What’s the difference between French, Italian, and Swiss meringues? It’s actually quite simple. Spoiler alert: They each start with egg white and sugar and result in sweetly stunning impressiveness. We also include a vegan alternative.
When you witness the windswept peaks of a mile-high meringue pie impressively towering over everything else at the dessert table, it’s hard to fathom how those ethereal swoops are the result of only two ingredients. In one of the most mesmerizing and inexpensive forms of kitchen alchemy around, meringue is formed when a lowly puddle of egg whites is beaten with an equally unassuming scoop of sugar into a billowing white cloud.
With just two kitchen staples and a one-bowl minimalist technique, it would seem there’s nothing to be improved upon when it comes to making meringue. Why mess with a good thing, right?
Meringues are like the different tools on a Swiss Army knife—each is incredibly useful but requires the baker to know which kind to use for which occasion. If you want it to be less prone to “weeping” on top of your pie, there’s a type for that. Or if you wanted to use meringue on something cold you couldn’t put back in the oven, like a baked Alaska, there’s another type. What if you wanted to make a dessert even your vegan friends or those with compromised immune systems could enjoy? Achieving some of these results necessitates changes in method and process that result in slightly different, but not less delicious, meringues that can cover a wide array of purposes.
Here’s the difference between all of these and when you should use them.
Think of this as “Meringues 101,” which would have been the best chemistry class ever. When egg whites are whipped, this agitation starts to unfold the proteins. These loose strands are now free to grab onto something new. These proteins grapple around the air bubbles, preventing them from escaping. This gradually makes a light foam. These bubbles are further strengthened by the sugar, which imparts a thick, glossy quality and helps keep the structure long after you’ve put the whisk down.
All meringues operate on this same basic principle, with the variables being how and when the sugar is added.
French meringue is the classic meringue and should be the starting point for any beginner to master.
How to make French meringue
For this style of meringue, room-temperature egg whites are whipped to soft peaks and then the sugar is added slowly while still beating until the whites are shiny and the desired texture.
When to use French meringue
Made of raw unheated egg whites, this meringue is almost always baked or otherwise cooked after this point, whether it’s fashioned into a nest with large swoops and swirls for pavlova and then baked, dolloped onto baking sheets for airy, gluten-free, Passover-friendly cookies as with these swirled meringue cookies, or delicately shaped into quenelles and gently poached in milk for the French classic, Ile flottante. When properly cooked, this style of meringue is safe for the very young, the very old, the very pregnant, and anyone with a compromised immune system.
Make sure your bowl is immaculately clean and your egg whites are 100% free of any yolks, since fat will prevent the whites from whipping properly. Always add the sugar slowly, by the spoonful, so you don’t risk deflating all that loftiness you worked so hard to beat into the whites. Also, you want to beat it only until you reach “stiff peaks,” which is when you can turn your whisk upside down and the meringue clinging to it holds a mountain shape that doesn’t fall over. If you keep going after that point, the meringue will turn lumpy and grainy like ricotta cheese, and you’ll have to start over from scratch.
French meringue is the least stable of the bunch, so plan to bake or cook it right away after mixing to minimize the chance of collapse, which happens when the proteins in the egg white stop wanting to be friends with the sugar and trapped air and your meringue returns to its soupy origins.
The high-wire act of meringue cookery, Italian meringue requires working with hot sugar and isn’t for the faint of heart. The results, however, are worth it. This style of meringue has a glossy sheen with a delightful marshmallow-y texture that’s so good you’ll want to eat it straight from the bowl. We dare you to try and have enough left for your actual dessert.
How to make Italian meringue
Here, sugar and water is heated in a saucepan and brought to 240°F (118°C), the soft ball stage of candy making. Then, this boiling sugar is carefully drizzled into the partially whipped egg whites while they’re being beaten. The warmth of the sugar syrup serves to “cook” the egg whites, stabilizing their proteins and ensuring they hold their shape when piped. The payoff for that effort means this meringue is able to be eaten as-is and is the most stable of the bunch, holding up very well to piping even in the height of summer.
When to use Italian meringue
Because of its stability, Italian meringue is an ideal candidate for topping all manner of fruit and citrus tarts or a cold dessert you wouldn’t want to return to the oven. Italian meringue can still be baked like its French cousin, though it will have a slightly chewier, firmer texture in the center, so don’t expect the same featherlight consistency.
Being a “cooked” meringue, Italian meringue is a great candidate to transform into a buttercream for all your cake frosting needs! Meringue buttercreams are known for their smooth-as-silk consistency and contain less sugar than an American buttercream made with butter and powdered sugar. Keep in mind that premium stability means a buttercream that will be firmer than the pillowy clouds of a Swiss meringue buttercream.
This method can feel a bit like rolling the dice for the uninitiated. The egg whites can deflate while you’re waiting for the syrup to get to temperature. The sugar syrup can burn. The egg whites can scramble if the sugar syrup is added too quickly. And you can burn yourself if you’re not careful. This one is a challenge, so don’t be discouraged if yours doesn’t go right the first time.
You can’t eyeball the sugar temperature like you sometimes can with darker caramels, so it’s always recommended that you use a quality digital thermometer. For the best results, tilt the pan to the side as needed to get the sugar to pool for an easier read. Start whipping your egg whites when the syrup gets around 210° to 215°F (99° to 102°C). This is the time to pull out your stand mixer so you aren’t trying to hold a running hand mixer while drizzling boiling hot syrup into your bowl. If you’re beating on medium speed with most brands of stand mixers, this should get you in the “soft peaks” ballpark by the time your syrup reaches 240°F (116°C).
This also might be stating the obvious, but hot sugar is dangerous and can hurt you if handled improperly! This is the time to pull out your stand mixer so you aren’t trying to hold a running hand mixer while drizzling boiling hot syrup into your bowl.
Given everything that can go wrong with Italian meringue, we’re so thankful there’s an easier option for home cooks who want the benefits of a cooked meringue without the fear.
How to make Swiss meringue
With Swiss meringue, you mix the sugar and egg whites in a heatsafe bowl resting on top of a pot of barely simmering water (the bowl shouldn’t touch the water). After whisking until the sugar dissolves and the mixture reaches 160°F (71°C), the bowl comes off the heat and the mixture is whisked until it reaches the desired firmness. The sugar in solution with the egg whites prevents scrambling as they’re heated, and this ensures no graininess in your finished meringue.
When to use Swiss meringue
This is a great all-around meringue that, like French meringue, is welcome when simply baked atop pie. One of our favorite uses is beating it with butter into Swiss meringue buttercream, which you’ll recognize as the signature frosting for wedding cakes, but it’s just as suitable on your favorite sheet cake.
It might take you a little while to get the egg mixture to 160°F [71°C] (up to 10 minutes), but don’t increase the heat beyond a bare simmer, as this can overheat the bowl and cook the eggs too quickly, resulting in clumps. If you don’t have a thermometer, you can tell the whites are ready by testing with your thumb and index finger. It will be quite warm to the touch and when you rub your fingers together it will be completely smooth. If the egg whites feel grainy, the sugar hasn’t fully dissolved yet, so return to the heat and continue until you no longer feel the sugar. While you can use any bowl for this and mix it by hand, many stand mixers come with heatproof bowls and can be used as a makeshift double boiler, helper handle included!
Also, if you’re planning to make a buttercream frosting, you’ll want to ensure it’s cooled back to room temperature (around 70°F | 21°C) before adding your butter, otherwise it will melt and you’ll end up with soup.
Thankfully, those with egg-allergies, weakened immune systems, or vegan lifestyles can enjoy the glory of meringue using a shelf-stable staple found in almost everyone’s pantry: cans of chickpeas. By early 2015, experiments ingeniously uncovered that the starchy leftover cooking liquid from soaking and preparing beans, primarily chickpeas and white beans, behaves nearly identically to egg whites in meringues. This formerly discarded liquid was dubbed aquafaba (Latin for “bean water”) and entire internet fandoms quickly coalesced around this plant-based substitute.
It can easily be used to make a vegan meringue that also serves those with undercooked egg concerns, and can even transform into Italian and Swiss-style meringues and buttercreams as well.
How to make a vegan meringue
Start by opening a can of chickpeas and drain the chickpeas over a bowl, collecting the liquid. Then measure out 2 tablespoons of the liquid in place of each egg white called for in the recipe. Then proceed as usual, keeping in mind that aquafaba will take a little longer to become frothy and glossy than egg whites. You can use this substitution to make any of the French, Italian, or Swiss meringues above.
You can even use vegan meringue to make a meringue buttercream using a plant-based butter substitute for the same quantity of dairy butter called for in the recipe.
Also, aquafaba freezes well, so the next time you open a can of chickpeas, freeze the aquafaba in an ice cube tray, putting 2 tablespoons worth in each cavity, and then once the cubes are solid, remove them and store them in a freezer container. Then whenever you need to make a meringue, thaw 1 cube per egg needed and follow the recipe as directed.
When to use a vegan meringue
Since French, Italian, or Swiss meringues can all be made vegan, the primary consideration for making an aquafaba-based meringue is who your audience is. This is a great option for when you are concerned about an undercooked meringue topping for a pie when someone has a compromised immune system and may be more susceptible to bacteria in uncooked eggs. If you’re following a plant-based diet for any reason, this allows you to make all those same special desserts that were previously off-limits. Also, maybe you just hate separating eggs or eat a ton of chickpeas. All good reasons to give vegan meringue a try!
While you can use any can of chickpeas you have, we recommend sticking with no salt added or reduced-sodium varieties so you can control the amount of salt added
Depending on how “dirty” your aquafaba is (how many chickpea particles remain after straining), this meringue will take the longest to whip, so we don’t recommend trying to hand whisk meringue made with this.
Vegan meringues tend to brown much more quickly than their egg-based cousins, so it’s likely you’ll need to bake or torch them for less time when making a dessert topping.