I’m not going to beat around the bush here, Lemon Meringue Pie is not a walk in the park. It seems relatively simple, but it’s actually very technical. And trust me, I am no expert. Yet.
The first time I ever had Lemon Meringue was the second Thanksgiving I was married. My husband grew up on this pie, and it is his absolute favorite. I figured since we’d be married for awhile, I should probably learn how to make it. My first go round with this recipe was alright. I was clueless, so I just tried to follow the instructions the best I could. What I didn’t realize was the technical aspects of the pie that can make or break it. It did turn out tasting pretty good, but it wasn’t the best pie my hubby had ever eaten,
The next time I made it, I tried really hard to make it amazing. It tasted pretty good, but the filling and the meringue separated so it looked unappealing inside.
So, pull up a chair, take some notes, and I’ll do my best to walk you through some hints that can help you make a successful Lemon Meringue! Keep in mind, nothing I say is guaranteed to work 100%, 100% of the time. Factors like humidity, temperature of the eggs, consistency of the filling, temperature of your oven, what type of bowl you use, what type of beaters you use, exactly how long you beat the eggs, how big your crust is, etc, all play into making the pie look and taste good.
Tip number one: Prep your ingredients.
It took me quite awhile to grate all the lemon rind, squeeze the juice out, and then fish out the seeds. I used the rind and juice of 4 medium lemons. I like to smush the lemons gently with the heel of my hand to soften the inside, then grate the outside into a small bowl, then squeeze the juice into a separate bowl. You can add them together, though, since they’ll be added in the filling at the same time.
After your lemons are prepped, wash your hands. Crack the egg over your mixing bowl for the meringue. Let the whites slide through your fingers and catch the yolk in your palm. Unless you have a cool egg separator, which I do not. Please make absolute sure there is not one single, tiny, drop of yolk in your whites! And double check that none of the shell made it in the bowl either…that may or may not have happened to me… Give the yolks a whisk to lightly beat them together.
Set the eggs aside. At this point, you can start mixing the meringue if you want. I highly recommend a stand mixer for this! If not, you can still beat it with a hand mixer, but your arm will be tired. If using a hand mixer, I would recruit a helper to make the meringue while you make the filling. More on the meringue in a second.
Combine the sugar and cornstarch in a heavy saucepan. Whisk in the cold water. Why cold? It will allow the cornstarch to dissolve properly. Hot water will cause the cornstarch to clump up and not get smooth. Whisk together until smooth and then bring to a boil. Make sure to keep stirring constantly so the filling doesn’t burn.
It will start out very watery looking and feeling. Then it’ll start to turn more clear. Little “pieces” of thicker stuff will start popping up. Just keep stirring and it’ll come together, promise. Bring it to a boil that doesn’t hide when you stir. Let it boil for 2-3 minutes. Then pour about a half cup of the hot mixture into the eggs. This is to temper the eggs before adding them completely in to the boiling mixture. You don’t want to have scrambled eggs in your pie, so stir those eggs while pouring the liquid in. Then slowly whisk the egg mixture back into the saucepan.
Now bring it to a second boil. Honestly, while I was stirring and boiling the filling, I was simultaneously adding sugar into my egg whites that were beating in my KitchenAid. After the egg/filling mixture boils again for another minute or two, add the butter. Stir it until completely smooth. Then add the lemon rind and juice. Stir until completely smooth again. If your meringue is finished, pour the hot filling into your bake pied shell and top with meringue. If your meringue is still going, reduce heat all the way to low and let it stay warm while you finish the egg whites.
When you start your meringue, it’ll first get really foamy, then start turning white. When it’s in the really foamy stage, add the cream of tartar. The acid will help strengthen the bonds in the egg whites, allowing for air bubbles (which make the meringue puffy) that will not collapse as quickly. Once your meringue starts getting white, start adding the sugar. Just a teaspoon or two at a time. Give it a minute or two between each sugar addition to keep mixing. Add the vanilla once the sugar is all added. By the end, your meringue should be white, glossy, and hold stiff peaks.
Most important step: Please make sure your filling is piping hot, fresh from the saucepan, when you pour it into the shell and add the meringue!! The filling has to be hot because the steam will travel up through the egg whites and cook the meringue from the bottom. If the filling has cooled, when the pie goes in the oven, the heat will heat up the filling and the steam will get trapped between the filling and meringue, creating a watery layer that causes the top and filling to separate. This is undesirable. So please, make sure your meringue is finished, then take the filling off the stove, pour in the pie, and top.
If you don’t seal the meringue to the edges of the crust, it will shrink and pull away from the crust, leaving gaps of filling showing, and causing a smaller, flatter, less appealing meringue on top.
Use the back of a spoon to create the peaks. Dig it in the meringue a little, and pull up quickly. Play with it and do what feels comfortable.
Some recipes call for a quick blast in a hot oven or under the broiler. I like putting the pie in a slightly cooler oven for a little longer. I feel more comfortable with the whites getting cooked enough, and it browns more evenly. Be sure to watch the pie because it can go from white to on fire pretty fast!
When it’s browned to your liking, pull it out. I would let it cool for an hour or so before serving, but this is one of those pies that tastes best at room temperature on the same day it’s made. If it doesn’t get eaten all in one day, put it in the fridge loosely covered with foil. Plastic wrap will create too much moisture.
Hopefully those tips and instructions make you feel more confident and excited about making this pie! And if your meringue fails, the filling still tastes pretty darn good. Best of luck and Happy Pie Making! (if anyone else has tips to add, please feel free to share! I’m certainly not an expert yet)
- 1½ cups white sugar
- ⅓ cup cornstarch
- 1½ cups cold water
- 3 eggs, separated into yolks and whites
- 4 medium lemons
- 3 Tbsp. butter, softened
- 1 baked pie shell
- 3 reserved egg whites (the ones you separated)
- 6 Tbsp. white sugar
- ¼ tsp. cream of tartar
- ½ tsp. vanilla extract
- Grate and/or zest the skin of all lemons into a small bowl. Slice the lemons in half and squeeze the juice into a separate bowl. Remove seeds if necessary and set aside.
- Mix sugar and cornstarch in a heavy saucepan. Add cold water and whisk mixture until smooth. Heat on medium to medium-high heat and stir constantly while allowing mixture to come to a boil.
- When mixture begins to boil, continue stirring constantly and allow to boil for 2-3 minutes, letting filling become thick and glossy.
- Remove from heat and pour about a ½-1 cup of hot filling slowly into the bowl with the separated egg yolks, make sure to be mixing the eggs while the hot filling is being poured in. Return egg yolk mixture into saucepan and heat and whisk until smooth. Bring to a boil again. Boil for about 2 minutes.
- Whisk in the butter until smooth. Add the lemon juice and lemon rind, whisk until smooth. Pour filling into pie shell and immediately top with meringue.
- Spread the meringue to the edges of the pie crust, being sure to seal the meringue and crust. There should be no holes where the filling shows through. Using the back of a spoon, create the signature peaks.
- Place in a preheated oven at 375 degrees for about 8-10 minutes. Watch the pie to make sure the meringue does not burn and to see if you need to turn the pie to get the topping browned evenly. Remove from oven and let sit on counter or serve immediately. Store in the refrigerator, loosely covered with tin foil, for up to 3 days.
- FOR THE MERINGUE: Add the egg whites into a stainless steel or glass mixing bowl. Whip on high speed. Add the cream of tartar when the egg whites are very foamy, just before they start to firm up.
- Very gradually add the sugar while beating. You want to make sure it's completely dissolved into the eggs. Add the vanilla after the sugar. The entire process should take about 10-12 minutes, or until stiff peaks form, the sugar is well dissolved, and the meringue looks glossy.
- *Be sure the filling is piping hot when you pour into the pie crust and top immediately with the meringue.
If the meringue separates from the pie filling and there is a layer of moisture underneath, it is because the filling was not piping hot when you placed the meringue on top.
You should not beat the meringue and let it sit at room temperature for 15 minutes because it will weep and collapse.