I want to make a butterscotch pudding and chill it in ramekins. Since the pudding calls for egg yolks, I thought of making the whites into a meringue topping. If I do that, can I brown the topping with a kitchen torch instead of baking all the puddings in the oven? Or is the baking necessary (e.g., for safety)?
Yes you can - if you make the right kind of meringue.
There are three types that vary in the preparation process:
- French (or classic) meringue
Where egg whites are simply beaten with fine sugar.
- Swiss meringue
Where the egg & sugar is beaten over a water bath.
- Italian meringue
Where the whites are beaten first and a steady stream of hot sugar syrup is then slowly added while continuing to whip.
The former two are often considered “easier”, but only the latter will result in a meringue that is safe to eat without an additional baking or cooking step. And torching a meringue is merely decorative.
Stephie's answer is great. I'd just add a couple thoughts:
- Swiss meringue can be safe too, but you'd have to verify the temperature the egg whites are brought to over the water bath. With good technique, it should pasteurize the eggs.
- An alternative is to use pasteurized egg whites. These products often got poor reviews for meringue when they showed up in markets a couple decades ago, but some recent products are often pasteurized at lower temperatures which retain decent foaming properties. Adding a little cream of tartar or lemon juice can often restore their foaming properties so they are almost comparable to fresh eggs in a meringue. (I would, however, discourage using pasteurized whole eggs, which need to be pasteurized at a higher temperature that will significantly damage the egg white.)
What country are you in? In the UK, salmonella has now been virtually eliminated from egg production and the latest advice is that eggs produced in the UK are safe to eat uncooked, even for pregnant women and other high-risk groups. So if you’re using British eggs, undercooking your meringues wouldn’t matter from a safety point of view.