15 French Macaron Perfecting Tips ~ When All You Want Are Pretty Little Feet but Nipples & Cracks Keep Appearing
I was swept up into the French macaron craze as soon as it started hitting the US a few years ago and mac shops started popping up everywhere. The first macaron I tasted was a perfect pistachio from a little shop in Morgantown, WV. After an insanely greasy dinner from a restaurant next door, that one little, lightly sweetened macaron was the perfect dessert to end my evening.
Measuring around an inch in diameter, the creation of that perfect sweet was a mystery to me. The shell was dry and firm and tasted mildly of almonds. As a German girl, raised on soft, creamy marzipan confections, I was wishing there was a bit more almond flavor to an almond meal “cookie”, but I totally got what the hype was all about. The next time I was in town, I bought a little box of five different kinds and shared them with my family. The different flavors and colors were so fun! My husband surprised me with a beautifully wrapped gift box of even more macarons on a stop in Morgantown a few months later. I liked them and still found them fun to eat, but I was a bit put off by the dryness of the crunchy meringue and almond shell that sandwiched the creamy filling of a macaron.
On a mission to discover the perfect macaron and to attempt to deconstruct and recreate them, I began sampling them wherever they were sold. From a little Hungarian pastry shop in Manchester, NH that I visit every spring to a fabulous bakery in The French Quarter of New Orleans, I sampled macs in various forms, gearing up to begin making them in my home kitchen.
I even found them in my favorite chocolaterie/patisserie in Asheville, NC.
I watched countless tutorials on Youtube, read oodles of blog posts and recipes, then consolidated the knowledge I’d gained into my own recipes. On my first attempt at making macarons, I made three different flavors and colors, which ended in three different results. I quickly learned that the plight of a macaron baker was not a myth. Everything from making the perfect meringue, the best time to add icing colors, learning to fold the batter to achieve perfect “macaronage’, the temperature of my kitchen and my personal oven, the humidity level of my kitchen, how much I handle the perfect macaronage, how hard I rap the sheet pans of piped macarons on my countertop before letting them dry prior to baking, to the length of time they need to bake in my personal oven to dry through without over-browing affected the outcome of a particular batch.
When my first three batches ended up having different textures, I knew right away what I had done wrong. The batter for my plain white vanilla shells hadn’t been folded enough, resulting in a lumpy appearance. My lavender macs were perfect. No nipples, the little bumps that a piping bag leaves, no cracks during baking appeared, and their little ruffly feet formed just the way they should.
When I was adding color to my hazelnut batch, I wasn’t happy with the tint, so I folded in more, which resulted in over mixing the batter and less lofty macarons.
My next batch of hazelnut macarons would have made Goldilocks ecstatic. They were just right.
Piece of cake, right? I knew exactly what to do and what not to do for the next time. But, nope! Nuh-uh. I learned, as soon as the weather started warming, that humidity was going to be a problem and baking them in the dead of winter, in a nice dry, furnace heated kitchen was ideal.
The best part of making my own macarons was creating shells with the almond flavor I was after. I was pleasantly surprised to find that my home baked macs tasted more like the marzipan I love than the dry, hard macarons I sometimes had trouble taking more than one bite of. Macaron recipes generally consist of confectioner’s sugar, almond flour, white granulated sugar or sugar syrup, color, and the desired filling. With the amounts of sugars and almond flour I include, the macarons are more delicate and can probably never be shipped as a gift, but I prefer the softness of eating them the day after I make them, when the shells and filling are melded nicely. So, when sampling bakery macarons and choosing a recipe of your own, consider the texture of the finished shells. There are numerous recipes available online, so I will not be sharing my own here.
Here are my tried and true tips for achieving that “perfect” macaron shell.
1. Control humidity. Do what you can to remove excess humidity from your kitchen before beginning any part of the macaron making process. Heat your oven before beginning, to help remove humidity from the kitchen. Avoid washing dishes by hand or running the dishwasher prior to beginning. Run a dehumidifier, if necessary, in the kitchen.
2. Bring your eggs to room temperature. Though some bakers swear by “aging” the egg whites that will form the meringue for their macarons, by leaving them for days in the refrigerator, I find that simply bringing them to room temperature before whipping is sufficient and necessary. The warmer eggs will whip faster, saving time in an already lengthy process.
3. Mise en Place. “Everything in its place”. In the professional cooking and baking world, this French phrase is top of the list. “Get your mise en place done.” is something I heard over and over in culinary school. It means to have all of your ingredients gathered and measured before beginning a cooking or baking process, so that you aren’t running around the kitchen trying to grab things you need when you should have a careful eye on a delicate process you should be focusing on. In the case of macaron creation, that would be the processes of making the meringue and handling the batter quickly and delicately once you have folded it to macaronage, the ideal consistency to make perfect macaron shells. I prepare everything ahead of time, from weighing my ingredients to putting the piping tip in my piping bag.
4. Sift, sift, sift. I sift my confectioner’s sugar to remove all lumps, along with my measured finely ground almond flour, discarding any large grains of almond that don’t go through the sieve, to avoid a lumpy batter. I sift them 3 times so I can be certain they are mixed well before I begin folding them into my finished meringue.
5. Add color at the right time. I find that adding my icing color (Icing gel or paste colors, only. Not liquid food color.) as soon as the meringue reaches soft peaks is ideal. I don’t run the risk of over-beating to incorporate the color, but the time it takes the meringue to go from soft to stiff peaks is sufficient to thoroughly tint it.
6. Stiff peaks! Make sure you are beating your egg whites to STIFF peaks, not soft peaks. A soft peak will curl over when you lift your beater. A stiff peak will stay standing. Also, be sure to stop beating as soon as stiff peaks form and no further, or your eggs can get over dry and clumpy.
7. Add the dry ingredients to the meringue in three portions. I started out making macarons by folding the confectioner’s sugar/almond meal into the meringue in two parts. I have since found that I can control the amount of folding and mixing by folding in 1/3 of the dry ingredients at a time, just until each portion is moistened.
8. Fold to achieve “macaronage”. Macaronage is achieved when the batter is glossy, smooth, and lands in ribbons in the bowl of batter when it falls off the spatula. Some say you should be able to make a figure 8 with the smooth batter, but I find that by the time I add pressure to the batter when it’s in the piping bag to pipe the macarons, taking it to “figure 8” stage is a bit too far and the batter ends up too runny. Also, perfect macaronage is achieved when a ribbon of batter or the “nipples” on a freshly piped macaron, sink to smooth on their own within 30 seconds. Not immediately, but over a short period of time.
9. Choose the right pan and pan liner. I started out making macarons on parchment-lined, flimsy department store sheet pans. I drew circles on parchment paper that was cut to size to fit my pans, then turned the sheets over so the ink wouldn’t come in contact with the macarons, but so I could still see the rings through it to use as guides. I also tried them on silicone macaron mats that I borrowed from a friend. The high quality marked mat worked well. The thin brown one I tried, with a little raised lip around each circle, melted in the 300 degree oven and the macarons were ruined. When I swapped out my flimsy sheet pans for heavy professional ones, my parchment paper liner was too thin for the heat the pans conducted, resulting in over-browned macaron bottoms. So I bought high quality silicone mats to line them with. I no longer need guides, I just eyeball the size of the macs and pipe away. I only have two or three that are mis-sized, so I’m getting pretty good at making them without the guides if my macaronage is just right and the humidity level of my kitchen is under control.
10. Handle the finished batter as little as possible. To avoid deflating the meringue in the batter, handle it carefully. Even handling your piping bag batter too much can deflate the batter. To avoid over-handling, I use a 24 ounce plastic lined canvas piping bag. It is large enough to hold an entire recipe of macaron batter without having to be refilled. Also, I pipe the macarons as soon as I reach macaronage. I don’t let the batter sit around for any length of time, to avoid deflation.
11. Tap the macs…just once! It is always best tap your pan of piped macarons on the counter to remove air bubbles. I have read that once per side of each pan is necessary. I have learned the hard way that just one firm rap on the counter is sufficient. Any more banging and jostling deflates the batter too much.
12. Dry your piped macarons before baking. After piping, allow your macarons to sit at room temperature until the tops dry. If they are still tacky when you touch them, they are not sufficiently dry. You can lightly run your finger over one when they are dry enough. On days that aren’t too humid, it takes between a half hour to an hour to dry. On humid days, I’ve had them stay tacky, refusing to ever dry. All I could do was bake them off anyway, knowing they would never dry, which resulted in flat, hollow shells with no feet. The following picture is an example of the difference in humidity. The macarons in the background, with their perfect little feet, were baked around midnight, after the humidity had gone down and the weather had cooled. The ones in the foreground were made on one of the hottest days of the year, when the humidity was at 100%. The tops never dried, so they were never able to push up from the pan, against a dry top, to grow feet. The science behind macaron baking is astonishing!
13. Don’t peek! Keep the oven closed during baking. I don’t open the oven door when my little macarons are puffing away in the oven. In fact, because we live in an old farmhouse with bouncy floors, I keep the kitchen off-limits during macaron drying and baking.
14. Cool completely. When macarons are ready to be removed from a baking pan and liner, they should be completely cool. When they are ready, if baked properly, they should lift right up off a silicone mat.
15. Store immediately. Finished macaron shells like humidity as much as unfinished ones do. Store, or fill and store, your baked and cooled macaron shells immediately, in air-tight containers or packaging.