I've been meaning to write this post for a very very long time, but could never gather all the proper information for it. After all, if I write a half-assed one, I'd be no better than all the people I cursed while trying to figure everything out. But thanks to my lovely photo assistant Cindy, I finally got the photos I needed, and so... Here it is.
First thing you need to know is: macarons are not macaroons. Macaroons are chewy and coconutty. Macarons are impossibly light and made of almonds. Confusing the two is unforgivable, and calling macarons "macaroons" on purpose will get you punched in the face.
Let's start with the basic anatomy of a macaron. Macarons are a "sandwich" with two shells (above) around a filling. The filling can be everything from buttercream to ganache. But what makes them distinct is the contrast between the smooth top and the ruffly rim of the shells, also known as the pied (french for feet). The pied is what gives them that little je ne sais quoi, if you'll allow me to be a little douchey. Macarons are great because a batch requires barely any active effort, and the result looks astounding even with minimal decoration. And more than anything else, it's versatile. You can make these work with every flavor--from the simple things like chocolate, coffee, and pistachio, to the weird and eldritch combinations like Pierre Herme's ispahan: a combination of rose, raspberry, and lychee.
But the name of the game is "moisture and air." Moisture because the more of it you have, the harder your life will be, and air because you need JUST the right amount in the batter for it to work out. Drying out the top of the shells after piping gives it that smooth top, and the air in the batter inflates during baking, driving the dried tops upwards and allowing the foam underneath to solidify into the pied. If the tops aren't solid enough (i.e., they're too wet, or the batter hasn't been deflated enough) to contain the force of the air, they crack and become misshapen. But if there isn't enough air, the batter doesn't rise at all or it rises like a limp... Well, you know. The result of that one is flat, crunchy almond biscuits. Like with Goldilocks' porridge, this batter has to be just right. Sounds simple enough, eh?
Not quite. Macarons like to play jump-rope with the Vicky Mendoza diagonal. When made properly, they're delicious. They're impossibly light. They're good looking, and make excellent party favors. Did I mention delicious and light? Seriously, they practically don't require chewing. You could give them to that toothless grandma you love, if it weren't for the whole diabetes thing. If it's not so light you can eat it without teeth, then you're doing it wrong. But in exchange for this they require a level of anality that makes your ficklest grade-school penmanship teacher look like a California pothead, and they're harder to predict than New England weather. Temperature change in the room? Screws things up. Humid day? Screws things up. Change the positioning of the racks in your oven? Screws things up.
Is it worth it? Depends on your preferences, really. And how easily you can get your hands on a batch of well-made ones. Since I love these sorts of things and seem to live 200 miles away from anything consistently good, I naturally set out to collect all the information I could to produce a good macaron. After a lot of roadblocks, trials, mess-ups, lessons, and of course manly pain-tears, here are the results. The good news is that after you get things down, the process is fairly matter-of-fact. Easy, even. Downright effortless. The bad news? It takes a LOT of prep and experimentation to get to that point. It's really one of those "looks super easy if you're good, but try it and you find out exactly how hard it is" things. Making a crappy macaron that sort of looks like the real thing is easy. Making one whose tastes live up to the name? Ah, now you're talking.
Naturally, since I mean for this to be a "master post" and a one-stop-shop for everything you need to make a good macaron, this post is going to be absolutely fucking monolithic (Yeah, you're not even halfway through yet.), so... You've been warned. Many many people have written whole books on this topic, both good and bad, but I'll try to keep it (relatively) short while covering as many bases as possible. I'm afraid this isn't a post for the people who want the pretty photos, but one for those who actually want to get down to the nitty gritty and conquer this son of a bitch.
... Still here? I applaud your persistence. Grab a cup of tea and buckle down...
Baking usually requires a good amount of equipment--let's face it, desserts are a rich man's game. But with this, it's especially true. It's not a giant list, but it's still noteworthy.
The first in the list is a food processor. The principle ingredient in macarons is powdered almonds (also known as almond flour, almond powder, almond meal). For some reason, I have a hell of a time finding it around here--and even when I do, it's usually too coarse to use. You need a very fine powder to produce macarons that aren't lumpy. With a food processor, I can find blanched almonds and just grind them myself. And even with existing almond powder, nothing works as well as a good blitz in the Cuisinart to get rid of lumps from moisture or shoddy manufacturing. For those on a tight budget (like college students, cough), a coffee grinder such as this one costs relatively little and works just as well. You'll just need to work in smaller, more numerous batches. It's more of a pain, but what can you do.
Pastry bags are necessary. You'll be doing a lot of piping between the shells and the fillings, and in this case dropping batters off a spoon is NOT an acceptable substitution in this case. I like the disposables from Ateco; I got 200 of them for $20 on amazon. It's convenient, and saves me the washing. As far as tips are concerned, I like an Ateco #804 for regular-sized shells.
Silpat mats are useful, but not necessary. I wouldn't recommend them unless you have too much money. Parchment paper on metal sheet pans do just as well.
In regards to spatulas, make sure it's a firm silicone one. If it's too soft, you won't be able to deflate the batter properly later. Trust me, you'll thank me later.
In terms of macaron recipes, there are two main schools of thought: the French meringue style, and the Italian meringue style. They both require roughly the same ingredients: almond powder, egg whites, sugar. It's just the process differs a bit, with the Italian style requiring a bit of sugar syrup work. Neither of them can really be called the "superior" style--it's all up to personal preference, really, and what you are most comfortable with. All the greats--Pierre Herme, Laduree, etc--play both styles, with Herme sticking by and large to the French and Laduree to the Italian (I'm not 100% on this; someone correct me if I'm wrong). The French produces something that is a bit lighter, whereas the Italian produces a bit more solid but tends to be more stable. I personally prefer the former, which is what I will detail here; I recommend it to beginners as well, since the latter requires a bit of sugar work that may make this even more intimidating than it already is.
- 90g egg whites
- 110g almond powder
- 200g confectioner's sugar
- 25g sugar
Simple, right? Definitely. Dead simple, in fact. The thing to note here is that the egg whites should be measured at exactly 90 grams. Not "3 large eggs", not "2.5 extra large eggs", 90 grams. Why? To reduce unpredictability. Trust me, you'll be wanting to control as many variables here as possible, especially when you're just starting out. Life will throw enough stuff in there to mess you up even without you having to worry about the egg whites in your batter, trust me. In fact, half of the macaron process is basically putting the odds on your side. Sure, you can skip the "optional" bits and play the odds, but that's really not something you want to do on your first few attempts.
- This part is optional, but you can rest the egg whites in a cool part of the kitchen or the refrigerator for a few days. This gets rid of some of the moisture, which stabilizes the whites and makes your job just a little bit easier. Don't worry; as long as there is no yolk in the mix, whites will last 3-5 days even at room temp. Alternatively, you could instead nuke them in the microwave for 3-5 seconds at a time to get rid of some moisture. Just make sure not to leave them in there too long, you'll accidentally cook them. How do I know this? Definitely not from experience, that's how...
- Whether you choose to follow #1 or not, start with egg whites at roughly room temp to maximize your chances of success.
- Pre-heat your oven to 290F.
- Throw the almond powder and the confectioner's sugar into a food processor and blitz it for about 30 seconds to a minute to work out the lumps. If you have unground almonds, it'll probably take a few minutes to get it to proper powder consistency. Don't try grinding just the almonds alone; it'll turn into almond paste more often than not because of the fat in the nuts. The confectioner's sugar helps keep things dry and powdery.
- Sift the almond powder + confectioner's sugar to be super-sure that you have a good consistency. You can skip this, but you risk ending up with unpleasant little lumps.
- Whip the egg whites to the stiff peak stage, and dump in the 25g sugar. Whisk for a few more seconds to incorporate fully.
- Alright, here comes the tricky part. Combine the almond powder/sugar combination with the egg whites, and start folding with your spatula. The goal here is to deflate the batter JUST enough that there is enough air in it for the feet to form during baking, but not so much that the macarons are misshapen or cracked. The total process should take less than 50 good strokes of the spatula for a batch of this size. This is probably THE most important yet overlooked part of this process. Please do yourself a favor and take a look at the post-procedural notes on this part. :)
- Load up the pastry bags. For beginners or the bag-challenged such as myself, you can put the bag in a tall mug. Just make sure the tip is pointing up as below, so it doesn't start spilling into the mug as soon as you start filling it.
- Pipe the batter into small rounds. Don't squeeze them together too much; this will create too much moisture and weaken the integrity of the shells as you bake. Personally I like a shell of about an inch and a half in diameter. While piping, I recommend holding the tip at a slight angle and not moving it, then lifting the tip after the round is finished, and "hooking" the tip back towards the center to make a circle. Don't worry; if your batter was done right, the little tip will settle back into the shell. ... If not, then the tips might stay and your macarons will look like cartoon poo. See the picture below for ones that have been done properly, as well as ones that haven't. (As usual, click to embiggen.)
- Let the shells rest for roughly 45 minutes to an hour. Again, see the notes for a more detailed explanation.
- Bake the shells for about 16 minutes, adjusting according to size.
- Let the shells cool down after baking, then remove from the sheets with spatulas. Fill with whatever you want.
And finally the mythic Notes section. This time there are actually enough to make multiple sections of notes: this section is on all the little details you'll need to really succeed. So you'd better watch your step, cause I'm about to drop some knowledge.
Folding the batter. Alright. Here's the most important part of getting a good french meringue macaron: the folding. Let's get one thing straight here, you are supposed to deflate the batter. In fact, the entire macaron is dependent on you deflating the batter JUST enough. Now, it's really hard to give a solid count because of the variability in folding style, spatula size, whether you've added food coloring/cocoa powder/whatever to the batter, and all that. Also remember that filling the pastry bag and piping it also serves to deflate the batter further; it's not a HUGE thing, but it's not insignificant either. But (as I said above) generally speaking it should take less than 50 good strokes of the spatula. The one way I've best been able to tell though is the consistency of the batter as it flows off the spatula. And so I present the photo that this post really does revolve around:
The texture when it's very important here. Note how it drops off the spatula in thick ribbons. Note the speed, the consistency, the texture. If it's coming down in giant blobs it needs more work. If it's dripping off like syrup, you've gone way too far. When the batter drops back into the bowl, any irregularities in its surface should start to even out, very very slowly. The only way to be absolutely certain is to see this enough and use your experience to judge, but since I can't give you that, I can only give you this animated picture, which I really wish I'd had when I was learning this shit. It would have made my life 1000 times easier. Use it as a guideline, and good luck.
On that note, if you have a bit of trouble getting the batter completely even and lump/bubble-free, you can fold a small fraction into the egg whites as a sort of "starter" and giving it 5 strokes or so, so you don't have to work with it all at once. Don't overdo it though or you'll deflate the batter way too much.
Resting macarons and you. While macarons are actually relatively quick to make, all desserts require time. This is no exception. The first rest you will need is obviously the egg whites; that has been covered above. The second is the shells after piping. What you want to do is let the shells rest until a slight "skin" has formed on top of them. This means that when you touch them lightly with your finger, they should not be tacky at all, in any way, in any area of the shell. On average this takes me 45 minutes or so, but that can change depending on humidity, temperature, and what you put in your shells. See what I mean by variability? If you're in a HUGE hurry, you can speed up the process with a blow-dryer or a space heater. But if you overdo it with that, then your shells might have a slight bit more crisp on the outside than usual, which slightly violates the spirit of macarons. Use your judgment.
The second rest is after filling. While sometimes shells are ready to eat right out the oven, most often they are not. After you fill them, cover them up and let them rest a few hours. Optimally, you should leave them overnight (or even better, a full 24 hours) in the fridge. This lets the fillings' flavors infuse properly with the shells, resulting in a better taste overall. In addition, the moisture from the fillings helps soften up the shells even more, bringing it to the edge where the impossible and the possible meet--the possimpible, if you will. Right out of the oven, you get a product that can be okay to meh. After a good long rest though, you get something amazing.
Though this isn't really a rest, if you refrigerated your macarons please let them come back to room temperature before eating. Please. It's kind of common sense, since fillings like ganache and buttercream harden considerably in the fridge and are not at all pleasant to eat at those temperatures, but I feel like it should be mentioned anyway. Obviously something with mascarpone takes way less time to come to room temp than something with butter, which in turn takes less time than something with chocolate. Again; use your judgment.
In keeping with the above, you'll notice how any macaron shop worth its space will have the macarons AT ROOM TEMP. Usually they will be stored sideways in a nearly airtight box. The environment of the box lets them rest and soften properly, and the sideways arrangement keeps them from sticking--trust me, with the moisture in the macarons and the fillings, if you try resting macarons on a plate some of the ones touching the plate will stick. Also the boxes just look good. People often talk about baked goods "fresh out of the oven", but in this case that is actually a bad thing. I can assure you that the best macarons you buy will always be room temperature and resting on their sides, and will always have rested for a while before being taken out for sale.
Removing the shells. Some people recommend putting a bit of water on the sheet to soften and remove the shells. I think that's a load of horse apples. It's way too much risk for sogginess for something that shouldn't need it in the first place. Just get a good flat thin spatula, and remove them with that. If you can't get them off a silpat mat or nonstick parchment paper, then they are probably undercooked and not ready yet, or something else has gone terribly terribly wrong.
Yes, for once I am writing a troubleshooting section. Getting tired of me yet? This part will be for the common things that go wrong, and how to fix and/or prevent them.
1. Cracked shells. Shells crack for a variety of reasons, but the root of it is that the top of the shell wasn't strong enough to withstand the force from the air rising in the body of the shell. One possibility is that you haven't rested the shells enough to form a sufficient skin. Make sure you rest them long enough. Another is that the batter was simply undermixed. And the third (and not so uncommon) is that the macarons are getting too hot. This has happened to me once or twice, since I work mainly in an electric oven with the heating coils at the bottom and tend to keep my racks at the bottom for higher heat. Try moving the oven rack up a slot or two and see if that helps. Otherwise, just make sure your batter is the right texture, and that you let it rest enough to form a skin. And lastly, if there is too much moisture and it compromises the shells, they will crack. This can result in too much liquid food coloring in the batter, or baking too many macarons too close together. In these cases, opening the oven door for a second a few minutes into the baking can help vent the oven of moisture and prevent cracking.
2. Misshapen shells. This is somewhat related to cracked shells, in that it shares a common cause: undermixed batter. As you deflate the macaron batter, it becomes more and more liquid, and less and less lumpy. If you don't deflate it enough, it'll still behave like a meringue; that is, any shape you give it with the pastry bag will stay that way instead of smoothing down into a nice dome-ish circle. You can see a bit of this in my green tea macaron pictures, where the tips haven't QUITE sank back into the shells. The more undermixed the macarons are, the worse this problem is.
3. Flat shells, with wide and short or no pied. This comes from the exact opposite as the above two. If you have this problem, chances are your batter was flowing like crepe batter, and you have deflated it far far too much. Go easier on the spatula next time, yeah? Another possibility is that you didn't rest them for long enough, but this time the top was so under-rested it just went ahead and expanded in tandem with the rest of the macaron, resulting in a non-flat but still footless shell. The rest after piping is so important. I would have gotten a picture, but after everything I've been through I couldn't bring myself to overmix on purpose like that.
4. Small lumps in the shells. This is an ingredient problem as much as anything. Lumps usually result from moisture in the almond powder or just badly/coarsely ground almond powder. For macarons you need powder that is approaching confectioner's sugar in how fine it is. Again, blitz it with confectioner's sugar in a food processor even if you have awesome pre-ground almond powder. Confectioner's sugar is laced with corn starch, which will help get rid of any moisture-induced clumps. To be extra sure, sift it before using. Though honestly, with a good quality powder I find that a few seconds in the Cuisinart gets rid of the need for sifting.
5. Large lumps or bubbles in the shells. This comes mostly from the even mixing issue discussed above. Use a small part of the powder as a starter if it helps, and work slowly. Make sure you incorporate as much of the powder as you can with each stroke, getting rid of large clumps and dry spots as you go along. I've heard people say that smacking the bowl helps get rid of air bubbles, but I haven't found it necessary. You can try it if it makes you feel better though. Same with rapping the undersides of the macaron trays after piping and all that, I've never needed to do it. Just work methodically and don't hurry yourself.
6. Lopsided shells. Work on your piping. Don't try to pipe in a spiral or something stupid like that. Hold it in place, then lift and pull the tip. I apologize for not having an animated photo for this part, but I didn't think of it at the time. If I ever get one in the future, I'll retroactively link it back here. This could also be caused by uneven resting surfaces, which makes the batter subtly and slowly flow into a weird shape. I had this problem in the beginning, since I was lazy and rested them on paper that was already on metal baking sheets; the problem was, most of our sheets are cheap shit and warped from repeated abuse. :)
Here's the section that I rarely get to write. But I wouldn't have discovered most of what I know without the following...
Helene Dujardin, whose free ebook Demystifying Macarons first turned me on to the importance of the consistency and mixing of the batter, and has been an invaluable resource otherwise. I swear I will read her blog one day.
Michel Suas, whose book Advanced Bread and Pastry didn't teach me anything on macarons in particular, but did inspire me with the pretty pictures inside, and kept me going even when I didn't really want to. Also it's just a great reference in general.
Jill Colonna, whose book Mad About Macarons was the only resource I actually paid for to learn macarons specifically, and clued me in to the after-filling rest to bring macarons to perfection.
And once again I have to extend my glare of withering condemnation to LeNotre academy, whose texts were as usual thoroughly unhelpful and bordering on misleading, and the main sabotaging factor in my very first attempts. Seriously, screw you guys.
... Well, that's it. Notice how despite this giant wall of text, the amount of time you spend in actually making a batch will probably be tiny compared to any other desserts. This is because like most real skills worth knowing, it's not really about the fancy stuff so much as the absolute mastery of the fundamentals and imposing your will on the crap life throws in there to get in the way. Sure, you can rap the tray and add powders and chemicals and invert the bowl at exactly 30 degrees from the vertical when you're mixing and all that, but that's just a lot of bull without accomplishing much. Peddling that is like tying a brick to your bike and saying that it's OK, you're still moving. Trust me. It's all about the basics.
So in the end, making a batch of macarons actually doesn't require too much work, and the active effort time required is downright trivial, but since you have to learn so much to get it just right, I'm sticking this in Category 5. If you've read this post all the way down to the end, I admire your tenacity. Good luck, so long, and thanks for all the fish. Hopefully someone finds this useful at some point.