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"What does salt do to a meringue mixture?"

Dear Anne and Sue,

I would like to know what the addition of a pinch of salt does to a meringue mixture?

—Diane, Australia


Still have more questions? You'll find more answers in our archived monthly feature articles by the Inquisitive Cooks.

(Meet the Inquisitive Cooks)

Hi Diane,

Thanks for checking in from the other side of the world! When we think of meringue and Australia, we also think Pavlova, a favorite dessert of ours!

For those not familiar with meringues, they're made primarily of beaten egg whites and sugar. Before beginning, allow the whites to stand at room temperature for 30 minutes so they will reach their full volume during beating. During beating, the egg whites first form a froth, then turn into a thick snowy foam as sugar is slowly added. Sometimes cornstarch, vinegar, or cream of tartar are also included.

Depending on the amount of sugar included and the way it's baked, the meringue can be hard or soft. Some meringues are shaped to form a large base that becomes a showcase for fruit and whipped cream, called Pavlova, the dessert we referred to above. This dessert was created in the l920s to honor the great Russian ballerina, Anna Pavlova and her visit Down Under. Others become cookies, pie toppings or individual meringues, served with a soft filling or fresh fruit.

But your question as to the purpose of salt in meringues is a good one. The addition of salt to the beaten egg-white mixture is primarily for flavor. But it's been found to have two other effects on meringues as well. But it's been found to have two other effects on meringues as well. First, salt promotes the coagulation of proteins, which means you have to beat the egg whites longer to unwind the bunched up (coagulated) protein strands and stretch them into the thin films that encase air bubbles and create foam. Second, if added too early, it decreases the stability of the beaten egg whites, which in turn weakens the protein network that forms the structure of the meringue.

In practical terms, if you must use salt in a meringue, add it after the egg whites are beaten and the meringue has formed. It's doubtful, however, that you would miss it. We often omit salt when we make meringues.

We're already looking forward to fresh fruits topping magical Pavlovas, as spring and summer come to our part of the world.

Anne and Sue




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