Meringue Mushrooms

Perfectly Hard and Crisp Meringue Mushrooms - The Aubergine Chef

I am nothing if not stubborn.

When I first started the quest to make the Buche de Noel I figured it would be an easy task. I’ve done several roulades – I just needed to test the cake to make sure I wasn’t rusty. Never in a thousand years would I have guessed how much trouble the meringue would give me. I make meringue all the time: Cold meringues to fold into batters and Swiss meringues to turn into icings.

From this point on the story gets a little long. If you just want the recipe, you can click here to download my perfect meringue mushroom recipe. If you want to just see the lessons, click here to skip down to see them. If you’d like to see the shorthand list of my experiments, results, and conclusions click here and it will skip down below the video to the list.

I had no reason to suspect the mushrooms would be difficult.

During the initial test recipe for both the cake and the meringue mushrooms I was very happy with the results. During this first experiment, the mushrooms were what I was ideally looking for: Effortless to make, ready in an hour, very white, hard and crunchy, and resistant to humidity. I was using the meringue mushroom recipe found on Joy of Baking’s website though after the second experiment I realized I hadn’t followed it precisely.

The recipe calls for 30 grams of whites or 2 eggs (this is inaccurate – more on this later), 100 grams of superfine sugar (made from granulated sugar processed in a coffee grinder), and 1/4 teaspoon of cream of tartar. I don’t remember weighing the egg whites during the initial batch – I just remember using 2 egg whites.

The second experiment was during filming.

Perfectly Hard and Crisp Meringue Mushrooms - The Aubergine ChefThere’s nothing quite like a recipe failing you while you’re recording it, but in the recipe’s defense it was I who goofed. I was filming the episode the next day and was feeling confident that the recipe and episode would both be quick successes. At this point, I thought I had the recipe for the mushrooms memorized. After all, it only had three ingredients. This time I weighed the egg whites: 100 grams.

After baking the meringues for an hour I was shocked how soft and sticky they were. “Well…” I thought, “Let’s just bake them longer.” And so I did – for another 45 minutes. They were still soft and sponge-like and were developing a beige hue. I tried picking them up, and several of them stuck well to the parchment paper. After cooling slightly for about 5-10 minutes they popped off more easily, but I didn’t remember this issue during the initial test.

I decided to follow through with the episode – they still looked fine and I couldn’t let the cake hang around until I perfected the mushrooms. After all I had events lined up almost back-to-back the following three days. The cake looked great and it was ready to be photographed. I wasn’t going to let soft – albeit tasty almost taffy-like – mushrooms stand in my way.

The next morning I decided to test the meringue mushroom recipe a couple more times.

I spent the night and a better part of the morning going over in my head possible reasons why the meringue batches came out so differently. I decided to try one batch identical to the video and the second without cream of tartar. Bear in mind, at this point I hadn’t realized I had the ingredient amounts wrong. I was still convinced I had the recipe committed to memory.

Both batches came out identical to the batch I made during the recording. “If it isn’t the cream of tartar then it must be the temperature of the oven,” I concluded, “I must have had the temperature higher when I did the initial batch.”

I was so convinced that I had the temperature higher during the initial batch that I would’ve bet money on it. Wanting to get the episode uploaded in a couple days, I quickly edited the video adding in captions about the temperature.

I would soon discover how wrong I was.

After uploading the video and nearly completing the blog post I noticed something was wrong.

The video had already completed uploading to YouTube and I was in the process of proofreading the blog post and recipes when I noticed the recipe I had typed up read, “30 grams of egg whites.” I panicked. “I could’ve sworn it say 100 grams of egg whites!” I thought to myself. I verified this with the original recipe confirming that it was 30 grams of egg whites. While I was weighing out the ingredients for the third and fourth batches I had noticed I needed three eggs instead of two and thought it was odd. I brushed it off thinking that the issue was that they were all differently sized farm fresh eggs – totally common.

However, that didn’t excuse the 70 gram difference. What was I going to do? The video with the wrong amounts had already been pushed to all my subscribers. Never one to blatantly hide my mistakes I decided to disclose what I had done and make plans to record an extra scene to rectify the situation. I announced this in the video’s description on YouTube, as an annotation directly in the video, and on the social media where I pushed the actual link to the blog post.

That night I returned home from teaching a cake decorating class ready to quickly rerecord the scene.

“I finally figured out what I did!” I thought to myself, “I used 100 grams of egg whites instead of 30 grams! I must’ve been more precise during the initial experiment!” I still remember how anxious I felt driving home from class feeling surprisingly confident that I had found the issue.

It wasn’t two seconds after I took off my shoes that I was in the kitchen getting ready to separate an egg. I dropped the first white into the bowl of the mixer. It read 30 grams.

“How is that possible? I thought two egg whites together weighed 30 grams?” I gawked in awe. That would mean an egg white weighs between 25-50 grams depending on the size, and on average weighs about 30 grams. This would also mean the recipe I found has a mistake in it.

At this point I was ready to try anything and decided to follow through with the recipe exactly as it was, but once the whites finished whipping up I noticed immediately there was barely any meringue in the bowl and the appearance was grainy from the sugar. There was no way I used 30 grams of whites the first time, because I wouldn’t even get a quarter of the mushrooms with this small amount.

I tossed it out without baking it, though if I had baked it off I may have come to the conclusion much sooner.

After the 30 gram batch was decidedly wrong I decided to go back to my idea with the temperature to confirm it.

Perfectly Hard and Crisp Meringue Mushrooms - The Aubergine ChefIt would’ve been so much easier had this been the answer all along. Even as I was testing the next two batches I had my doubts this was the answer. Even though I couldn’t remember which temperature I used to bake the initial batch, I knew it wasn’t any higher than 200 degrees F. I remembered this so clearly because of how much the “WARM” setting below 200 stood out to me. On top of that, we are always told to bake meringue at a low temperature. Despite all this I was curious and so I held out hope.

Batch 6 was made with 100g of superfine sugar and 100g of whites and baked for 90 minutes at 200-225 degrees F in the oven and most resembled batch 2 (the one that was made during the filming) meaning they were soft, chewy, and light beige.

It was at this point my obsession with developing the perfect meringue mushroom recipe had begun.

As I readied meringue mushroom batch 7 to bake, I hesitated.

Would baking them at 275-300 degrees F really be the answer?

“Macarons are baked at 300 degrees F,” I reasoned with the strained logic of man possessed, “It could work.”

Considering that batch 6 wasn’t really any closer to the ideal, I was 90% sure this wasn’t the answer but I needed to see what would happen. I was swallowed up by my obsession. I was blindly groping for hope while ignoring reason, ignoring my baker’s instinct, ignoring my education.

Yet while baking is considered an exact science by most, the interaction of the ingredients during the baking process can still be somewhat unpredictable. Yolks are considered to be a fat and yet often times when baked behave as a protein. Adding oil to a cake makes it flexible but can also make it fragile and greasy. Each ingredient has multiple functions in a recipe depending on the quantity used and the other ingredients present in the recipe. By and large, it’s the ratio of the ingredients that determine how the recipe comes out. Hm, the ratio – keep that in mind as you read further.

In any event after baking the meringue at 275-300 degrees F for 90 minutes they came out as any one could have predicted. They were very tan in color and still soft and chewy. The flavor was deeper and caramel-like. I noted that the stems were much crunchier than the caps – the kind of crunchy I was looking for.

Meringue mushroom batch 8 was a step in a different direction.

The 6 or so previous batches taught me quite a bit and eliminated several options. Batch 3 and 4 taught me cream of tartar had no effect on meringue in terms of my ideal meringue mushroom. Batch 6 and 7 taught me the ideal temperature range was somewhere between 150-250 degrees F. Batch 5 taught me that I used two egg whites during the initial batch. At this point there was only one variable left that could have the effect I was looking for: The amount of whites.

100 g of whites was closer to three egg whites, but I ignored this fact while I tested the other variables. Had I changed the weight of the whites during the past few batches I would not have been able to isolate the cream of tartar or temperature variables. I wanted the 100 g of whites to work because it was easier. It was easier to remember and it was easier to get a large batch of mushrooms. However, I conceded that it was time to alter the ratio of whites to sugar. At this point I was confident this was the answer.

After baking 75 grams of egg whites to 100 grams of sugar at 150-200 degrees F I was dismayed to discover the mushrooms were more or less identical to batch 2 – they were white but very soft and chewy and not ready after an hour of baking.

What did this mean? I was so sure this was the answer. I thought hard on what other variables could have taken place during the now mythical first batch. Could it have been the stiffness of the meringue? Was batch 1′s stiffness much stiffer than the other batches? I reasoned that it couldn’t be a specific stiffness. I distinctly remembered how the meringue behaved and knew it couldn’t be the stiffness. Besides, how could I convey such a narrow ideal of stiffness? Sure I could advise mixing for a specified period of time but what if they don’t have a KitchenAid mixer? What if they don’t have my exact model? This would not fit into my ideal of a effortless recipe.

Then I remember the first batch was made the same day as the Buche de Noel. Did I place the meringues in a near 400 degree F oven and then reduce the temperature to 150? I toyed with the idea of it making some reasonable sense. Pate a choux, the dough used to make cream puffs and eclairs, is baked at a high temperature to encourage rapid expansion then brought to a lower temperature to dry out the inside without burning the outside. Could this be a similar situation? I was skeptical since the meringues don’t expand, but really anything was possible.

Regardless I wasn’t looking forward to this test. I had spent the better part of my day struggling to finish what was supposed to be a very simple project. Now the recipe was getting more and more complicated, further and further from my ideal, and resembled the first batch less and less.

Distraught and frustrated I left for my hair appointment.

I told my meringue mushrooms woes to my hair stylist.

Perfectly Hard and Crisp Meringue Mushrooms - The Aubergine ChefShe and her fellow stylists loved the chewy meringues I brought her to munch on but she empathized with my frustration for the perfect recipe. Near the end of my appointment my stylist’s former tech, Kat, came to me and said, “When I was a kid, we made meringue cookies literally every weekend.” Why hadn’t I thought of asking my fellow bakers for advice? Why was I being so stubborn that I had to figure this out on my own? Other people must’ve done some legwork at this point and it would’ve definitely shortened my journey.

We talked about cream of tartar which I was already using but then she mentioned powdered sugar. At first I was skeptical. American powdered sugar has about 3% cornstarch in it – how would the eggs react? Would they whip up at all? She was confident that powdered sugar works and the more I thought about it the more I liked the idea. The cornstarch could absorb additional moisture and help dry the meringues while simultaneously making them more resistant to humidity. This was all conjecture of course, but I knew those were some of the reasons cornstarch was added to powdered sugar.

I resolved to trying powdered sugar in batch 9 of the meringue mushrooms.

I separated two egg whites into my mixer bowl and discovered they weighed about 60 grams. I reached for another egg to round it out to 75 grams again but then I stopped. While the 75 gram batch didn’t work, did I really think 3% of cornstarch would make that much of a difference to the meringues? At this size of a batch that would mean of the 100 grams of powdered sugar I was using, 97 grams was sugar and 3 grams was cornstarch. I decided to test the tighter ratio of whites to sugar along with the cornstarch hidden in the powdered sugar. I baked them in the oven at 200-225 degrees F and waited anxiously.

The results were perfect. I pulled from the oven the mushrooms I had been seeking for days. They were smooth with slight character defining cracks. They were brilliantly white with almost no coloring even where they met the pan. They were hard and crunchy and while they were slightly chewy on the inside right out of the oven they firmed up nicely once cool. They were lightweight and held up well to humidity.

I felt energized and renewed. All the complicated possibilities of stiffness and oven temperature switching had become obsolete. I texted my stylist to thank Kat for her encouragement and her idea. At this point it was either the tighter ratio, the cornstarch, or both that made the meringues perfect. Even if the cornstarch wasn’t the answer I discovered a time saving step: Instead of grinding the granulated sugar in a coffee grinder I could just use straight powdered sugar.

Perfectly Hard and Crisp Meringue Mushrooms - The Aubergine Chef

Now it was time to isolate the variable that made the perfect meringue mushrooms.

I had baked meringue mushrooms for 6 hours that day but the obsession was far from sated. I had to refine the recipe so perfectly to the point where replicating it was like having me standing in your kitchen preparing the mushrooms for you.

I decided the easier variable to test was the cornstarch. The powdered sugar didn’t require the extra step of grinding the granulated sugar. Plus if the cornstarch did aid in the drying of the meringue it would make the egg white range much less narrow resulting in fewer failed batches especially if someone didn’t own a scale. I increased the egg whites to 75 grams and awaited the results.

Had the meringues come out perfect my journey would have been over. Unfortunately, batch 10 was not a success. The meringues resembled batch 8 almost perfectly which basically told me the cornstarch had very little effect on the egg whites during the baking process.

At this point I was about 8 hours into baking and I knew I wouldn’t have the solution ready in time to film the scene.

I was growing tired and even though I was passionate about developing the recipe it was not enough to keep me going. I also had to make dinner for my partner and I, which further dragged out my time spent in the kitchen.

I announced on Facebook and Google+ that I was coming close to a solution but it probably wouldn’t be available that day. My friend Jenni, baking blogger at Pastry Chef Online, saw my post and asked if she could help. She solidly confirmed what I was bumbling into as a conclusion: It was in fact the ratio of egg whites to sugar that would determine how the meringue would bake. A meringue’s resistance to humidity is collectively folded into the concept of a stable meringue. She told me her fail safe stable meringue recipe was a ratio of 2 parts sugar to 1 part whites. So for 100 grams of sugar we would need 50 grams of whites.

To confirm her ratio idea and the results from batch 9 I baked batch 11 using 58 grams of egg whites (I was not about to open a third egg for just 2 grams of whites). If batch 11 failed that would mean I would need fewer whites. However, if batch 11 succeeded that would mean the range for whites would indeed lie between Jenni’s 50 grams and my 60 grams. Remember that the 75 gram batch failed so anything between 60 grams and 75 grams was risky, but I was comfortable with the idea of, at minimum, an error threshold of 10 grams of whites.

Fortunately batch 11 came out perfectly and identical to batch 9 meaning I had finally perfected the recipe.

There was one thing that bothered me about my perfected meringue mushroom recipe.

I never truly isolated cornstarch/powdered sugar as a variable. Sure, I tested it to see if it would work the same as superfine sugar but I never went back to superfine sugar after perfecting the recipe. I had come this far already. Two more batches wouldn’t kill me.

I had to make these batches perfectly identical. I had to see if the cornstarch really made the difference in the recipe. I had to see if it truly mattered if I used powdered sugar or superfine sugar. Each batch used 60 grams of whites and 100 grams of the respective sugar. I baked them side by side on the same sheet pan.

The results were reassuring. Both batches came out nearly identical. Looking at each batch their coloring and rustic cracking was indistinguishable. Had I not drawn lines on the parchment paper, you wouldn’t have known I used two different sugars.

However, you could definitely taste the difference. The powdered sugar meringue mushrooms had a bit of a starchy flavor. It’s not unpleasant but given the choice between the two I would prefer the superfine sugar.

In any case batch 12 and 13 revealed that the cornstarch in powdered sugar played little, if any, role in the stability of the meringue mushrooms. In order to fully flesh out this idea, I would have to increase the cornstarch batch by batch to see how it works but I had already reached my goal. I’m leaving the cornstarch concept for somebody else to figure out.

And so the final batch, batch 14, is the batch you see in the video below.

Perfectly Hard and Crisp Meringue Mushrooms - The Aubergine ChefSince I preferred the taste of superfine sugar I went back to using it. I also liked the idea of showing how you can make superfine sugar using a coffee grinder.

It’s been a long journey and if you’re still reading this I’m glad you stuck with me all this way. I hope that I’ve done the legwork for you and that it will save you time, money, and trouble for when you work with meringue.

Remember this doesn’t only affect meringue mushrooms. First, you can shape the meringue anyway you want such as making the classic meringue swans. Second, you can use this concept for tweaking the way you like your meringue on a lemon meringue pie. While I prefer a Swiss meringue on my pie – which is far more stable than any French meringue – you now have options and an idea how to tweak the recipe. Instead of using a blow torch to brown the meringue you can pop your topped pie into the oven and, depending on the ratio of whites to sugar, you can have a dry crunchy topping or a soft chewy taffy-like topping. Thirdly, other meringue desserts can benefit from this knowledge immensely especially the ever finicky pavlovas. I haven’t really made pavlovas but when I do make them I’ll have inside knowledge on how to make them successful sooner. Food science is important!

By the way, have you ever heard you can’t make meringue when it’s raining outside? You can just throw that myth out the window. True, humidity can affect royal icing which is very close to meringue in terms of ingredients but since we bake these guys off in the oven and make them extra stable we don’t have any issues. In fact nearly all the batches I made while it was raining outside.

Consider these lessons that I’ve learned from this quest.

Always use a scale – I always tell you this and I always tell my students this, but now it’s even more important. At amounts this small a difference of 10-15 grams could mean a failed batch of meringue. If you’re using farm fresh eggs like I am and they are all different sizes there’s no way you can rely on the whites weighing consistently from egg to egg. For a sure fire meringue mushroom, you must use a scale.

You can make a meringue with powdered sugar – Don’t you just love breaking pastry rules? Maybe we’re not actually breaking a rule, but it’s nice to know that in a pinch powdered sugar can be used to make a decent meringue.

Reach out for help – Before committing to 14 batches of a recipe, I really should have drawn on the best resources I have: Friends. Kat and Jenni with Pastry Chef Online were both extremely helpful in this journey and had I gone to them sooner I would’ve saved myself a decent amount of trouble. Of course, it’s also helpful to have all this extra data.

Now could there still exist other recipes that work?

Of course there could be! There are so many variables in baking and even in this recipe alone so there could be tons of ideas on how to make the perfect meringue mushroom recipe. Let’s say you don’t like how mine are hard and crunchy all the way through – maybe if you used the 75 grams egg whites to 100 grams sugar ratio and baked them at a lower temperature for a longer time you’d like them better. I’ve heard of recipes that recommend you leave the meringues in the oven overnight with only the pilot light on (provided you have a gas oven, of course). This recipe is perfect for me because it accomplishes everything I’m looking for in this recipe. If you were to ask my friends which batch they liked best, most would say the taffy-like 75:100 batches. The important thing to know is that through my quest you and I both know how to achieve the meringues we want or at the very least we both have a shorter journey should we decide to perform more experiments.

Here is the recipe for the meringue mushrooms.

Just click here to download my perfect meringue mushroom recipe. The video is below if you’d like to see it. Thank you for watching! Below the video, I’ve short-handed the tests and results so you can quickly compare each test.

Here is the shorthand list of the experiments and results.

Perfectly Hard and Crisp Meringue Mushrooms - The Aubergine ChefThe blog post above goes through the story of how I came up with these experiments and expands on the conclusions from the results. I just wanted to make it faster and easier to read. Bear in mind, my oven runs hot so while I set my oven on the lower temperature it often reaches the higher temperature in the range listed.

Test 1 – Mythical perfect mushrooms, done prior to filming
Hard, hollow, crunchy, very white with lightly tanned bottoms
Unknown amount of whites (2 eggs), 100 g superfine sugar, tartar
1 hour in oven, Unknown temp

Test 2 – During filming
100 g whites, 100 g superfine sugar, tartar
Soft, chewy, light tan
2 hours in oven, 150-200

Test 3 – Identical to test 2

Test 4 – Identical to test 3 without cream of tartar, results were the same as test 2 and 3
Conclusion: Cream of tartar has little to no effect on the meringue during the baking process

Test 5 – 30 grams of egg whites (only 1 egg), thrown out
Too small, didn’t resemble test 1 at all
Conclusion: I used at least 2 egg whites during batch 1

Test 6
100 g whites, 100 g superfine sugar, tartar
Soft, chewy, light tan
90 minutes in oven

Test 7
100 g whites, 100 g superfine sugar, tartar
Very tan, soft, chewy, caramel-like flavor
Stems were crunchier than caps
90 minutes in oven
Conclusion: The ideal temperature is between 150-250 degrees F.

Test 8
75 g whites, 100 g superfine sugar tartar
White, very soft and chewy
60 minutes in the oven (not ready)
Conclusion: 150-200 degrees is not hot enough and 75 grams of whites is still too much

Test 9
60 g whites, 100g powdered sugar, tartar
Perfect – hard and crunchy, very white, light, resists humidity, not sticky
Conclusion: Powdered sugar can be used to make a meringue

Test 10
75 g whites, 100g powdered sugar, tartar
White, very soft and chewy, not ready at 60 minutes
Conclusion: Powdered sugar does not increase the range amount of egg whites that can be used.

Test 11
58 g whites, 100g powdered sugar, tartar
Perfect – hard and crunchy, very white, light, resists humidity, not sticky
Conclusion: The ideal amount of egg whites is 50 – 60 grams. 60-70 grams remains untested.

Test 12
60 g whites, 100g powdered sugar, tartar
Perfect – hard and crunchy, very white, light, resists humidity, not sticky, slight starchy flavor
Conclusion: Confirms egg to sugar ratio

Test 13
60g whites, 100g superfine sugar, tartar
Perfect – hard and crunchy, very white, light, resists humidity, not sticky
Conclusion: The cornstarch in powdered sugar has little to no effect on how the meringues bake

Test 14 – Filmed
60 g whites, 100g superfine sugar, tartar, whipped for about 5 minutes on speed 10 on my 4.5 quart KitchenAid
Perfect – hard and crunchy, very white, light, resists humidity, not sticky

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Posted in Cookies, Studies
6 comments on “Meringue Mushrooms
  1. Jenni says:

    Oh, Jason! I wish I could have saved you earlier from your meringue shenanigans, but you certainly did gather a lot of data. Plus, it kept you off the streets and out of trouble on a Friday night! lol

    The buche and ‘shrooms both look wonderful! :)

    • Thank you Jenni!

      Hahaha Yes! It did indeed keep me out of trouble!

      All in all though it was a good experience even after all the work. It’s amazing how we can be such accomplished bakers and yet still have areas we need to brush up on! Well I guess we can’t know *everything* but we certainly can try! ^.^

  2. I love this post and your tenacity. I’ll bet your meringue mushrooms were delicious (as I’m sure your Buche de Noel was too) and I do intend to try them someday soon – when my patience is at a high-water mark and my eyes are sharp so I can read and follow your directions with precision. Bravo Jason!

    • Thank you Laura! Stubborness – tenacity, tomato – tomatoe hahaha The recipe is much more concise, but I just HAD to share the insanity of how I ended up with the recipe hence the crazy long post. I think a lot of bloggers go through similar experiences when they are developing recipes.

  3. Candido says:

    Hey Jason, in all is good so you know the process required to achieve what you need… and yes Keeping you out of trouble sound good….
    Now they do look good and I can tell you that myself pastry chef for 25 year heaving problems with meringue at this point and I’m having fun. My boss wants mille feuille of meringue. But he wants it to be able to be in the fridge for up to 5 hours with the same consistency. Oh and buy the way he wants it completely finished with a cappuccino mouse. Could you give him a call and let him know the possibilities! Oh he says that I’m the expert but he will not listen!!!

    • Oh Candido, I feel your pain! Sometimes people just don’t understand how delicate certain components are. You might be able to make the meringue layers for the mille feuille and store them in an air tight container at room temperature and then assemble them a la minute, but I’m not sure how feasible that is. It certainly sounds delicious though! Good luck!

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