In the baking world, French macarons, an almond sandwich cookie consisting of two meringue shells filled with ganache, buttercream or jam, are known as a particularly tricky confection with a high failure rate. Even in a professional bakery, some batches just don’t turn out. Then, why try them at home?
For starters, they are exceptionally pretty cookies that can cost several dollars a piece, so there’s an economy to making them yourself. Macarons also skew very sweet, and, at home, you can dial down the sugar to a certain degree. And, once you get a feel for the process, you can exercise maximum creativity when it comes to flavor combinations.
Perhaps most important, though, is that macarons require a significant degree of precision, so executing a technically correct batch is a bit of a flex. I suggest starting with a classic flavor: chocolate, raspberry or pistachio, and, before you get to baking, reading through the tips below to maximize success.
Mind Your Meringue
The first step in making macarons is to whip a very firm meringue, which creates a stable base. Then, you mix in your dry ingredients using a folding motion, in a process called macaronage, which deflates the meringue and gives the batter a glossy, lava-like texture so it settles into flat, smooth circles on the baking sheet. (If your batter forms lumpy or ridged circles, the batter was probably undermixed; if it pancakes into thin puddles, it was overmixed.)
Use extra-fine, blanched almond flour (available in any well-stocked baking aisle), since a coarser grind can lead to cracked shells, and oils from almond skins can weaken your meringue. Tinting the shells is optional but will make your macarons more vibrant, so if including food coloring, be sure to buy the gel variety. Regular food coloring from the supermarket will introduce too much liquid, also leading to cracking.
Most bakeries flavor just the filling, but I opt to flavor the shells as well, which is a bit controversial, as adding an extra ingredient can throw off the batter. But because flavoring the shells helps to balance some of the sugar in the meringue, I think it’s worthwhile.
Patience Is Key
Once the batter is the right consistency, pipe the shells using a pastry bag with a round tip onto silicone baking mats. Parchment paper works fine, but I usually have better results with silicone baking mats. The mats stay perfectly flat, resulting in rounder shells, while parchment tends to wrinkle beneath the wet batter, slightly distorting the circles.
After the batter is piped, it dries at room temperature until a skin forms on the surface. As the batter bakes, that skin forces moisture to escape from around the bottom of the cookie, creating a “foot” and giving macarons their signature look. If you get domed, cracked shells with no feet, chances are you did not let them dry out long enough, allowing the moisture to punch through the surface. Next time, let them sit out longer. (Dry time is dependent on humidity and can vary quite a bit. In summer humidity, dry times might run over an hour or two.)
Bake Low and Slow
The shells are baked at a low temperature — usually 275 degrees to 325 degrees — until crispy outside and soft inside. The low temperature prevents browning, but any lower and they’ll dry out rather than bake, preventing foot formation. Such a narrow window means you want an accurate temperature reading, so get an oven thermometer if you don’t have one, and avoid baking on convection because the airflow from the fan can lead to uneven feet and lopsided shells.
I also recommend using flat, untextured baking sheets, preferably rimless ones. Shells that bake along the margins of a rimmed baking sheet sometimes fail to form a foot because the rim shields them from the oven’s heat. If you have only rimmed baking sheets, just flip them over and bake on the bottom.
Let Them Linger
Underbaking can cause the shells to hollow out, a common issue, so err on the side of baking more rather than less. Don’t worry if your shells turn out a bit dry: One of the crucial steps in macaron-making is “aging.” Once the sandwiches are filled, they’re left to rest in the refrigerator for about a day so the shells can hydrate and soften. Don’t rush this process, or your macarons won’t have the satisfying chew that makes them so delicious.
Making macarons requires you to manage several variables, but it’s doable for any home baker willing to follow a careful set of steps — and perhaps try again if something goes wrong the first time. When you do turn out a successful batch, prepare to feel immense satisfaction and to receive a few compliments for your efforts. I’m not saying you should do it for the praise alone, but I’d understand if you did.