Meringue is a wonder to behold. Those egg whites can bloom in volume over 8 times on their own, and more when you add sugar. Who first created meringues? That’s a question with multiple answers. The Swiss lay claim, of course, and the French. The chef of a Polish nobleman who became the Duke of Lorraine is mentioned. The first documented recipe for meringue comes from a place that is, well, not associated with high cuisine. A recipe in 1604 in England mentions a baked “beaten-egg-white-and-sugar-confection.” Very simply, we don’t know where or when or what was the inspiration. But we know now to enjoy meringue in all its glory.
What happens when you beat egg whites? What is meringue, chemically. Liquid egg white is a combination of water with suspended protein molecules floating away. Those molecules are resting, tightly. They are literally wound tight. When you beat the egg whites, the protein molecules unwind. And they are very long. Instead of each one being wrapped around itself, they extend out and begin to attach to each other. The resulting network traps the original water, and, more importantly, air. As you beat the egg whites, air is incorporated and trapped. The “mesh” or network of protein molecules is able to trap air bubbles.
Why don’t the air bubbles burst and slither away? They will if you overbeat the egg whites. If you try to get max volume for your eggs whites, you’ll get volume but reduced strength. Quickly, that foam will fall upon itself. Oh, if you don’t beat enough, then the network of proteins is not strong enough to hold the water and the meringue will again collapse.
So, how long do you beat? “Until soft peaks” or “until stiff peaks” form are phrases you will hear. What do they mean? Only experience can tell you. But at the stiff peaks point, you need stop. You are on the edge of overbeating, and there is no recovery at that point. The egg whites are beat. Literally.
What about bowls or contamination? The presence of any oil substance will dramatically reduce, or even prevent, the foaming process. What’s the likely source of oil. That egg yolk. One drop of egg yolk can reduce the amount of foam by 2/3. A plastic bowl has a surface with molecules that resemble oil and make it difficult to whip those egg white. At the extreme end, the famed copper bowls are famed for a good reason. Copper ions will interact with the proteins in the egg whites to generate a stronger foam. So, particularly if you are keen to do it by hand with a whisk, that copper bowl is a worthy asset. You may, of course, have a stand mixer with a whisk attachment. Those work forcefully and well. I must say that Suzen and I have discovered that a small metal bowl and a small hand mixer produce excellent results — both for egg whites and whipped cream. That $20 hand mixer in the appliance aisle of your drug store is a great buy.
Sources: Meringue by Linda K. Jackson and Jennifer Evans Gardner, Cooking for Geeks by Jeff Potter, and On Food and Cooking by Harold McGee
Photographic tools: Canon T2i, 60mm macro lens, 1/100 second at f/4.0; HDR image created with HDR Efex Pro 2 by NIK Software
Recently Suzen offered a class with an intriguing complexity of flavors: slices of duck breast served atop a red cabbage salad with almonds.
Lots of flavor and lots texture. For us carnivores, the cabbage is nice, almonds are nice, but that duck has to be perfect. How to achieve perfection? I could paraphrase, but I would prefer to quote the entire section on duck breasts from James Peterson in his treasure Glorious French Food:
“When you sauté a duck breast you get rid of most of the fat in the skin and have perfect control over how much to cook the meat. French cooks roast whole duck to a red-pink medium rare and wild ducks even rarer. Don’t think of duck as you would chicken or turkey, which is cooked completely through, to the equivalent of medium for red meet. When you cook duck breasts, you can peel off the fatty skin and sauté the breasts as you would a little steak, leave the mat rare to medium rare and providing a piece of meat leaner that a boneless chicken breast and quite a bit tastier.
“But because much of the duck’s flavor is that lay of at on the beast, you’ll want to capture the best of both possible words, — crispy flavorful skin with much of the excess fat cooked out and juice rare-to-medium-rare meat. To do this, make a series of thin slashes diagonally across the skin of each breast, cutting as deep into the skin as you can without cutting all the way down to the meat, so you end up with about 20 slashes. Give the breast a 90-degree turn and make a new series of about 20 slashes that cross over the other ones. The slashes l expose much of the fat contained in the skin to it will render quickly in the sauté pan.
“Season the breasts with salt and pepper and sauté them skin-side down over medium to high heat in a pan just large enough to fit them — there’s no need to put oil in the pan — 8 to 10 minutes for Long Island duckling breasts [12 to 14 for mulard], or until the breasts just begin to feel firm to the touch and skin looks brown and crispy. Turn the breasts over and cook them for 2 minutes [2 minutes for mulard] over high heat, just long enough to brown the flesh side”.
Source: Glorious French Food by James Peterson