Macarons have come out of hiding in recent years. Whereas formerly bakers favored pale, pastel colors, today’s assortments push the boundaries with brighter, more vivid colors and flavors. Once the basic recipe is mastered, the flavor possibilities are endless—yet that’s a big hurdle to leap. These seemingly light, airy confections are renowned for being tricky to master.
While a talented baker can create ovals or heart-shaped macarons, most are circular. The average macaron is approximately 2 in. in diameter. The proper appearance includes a smooth, glossy top above a slightly frilly or ruffled “foot” at the base. The texture is light and airy with a slight, but not tough, chew. A cross-sectional cut should reveal an interior with an even, spongy texture without large air pockets. Macarons of similar size can then be sandwiched around jelly, ganache, or buttercream.
The secret to achieving this ideal depends on the meringue, as the macaron is a meringue-based cookie created with four simple, basic ingredients—almond flour, egg whites, sugar (granulated, confectioners, or a blend), and flavoring. When baked, steam is released from the meringue or whipped egg white, causing it to rise and create its classic structure.
Choose your meringue
Bakers have a choice between two different methods of meringue preparation: French or Italian. An Italian meringue involves heat, forming a meringue by whisking the egg whites with a hot sugar syrup. The key is to blend it slowly to produce a glossy, stable foam. Reportedly the Italian method produces a finer crumb than the French method, for a smoother mouthfeel. Most commercial bakeries use the Italian method. With the meringue still slightly warm, it is time to mix in the dry ingredients.
A French meringue does not require any heat. Egg whites are beaten to form a stiff meringue, followed by folding in the almond flour and confectioner’s sugar or a confectioner’s/granulated blend.
The result should be a thick, glossy and sticky batter, which the baker deposits in the form of small discs, onto the selected baking medium. With the French method it is advisable to allow the macarons to rest prior to baking, for anywhere from 20 to 45 minutes.The texture of the almond flour, the temperature, state and ratio of the sugars used, the moisture content of the egg white, along with random environmental variables, such as temperature and humidity, can all play a role in the degree of success creating a macaron.
As the critical component within a meringue, a proper understanding of the egg’s role helps foster success. Careful separation of the eggs is key; only pure whites without any yolk or other oils will create the properly textured meringue. Another key is to avoid overbeating the egg whites; overbeating leads to separation. When egg whites are beaten, the proteins within unfold and then join back together to form a reinforced network between positively and negatively charged molecules. A medium stiff meringue will form soft, yet sturdy, peaks. As the egg whites form bonds, water droplets are trapped within this protein matrix. Sugar helps stabilize the egg white foam to make it thicker and less likely to collapse. When egg whites are overbeaten, the water breaks through the protein matrix and is released back into the mixture.
French bakers have a history of using copper bowls to make meringues, since copper ions have a tendency to form tight bonds with reactive groups. This prevents the egg whites from binding too tightly together and helps avoid protein separation. Others might introduce a small amount of acid (lemon juice or cream of tartar) since the acid interferes with the protein-protein interactions.
No single written article can replace a proper course of instruction. The American Egg Board has partnered with Rouxbe Global Food Group, a premier online culinary school, to create course materials and training for cooks and chefs, specifically related to fostering a greater understanding of one of baking’s fundamentals, the egg. The egg curriculum includes two courses: Foundations and Functionality. Find the registration and more information at eggpro.rouxbe.com.