UPDATED with a new FAQ at the end of the post, compiled from the questions in the comments sections here and on my other macaron posts.
I was honoured to co-host the October Daring Bakers challenge with my wonderful friend Korena and we dared everyone to make macarons. The Daring Bakers tackled the macaron back in October 2009, however with so many new members we thought it would be a good challenge to re-visit. Macarons are a quintessentially French pastry – beautiful, delicate, and a bit finicky – but with a few tips and the right technique, they are completely achievable for the home baker.
There are two schools of thought when it comes to macaron shells, which are made from a batter of ground almonds and powdered (confectioner’s) sugar folded into meringue. The first is to use a French meringue (a basic meringue where sugar is gradually beaten into egg whites) and the second is to use an Italian meringue (where a hot sugar syrup is drizzled into whipping egg whites). I am a fan of the Italian meringue method, and Korena of the French meringue method, so we presented both techniques in the hope that everyone would find the one that works best for them.
I’m going to present to you the Italian meringue (hot sugar syrup) method of macaron making. I tried and tried making macarons using the French meringue method, experimenting with different recipes, aged versus fresh egg whites, parchment versus silicone… failed. About 10 times. But being a stubborn old chook, I couldn’t admit defeat so I enrolled in a macaron class. To my surprise, the French pastry chef teaching the class presented us with a recipe using the Italian meringue method. Well, long story short, it worked and that’s the way I’ve made them ever since. I would like to clear up the misconception floating around the interwebbies that macarons made with the Italian meringue method aren’t “real French macarons” (yes, I have been told this on social media). In fact, neither method is more “French” than the other, they are just variations on a theme. Just like Ladurée and Pierre Hermé, I use this method because I find that it gives more consistent and reliable results.
The recipe is in weights, not volume, because macarons rely on specific ratios of almonds to powdered sugar to meringue, and volume measurements are much less accurate.
You don’t need to age the egg whites. I have successfully made macarons with whites straight from the shells. The only stipulation is that they should be at room temperature. Egg whites and meringues can be temperamental – if there is even a trace of oil, fat, or egg yolk in the bowl or on the beater, it can prevent the egg whites from whipping to a stiff peaks. For this reason, when separating your eggs, be very careful not to get any yolks in with the whites. One trick Korena always uses to ensure meringue success is to wipe the already-clean bowl and beater or whisk with a vinegar-moistened paper towel: this eliminates any grease, and the little bit of acid helps the egg whites turn into a meringue more readily.
Regarding almonds – you can use ground almonds with or without the skins on, but we both prefer using clear ground almonds (no skins) for the look. If you can’t buy ground almonds locally, you can grind them yourself. Just don’t use an almond flour which is very fine and powdery – ground almonds are gritty when rubbed between your fingers. You will grind them further with the powdered sugar. Almonds can be substituted for other nuts or seeds, however their oil content can change the way the batter behaves, so it’s probably best to use almonds on your first try, and then play around once you’re confident in your macaron skills.
Some thoughts on food colouring – Whether you use it or not is entirely up to you, but if you do use it, what you use will determine how much you use and your own preference will determine when you add it. When adding food colouring or flavouring to macaron shells using the Italian meringue, I prefer to add it at the almond paste stage. This is mostly because I find it easier to see the difference in colour when I’m folding in the meringue. You can add it to the meringue, though, as you prefer. You should only use gel or powder – avoid liquid food colouring, as it can add too much moisture to the mix. Remember, though, that after you add colouring to one part, you will dilute the colour when combining the two parts. Flavourings such as vanilla bean seeds can also be added at these same stages.
Baking the macaron shells – I prefer lining the baking sheets with parchment paper, but many people prefer or have better results using a silicon mat. Try both and see what works best for you. And speaking of baking sheets, some bakers use a double or triple stack of baking sheets to help insulate the macaron shells as they bake. This might be a useful technique if your oven runs hot or heats unevenly. I splashed out on a couple of triple layer De Buyer sheets for baking success and they really were a good investment – they bake cookies and macarons, puff pastry, galettes and tarts and breads wonderfully. Some bakers prefer to bake with the oven fan on, but my oven has a hot spot in one corner when I use that so I avoid it for macarons. I’ve given the convection temperatures in the directions, though. As all ovens vary, hold moisture differently and can be quite a long way from what it says on the dial in regard to temperature, it’s important to experiment until you get comfortable baking macarons with your particular oven.
According to a “perfect macaron” article that I read somewhere, the ideal ratio of shell to filling is 2:1. That is, the filling should be about the same thickness as one shell. That’s pretty much the ratio we go with, and the easiest way to achieve that is to go by how much is in the piping bag. Fill the bag twice for piping the shells, so fill it once for piping the filling.
Note: This recipe is for almond shells using egg whites, but the same process applies if you’re using other nuts etc, or using aquafaba (chickpea canning liquid) for vegan shells. Pop “macarons” into the search box and you’ll find a wealth of recipes 🙂
My very own video of how to make macaron shells using the Italian meringue method…
Makes: 30 x 4cm / 1 1/2” filled macarons
Preparation: 20 minutes to prepare batter, at least 20 minutes to rest, 18-20 minutes to bake, at least 30 minutes to cool
Stand mixer or electric hand mixer and bowl
Piping bag with large round tip (#10 – #12) or plain coupler
2 large baking sheets
Parchment paper or silicon mats
Piping templates (optional)
Small heavy-based saucepan
Candy / instant read thermometer
(original recipe in grams)
140g / 4.9 oz ground almonds
140g / 4.9 oz powdered (confectioner’s) sugar
100g / 3.5 oz egg white (from approx. 3 eggs), room temperature, divided 50/50
100g / 3.5 oz granulated (white) sugar
40g / 1.4 oz (weight) water
Replace up to 20g / .7 oz of the powdered sugar with unsweetened cocoa powder or powdered freeze dried fruit
The seeds of 1 vanilla bean
A few drops of non-oil-based essence
A few drops of gel food colouring or a pinch of powder food colouring
Prepare 2 parchment (not wax paper) lined baking sheets. They need to be big enough to hold 30 x 4cm / 1 1/2” diameter shells each. (I have my piping guide under the baking paper here.)
Mix the ground almonds and powdered sugar (and cocoa powder, if using) together in a bowl, then grind in a food processor until you have an extra fine texture. You may need to do this in batches, depending on the size of your food processor.
Sift into a large bowl (I use a mesh strainer and push the mixture through with a spatula), putting any bigger pieces of almond back into the food processor to re-grind.
Add 50g / 1.75oz egg whites and mix thoroughly into the almond mixture. At this point, you can add food colouring or flavouring such as vanilla seeds, citrus zest, essense, if desired. (I added 1/2 tsp vanilla paste and 1/2 tsp red powder food colouring to this batch.) Set aside.
In another bowl, or the bowl of a stand mixer, scrupulously clean and free of any oil or egg yolk, beat the other 50g / 1.75oz egg whites to stiff peaks. the meringue should fill the whisk.
Meanwhile, put the granulated sugar and water into a small heavy-based saucepan and heat on medium-low to 118°C / 244°F, without stirring.
While whisking constantly on low speed (to avoid splashing hot syrup), slowly add the cooked sugar mixture to the beaten egg whites, pouring it down the inside edge of the bowl. You’ll get a bit of it hardening on the side of the bowl, but that’s okay – just leave it there.
Sorry, no photo here – I was alone in the kitchen, the sugar syrup is hot and I didn’t want to risk burning myself or dropping my camera!
Whisk at high speed until the mixture is cool, about 3 minutes. About 1 minute before the end, you can add food colouring, if not done at the almond paste stage. The mixture should increase in volume and become firm and shiny, and it should be thick and marshmallowy and you have a beak when you lift the whisk.
Scrape the meringue onto the almond mixture and incorporate with a rubber or silicone spatula. You do actually want to get a lot of the air out of the mixture – you do this by folding and squashing the mixture against the side of the bowl, rotating the bowl a quarter turn with each fold. Be sure to firmly scrape the bottom of the bowl with the spatula, so you don’t leave a layer of almond paste there.
Mix until you have a homogenous batter that runs from the spatula in a thick ribbon. The sequence of 10 images below was taken over a period of 5 seconds.
Transfer the mixture into a piping bag fitted with a 7 – 9mm / #10 – #12 plain round tip (this is best done in two batches, so you don’t overfill the bag). Pipe 60 equally sized rounds, about 4cm / 1 1/2” in diameter, in staggered rows onto the prepared sheets. Hold the piping bag upright with the tip just above the sheet and pipe without pulling upwards or swirling in circles, so the batter comes out in a round blob around the tip, and give a little sideways flick at the end to break the stream.
Tap the baking sheet firmly on the bench several times to release air bubbles and obtain a smooth surface. If you have any tips sticking up, press them gently down with a damp fingertip.
Leave the tray to rest at room temperature for at least 20 minutes until a slight skin forms. If you gently touch one, it should be only just tacky.
Meanwhile, preheat oven to 150°C / 300°F / Gas Mark 2. If you prefer to use convection (oven fan), preheat to 140°C / 285°F / Gas Mark 1.
Bake the macarons in the centre of the oven for 18 minutes (20 minutes if using cocoa or dried fruit powder in the shells), one sheet at a time, turning the sheet half-way.
To test if they are done, give the top of a shell a gentle nudge – it shouldn’t move away from the foot. if it does move, pop the sheet back into the oven for another minute or two, then test again.
Remove from oven and remove the parchment from the tray with the shells still on it and place on a cooling racks for at least 30 minutes, until completely cool, then remove macaron shells carefully from the parchment.
If not filling straight away, store in an airtight container at room temperature, separating layers with parchment. Otherwise, fill and store in an airtight container in the fridge to mature for at least 24 hours before eating.
Q: Can I reduce the sugar?
A: The sweetness usually comes from the filling – the shells are sweet, but not overly so, and success with the shells relies on the ratios, so I wouldn’t mess with that – but you could certainly use a less sweet filling. A tart curd or unsweetened jam can help with that balance.
Q: Can I use brown sugar?
A: I haven’t tried it, but I don’t think it would work, because brown sugar has a much higher moisture content.
Q: Can I use almond flour?
A: It shouldn’t be as fine as wheat flour – even though you grind it with the powdered sugar, it is still slightly gritty, not powdery. If the consistency is more like cornmeal than wheat flour, you’re good to go.
Q: Can I use other nuts or seeds?
A: You certainly can! I’ve had success with sesame seeds, hazelnuts, pistachios, peanuts and coconut. Just be extra attentive to the batter, because different nuts and seeds will behave differently depending on moisture or oil content. Check them after the standard baking time, too – oilier nuts or seeds will usually require a little extra time in the oven.
Q: If I don’t have a food processor, can I use a blender?
A: As long as it grinds it fine enough, I don’t see why not. It should be fine enough to pass through a fine sieve.
Q: Why is my almond – powdered sugar – egg white mixture really thick?
A: It could be the consistency of the egg whites – they get more watery with age, so try ageing them in a bowl at room temperature for a few days. If you weigh out the whole 100g, then age them, try spooning out the wateriest 50g for the almond mixture and keeping any thicker, gloopier part for the meringue.
Otherwise, is your powdered sugar pure sugar, or is it icing mixture? Icing mixture often advertises itself as powdered sugar but can contain corn starch or other thickening agents, which will absorb more moisture than pure powdered sugar.
If all else fails, try adding a spoonful of the meringue and working it in as a thinning agent before adding the rest.
Q: What type of food colouring do you recommend?
A: Every type and brand yields a different result. I get pretty intense results with Wilton gel colours, and in my experience powder colours are not nearly as strong so are best used for more subtle shades.
When adding the colour, you should go for a shade roughly twice as intense as you want for the final result, because you will dilute the colour when you mix the meringue into the almond mixture – I add the colour to the almond mixture and my rule of thumb is to add enough to get it to the colour I want, then add about as much again.
Bear in mind that if you add a lot of food colouring to get an intense shade, you will be making the batter wetter (if using gel) or stickier (if using powder) so you should increase the baking time by a minute or two.
Q: I don’t have a thermometer. What kind should I use? How can I check the syrup without one?
A: I use a digital candy thermometer, party because I find it easier to read and it beeps when it’s at the right temperature and partly because it’s quite a small quantity of syrup and I don’t want to lose lots of it by having it stuck all over a bulky traditional thermometer.
To make the syrup without a thermometer – 118°C (245°F) is what candy makers call Firm Ball stage. To test it without a thermometer: use a teaspoon to drop a little bit into to a glass of cold water and it should create a firm chewy ball. I suggest practicing a bit first, to get used to the different stages – there’s an explanation of the different stages with videos here: https://www.exploratorium.edu/cooking/candy/sugar-stages.html
Q: Can I use a hand-held electric mixer when making the meringue?
A: Absolutely! It will take a bit longer to beat to stiff peaks, because hand mixers are usually slower, but it will be fine. Just be extra careful adding the hot syrup – an extra set of hands is a great help here.
Q: What consistency should the batter be?
A: Something like cake batter – it should run off the spatula, but thickly and slowly.
Q: Any tips for piping?
A: You could try using parchment (baking paper) on your baking sheet or silicon mat with a piping guide under it (I have one for download: https://pizzarossa.files.wordpress.com/2014/03/mac-template-left1.pdf and https://pizzarossa.files.wordpress.com/2014/03/mac-template-right1.pdf). Bear in mind that they’ll lose height and will spread a little when you bang the sheet on the bench to clear the bubbles.
Q: Why are my macarons lopsided?
A: I sometimes get that for the second batch in dry weather because they sat longer (so have a dryer skin) and the oven can be a bit too hot after the first batch is done. You could try reducing the time that they sit (it depends so much on climate – the skin should be slightly tacky), be sure not to preheat the oven for too long, and make sure it cools off a little between batches.
Q: Why do my shells crack? Why are my macarons hollow?
A: There are a few things that can cause cracking, so I’m afraid it’s going to be a case of trial and error.
1. If the batter is undermixed so there are large air bubbles, they won’t rise evenly, leading to cracks.
2. If the batter is overmixed it will mean thin, flat shells with cracks because there’s not enough mass inside to hold it.
3. They could be puffing up too quickly in the oven and don’t have enough structural integrity – a cooler oven might help. I recommend an oven thermometer to check, because most home ovens are out by at least several degrees. There are cheap ones around, but if you don’t want the expense maybe you could borrow one, or share the cost with a baker friend.
4. Not drying the shells sufficiently before they go into the oven – the top should be slightly tacky and dull.
5. Another thing I’ve found is the baking surface – as I’ve said, I had terrible results with silicon macaron mats, lots of cracking, but good multilayer metal baking sheets gave me great results – I guess it’s got to do with thermodynamics and heat transfer… but you could try using a couple of baking sheets stacked together.
Q: Where are my feet?
A: Macarons made using Italian meringue do have smaller feet than those made with French meringue, certainly less “ruffly”, and they do shrink on cooling.
If they are deflating completely it could be the baking temperature. If they cook too fast they won’t have the strength to stay up, so maybe try reducing the temperature by a few degrees and increasing the baking time by a couple of minutes.
Conversely, if the oven temperature is too low, the shells will spread instead of puffing up.
A common cause of no feet is due to humidity – you might need to dry them with the rangehood fan on.
Q: How can I test that they are baked sufficiently?
A: The best way to test them it to give the shell a little nudge above the foot – if the top moves away from the foot, they’re not done. There’s not really any other way to tell, because it’s the interior and underside that you’re testing, so you can’t just pick one up.
Q: Can I make macarons in a humid climate?
A: Sure! You’ll probably need to increase the drying time of the shells before baking. Use a dehumidifier if you have one, otherwise dry the shells on the stovetop with the rangehood running.
A pinch of cream of tartar in the meringue can help, too.
After baking, you’ll need to get them off the mat/parchment as soon as they’re cool, and get them straight into an airtight container and into the fridge until you fill them, then straight back into the fridge after filling.
And try to bake in the least humid part of the day.
A: Yup! https://pizzarossa.me/2015/05/17/vegan-macarons/
Q: Can I freeze the shells?
A: I’ve never tried freezing them, but I have read on plenty of sites that it’s possible. You can store the shells in an airtight container in the fridge (unfilled) for up to a week.