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After reading up on the proper books, I started adding some acid when beating meringues. At home, I use cream of tartar, but when I am baking at somebody else's kitchen, I am lucky if they have at least some citric acid; cream of tartar is a huge rarity here.

The trouble is that the books don't specify a ratio. They speak of throwing in "a pinch", suggesting that the exact amount is not that important. In my experience, this is not true.

I have had meringues fail despite cream of tartar. They went from a runny mess to an overtightened stiff layer floating on water without a noticeable sweet spot inbetween. I admit that I may have used the wrong whipping speed (this happens especially often when I whip by hand), but 1) I can't attribute it to speed alone, and 2) this is exactly the kind of problem I hope the acid works against.

Then again, I have whipped beautiful meringues with acid. Cream of tartar helps there too, but citric acid frequently gives me a great texture from a single pinch (maybe 1.5 g) per 2-3 eggwhites. The meringue gets smooth and glossy, with robust little bubbles, and holds without deflating when folded into other ingredients, even during a not-so-gentle macaronage. The problem: at this concentration, the sour taste is already very noticeable. In some very sweet applications, this still works, but most times it adulterates the taste.

So, what is the minimal ratio at which acid works (given a sensible technique - forget hand whipping for now?) And what is the maximum ratio at which acid is still undetectable in taste? I am interested in both cream of tartar and citric acid here.

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White wine vinegar works very well too, and there is no problem with flavour. 1 tsp:4 egg whites –  ElendilTheTall Jul 15 '13 at 20:59
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2 Answers

As there are multiple types of meringues, I imagine the core of this question is really the effect of acid on egg white foaming.

According to KATERYNA LOMAKINA and KAMILA MÍKOVÁ writing in the Czeck Journal of Food Science, there is a moderately complex relationship between pH of the egg whites, and its foaming capacity (overrun) and the stability of the foam:

By the addition of a small amount of 1N H2 SO4 or NaOH to the liquid egg white (pH values: 9.5, 8.6, 6.3, 4.7, 3.1, 1.0), NAKAMURA and SATO (1964b) obtained a great foaming capacity at the neutral and acidic pHs except at the exceedingly acidic pH (pH 1.0). The foam stability was high at pH 8.6, the pH of the natural egg white, and decreased with changing pH.

With an aqueous egg albumen solution, HAMMERSHØJ and LARSEN (1999) established that the foam overrun was the highest at pH 4.8 and the lowest at pH 10.7. The foam stability against drainage was the best at pH 7.0 after 30 min, but on a long-term scale the foam at pH 4.8 was the most resistant to drainage. This is the result of the more rigid behaviour of the surface at pH 4.8 and the formation of small bubbles, therefore a slow drainage of liquid from the foam, lower dynamic surface tension causing the high overrun.

The conclusion is that you will get the most volume of foam at moderately acidic pH around 4.8, but the best stability of the foam once created at the alkaline pH of egg whites.

The moral seems to be that for stable egg foam, not to add acid.

Later in the article, they also indicate that volume can be increased without ill effects by adding up to 40% more water to the egg whites.

Also, adding sugar to the egg whites inhibits foaming, requiring more agitation to form the foam.

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It should be noted that 1N H2SO4 (one normal sulfuric acid) can cause sever damage to the digestive track. NaOH (caustic soda) can do even worse. They used them for experimentation, not food. –  MandoMando Jul 17 '13 at 10:40
    
The water tip sounds almost too good to be true! I'll try it as soon as I have the occasion –  Agos Jul 18 '13 at 9:02
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I'm going to answer this with the assumption that your true requirement is not what acid to use; but how to make a stable meringue, with or without acid (provided that WITH acid, an undesirable taste is not added).

I suggest to forget the cream of tartar all together. What you are making is called the "Common Meringue" and is the least stable of all meringues.

After Common Meringue, there are Swiss and Italian meringues; which are stable, and most stable respectively. Neither of these should require cream of tartar; and should only contain very simple ingredients.

The biggest reason (at least to my understanding) why these are so stable is because the egg whites are somewhat cooked during the process in creating them.

In short: Google a quality Swiss and Italian Meringue. I would like to add the disclaimer that you may or may not find recipes that call for the acid; in my experience, I've used recipes that do not require the acid and they have been delightful.

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