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What’s the Difference Between French, Swiss, and Italian Meringues?

By the editors of Cook's Illustrated

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There's more than one way to beat—and heat—an egg white.

Did you know that there are three basic techniques for making meringue? And that each one originates from a different European tradition? They’re differentiated by the extent to which the egg white foam is heated and the meringue’s resulting stability. As we alluded to in the title of this post, these three styles are known colloquially as French, Swiss, and Italian meringues.

UNITED NATIONS OF MERINGUES

French meringue—sometimes referred to as "ordinary"—is the most basic of the trio and the least stable until baked. Egg whites are beaten until they coagulate and form soft peaks, at which point sugar is slowly incorporated until the mixture has attained full volume; is soft, airy, and light; and stands at attention when the whip is lifted. French meringue is customarily spooned or piped into different forms, including dessert shells (such as vacherins) and cake layers (as in a dacquoise), and baked, later to be topped with fruit, mousse, or whipped cream. It is also often folded into batters (for lady fingers, sponge cakes, soufflés, and the like) and baked.

Swiss meringue is prepared by gently beating egg whites and sugar in a pan that sits above boiling water, without touching it. When the mixture reaches 120 to 130 degrees Fahrenheit and the sugar is completely dissolved, the mixture is pulled off the heat and beaten vigorously to increase and attain full volume and then at a lower speed until cool and very stiff. Swiss meringue is smoother, silkier, and somewhat denser than French meringue and is often used as a base for buttercream frostings.

Italian meringue (shown below) is made by drizzling 240-degree Fahrenheit sugar syrup into whites that have already been whipped to hold firm peaks. Whipping continues until the meringue is fully voluminous, satiny, stiff, and cool. Italian meringue is often used to frost cakes (alone or as a base for buttercream frostings), to top filled pies, or to lighten ice creams, sorbets, and mousses.

OUR FAVORITE? We find that French is the simplest to make, and we often prefer the results. They’re lighter and shatteringly crisp, while the Italian and Swiss methods can be dense and candylike.

MORE MERINGUE FACTS, WHILE WE’RE AT IT...

Cornstarch

All three varieties of meringue involve a great deal of sugar for both flavor and texture. While developing our recipe for Classic Meringue Cookies, we were curious as to whether we could prepare a less-sweet meringue from one of the three methods.

Unsurprisingly, when we simply cut back on sugar, our cookies collapsed in the oven. What was going on? In their raw state, the tiny bubbles that form a meringue get their structure from two things: the cross-linking of egg-white proteins and the surface tension of water. As a meringue bakes, its moisture slowly evaporates, weakening its structure. At the same time, the egg-white protein ovalbumin is becoming stronger, providing additional structure for the foam.

Because sugar has a tendency to hold on to water molecules, if there is not enough in the meringue, the water evaporates too quickly, causing the cookies to collapse before the ovalbumin has time to strengthen. We found that cornstarch, which shares the water-clinging property of sugar, could perform the same role in our recipe, allowing us to cut back on sweetness without compromising structure.

HOW TO STORE MERINGUES FOR LONGER PERIODS OF TIME

Many cooks believe that storing meringues on a rainy or humid day is futile because the confections contain a lot of sugar, and sugar is hygroscopic—meaning that it attracts moisture from the air, which causes the cookies to turn sticky and marshmallowy (if you’re ever tried to bake meringues in a tropical climate, you’ll know this is true). Disproving this theory took just a simple test. We waited for a rainy day and baked up several batches of meringues. As soon as the cookies cooled (after about 10 minutes), we placed them in airtight plastic containers with tight-fitting lids. We put one container in the fridge (a relatively humid environment), one on the counter, and, as a control, one in the freezer (which tends to be arid). Two weeks and several rainy days later, we opened the containers. The cookies stored in the more humid refrigerator and on the counter were every bit as dry and crisp as those stored in the freezer.

BOTTOM LINE: As long as you pack meringues in an airtight container immediately after cooling them, any humidity in the air doesn’t matter.

WATCH VIDEO: Science: The Magic of Meringues

Meringue cookies depend on whipped egg whites for both leavening and structure. The sugar that’s added to the whites contributes not only sweetness but also stability. But does it matter when you add the sugar?

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