How to make Italian meringue (and improve your sorbets)
Only about a generation ago, high-class pastry chefs and master ice cream makers would improve their sorbets by adding Italian meringue. These days, this technique is not so commonly used. But making and using Italian meringue remains a good idea, and is luckily something which can be (relatively) easily learned. Myself, I was fortunate to learn from a pro, and I will happily pass on the know-how, in 7 detailed steps.
Why Italian meringue is so interesting for sorbet-makers
Sorbets tend to be best enjoyed fresh. This is partly because they tend to deteriorate quickly if kept in the freezer for any longer time. And this, in turn, is mainly because they begin to lose air. But there are ways to help a sorbet retain a nice consistency – one major way uses egg whites. These days, most chefs probably simply whip up a raw egg white and add it to the sorbet base. But the supreme, old-fashioned way would be to cook the egg whites first … into Italian meringue.
Structurally speaking, Italian meringue works much like a whipped-up egg white: A whipped up egg white will capture and retain a lot of air. But the meringue, being much more stable, will retain the air much, much better. The meringue, once added to the sorbet, will disperse totally – ensuring a smooth, scoopable consistency, increased durability in the freezer and, arguably, an extra dimension to the whole tasting experience. If not ‘overdosed’, it should not alter the basic flavour character of the sorbet either (it will, however, pale the colour of the sorbet somewhat). Sounds great already, does it not?
There is also the health aspect: Unless pasteurised, raw eggs can contain Salmonella and should best be avoided, at least by toddlers, pregnant women and the elderly. This risk of Salmonella may be relatively small, and it varies between countries and regions. But still – the risk is there.
However – if prepared properly – the egg whites in Italian meringue will be sufficiently heated to take care of these health concerns, and should be safe to use and eat.
UPDATE: For an egg-free/easier alternative to Italian meringue – make aquafaba meringue: it may not be as classic but provides the same advantages!
Italian meringue for dummies – in 7 detailed steps
With so much apparently going for it, I just had to try Italian meringue. But how?
When you read about it, the basic steps for creating Italian meringue seem straightforward: prepare a hot sugar syrup and whip it into softly whipped egg whites till stiff. Since the sugar syrup is hot, the egg whites will be soft-cooked and you will end up with a kind of (soft) meringue. Most recipes also listed only three ingredients: water, sugar and egg whites (and some lemon juice). How hard could that be?
The trouble was that while some recipes were about as short as that, others hinted at difficulties, issues of timely co-ordination, and various temperatures to keep track of. And since I never had seen any Italian meringue before, how would I know what it should look like? I started to get the feeling that this process perhaps was not quite so uncomplicated after all.
To prevent otherwise anticipated high levels of personal frustration and the spoiling of numerous eggs, I concluded that the best way for me to learn would be to watch someone who already knew how to do it in action. Luckily, my good friend Peter Englund – experienced professional chef, former restaurateur and generally fond of ice creams – graciously offered to show me the ropes!
Before outlining the detailed steps, let me recall that the reason for being fussy with the temperatures is because of the health concerns: Ultimately, you should bring the sugar syrup up to the so-called hard-ball stage (121°C /250°F ) before it is being added to the (whipped) egg whites. In case you do not master the candy maker’s/pastry chef’s techniques to estimate the sugar-temperature brackets, I also strongly recommend that you use a sugar thermometer (I did!). Again, if the sugar syrup is not heated to the required heights, the egg whites in the resulting meringue will not have been cooked enough to be considered ‘food safe’.
A word about the amount of meringue you will get
Since it is quite difficult to work with too small volumes in the kitchen, the recipe below will make enough Italian meringue for about 4 batches of sorbet. But if you end up with too much left, you could store the Italian meringue in the freezer for a while, and use it later. Or turn on the oven (110° C/230° F for at least 1 hour should do it), and make some ‘ordinary meringues’.
Step 1 – Set up the equipment, prepare for whisking the egg whites
Since the recipe will require A LOT of whisking, it is strongly recommended to use a kitchen assistant/food processor or the like (with a whisk). It is also highly recommended that you use a sugar thermometer to be able to judge the temperatures of the sugar syrup.
Begin by putting the egg whites in the whisking bowl of the kitchen assistant. But do not begin whisking just yet.
Step 2 – Prepare hot sugar syrup
In a sauce pan, combine water, sugar and the lemon juice and begin cooking a simple sugar syrup. As you will notice, the proportion of water is markedly smaller than in ordinary “sugar syrup for sorbets”-recipes. And this quantity will even diminsh further once you begin boiling the sugar syrup. But since the purpose of the meringue is not to provide additional liquid but more stability, this is exactly as it should be.
Bring the simple sugar syrup to the boil – and keep it boiling until the syrup has reached a temperature of 110° C /230° F (the so-called “Thread-stage”).
Step 3 – Start whisking the egg whites
Now, flip the switch on your kitchen assistant and start whisking the egg whites! While continuing to boil the sugar syrup towards 122° C/ 251° F, whisk the egg whites (adding a tablespoon of sugar to them) at high speed.
Let the kitchen assistant continue to whip the egg whites to foamy, soft peaks, while you return to the boiling of the sugar syrup (you will return to the egg whites once the sugar syrup is hot enough to be added in).
Step 4 – Bring the sugar syrup to 122° C / 251° F (the so-called Hard-ball stage)
Once the sugar syrup has reached this temperature it is hot enough to make “health safe” meringue out of the whipped egg whites. No time to lose, since you want to use the syrup while it remains at this high temperature! Immediately jump to the next step!
Step 5 – Reduce the whisking speed and carefully drizzle the hot sugar syrup into the egg whites being whipped
By now, the egg whites should have been well whipped into foamy, soft peaks.
Continue whisking the egg whites but reduce the speed to medium. Then, in a thin, steady stream, carefully drizzle in all of the hot sugar syrup.
Step 6 – With all syrup added, turn up the whisking speed and continue whisking for about 10 more minutes
Once all sugar syrup has been added, turn up the whisking speed again and leave the machine to do its work for about ten more minutes. By now, the meringue should be ready and – while still warm to the touch – should also have cooled down somewhat.
Step 7 – Enjoy your Italian meringue!
Your meringue should now be ready, and look something like this:
If you have any doubts about whether it has been whisked sufficiently, you could carry out the classic “meringue-test” (demonstrated by Peter below).
Congratulations – You have now created Italian meringue!
Using the Italian meringue in sorbets
Italian meringue can basically be used together with any sorbet, and application is straightforward: When the sorbet has been churned almost to the finish, blend in an amount of meringue (roughly) representing 1 egg white.
Continue churning a bit, or simply put the sorbet in a freezer-safe container right away, cover with plastic film and a lid and store in the freezer.
How much Italian meringue should be added?
The typical amount to be added should basically reflect 1 egg white’s worth of meringue.
Using this recipe, that would mean 1/4 of the meringue created (or about 50 grams). Some like to add even more (moving towards 2 egg whites’ worth). While this obviously is a matter for personal taste, just remember that it is easier to add more than to reduce what has once been added …
In order not to turn the basic sorbet flavour into something else, it is important not to add too much of meringue. If too much is added, you will eventually end up with a sorbet that begins to shift in character, away from the basic flavour used. Ultimately, you will end up with a spoom – a particular type of sorbet, interesting in its own right but … well, different (UPDATE: read more about spooms in this post!)
Reduce the sugar in your sorbet to compensate for the sugar added by the meringue
Since the meringue you add contains sugar, you might want to reduce the sugar used for making the sorbet base accordingly. If you go by the recipe here, and the suggested amount of meringue to be added (the equivalent of 1 egg white’s worth), this would mean that the sugar you normally would use for your base sorbet should be reduced with about 40 ml/ 0.16 cup.
So, to summarise: Prepare a sorbet base of your choice but reduce the sugar with about as much sugar as will be added through the meringue later. Then (for a typical base of about 600-700 ml / 2 1/2-3 cups) add about 50 grams of Italian meringue (= 1/4 of your total acquired final meringue) and whisk into the sorbet.
Storing your Italian meringue
If not to be used immediately, the Italian meringue could luckily be stored in the freezer for later use! It will also last at least a couple of days in the refrigerator, but may begin to “weep” so freezing it is probably to be preferred.
- simple sugar syrup, made up of 60 ml water (1/4 cup) and 150 ml sugar (about 0.6 cup)
- juice of ½ lemon (about 1 teaspoon)
- 4 egg whites
- 1 tablespoon sugar [for the egg whites, not the sugar syrup]
- Place the egg whites in a food processor equipped with a whisk (or the equivalent automated help, unless you prefer to do a LOT of whisking by hand ...) but do not begin any whisking for now.
- Instead, cook the simple sugar syrup - mixing the sugar, water and the lemon juice - until all the sugar has dissolved and the liquid has reached a temperature of 110° C / 230°F (the so-called Thread-stage).
- Now, while continuing to boil the sugar syrup, turn on the food processor and begin whisking the egg whites at high speed, adding a tablespoon of sugar to them.
- When the sugar syrup has reached 122° C / 251° F (the so-called Hard-ball stage), it is hot enough to be added to the whipped egg whites (these should have been well whipped into the 'resembles foamy cream stage' by now). Turn down the whisking speed to at least medium and carefully begin drizzling in the hot sugar syrup into the whipped egg whites.
- When all the sugar syrup has been added, turn up the whisking speed to maximum again and leave for about 10-15 minutes until the meringue has cooled down somewhat and is ready.
- The ready-to-use meringue should resemble firmly whipped cream.
- # Using the meringue in sorbets:
- Prepare a sorbet base of your choice but reduce the sugar with about as much sugar as will be added through the meringue later (= about 40 ml/ 0.16 cup). Then (for a typical base of about 600-700 ml / 2½-3 cups) add about 50 grams of Italian meringue (= ¼ of your total acquired final meringue) and whisk into the sorbet.
- Continue churning the sorbet for a while and/or put the sorbet in a freezer-safe container, cover with plastic film and a lid and store in the freezer.
- The Italian meringue will generally improve consistency and smoothness through the stability and retained air it provides, also ensuring improved scoopability even after many hours in the freezer.
- If not used immediately, the Italian meringue could be stored in the freezer for later use (pack it like the sorbet!)