup cooks the eggs, and from there, you have a silky, glossy meringue that, like Swiss meringue, is safe to eat without baking (French meringue, on the other hand, needs to be cooked after it's prepared).
Making a sugar syrup for Italian meringue offers a fun opportunity to introduce alternative sugars (say, honey or molasses) into your meringue for a richer flavor. Be sure to pay special attention when cooking your syrup, however. Too undercooked will leave it too watery, and will result in a runny meringue, and too thick a syrup will harden inside of the egg whites and leave crunchy pieces of sugar.
Can you use meringue powder as a shortcut to making meringue? "Meringue powder has its uses, but I wouldn't recommend it for making, well, meringue," says Brown. She adds that she used to use meringue powder only when making royal icing, but then she learned it could be used to make Swiss meringue buttercream in warm conditions. "The owner of my neighborhood cake supply store told me to try adding a teaspoon or two of meringue powder to my egg white and sugar mixture when I started the Swiss meringue in a double boiler on the stove," she explains. "He swore it would make it super stable and pretty much melt-proof, and he was right!"
Regardless of which type of meringue you are preparing, there are a couple of tips that experts agree on. For starters, room temperature egg whites will whip easier and gain more volume, so be sure to set eggs out a few hours before beginning. A clean mixing bowl is imperative to a meringue's success. Any oil or dirt will impede a fluffy rise, so be sure to wash your bowl well before using. You can even give your bowl and whisk a quick wipe with distilled white vinegar, which serves double duty as a cleaning agent and a stabilizing agent, as acid is helpful in stabilizing meringue. "Technically meringue doesn't require a stabilizer, but including one can be helpful, especially if the meringue is the main event," says Brown. "When I do use stabilizers, I'm fairly equal-opportunity, but I typically reach for cream of tartar or distilled white vinegar."