The erudite French molecular gastronomist Hervé This thinks that the kitchen whisk is medieval technology, particularly when it comes to its ability to aerate, and he has been experimenting with various instruments—bicycle pumps among them—to find something better suited to the task.
According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the first known written use of the term whisk—to refer to a utensil used to break up, blend, or aerate food stuff—came in 1666, and was used in describing a method for transforming egg from its naturally viscous, cohesive form to a more manageable, liquid one.
But similar uses of the word whisk, with reference to quick, sweeping motions, can be traced back even further. Being that this was a tool entrenched in the work of the kitchen—the purview of largely illiterate servants and slaves—it seems likely that whisks of a sort were in use in the kitchen well before their existence was ever recorded on paper. Such whisks appear to have been little more than bundles of gathered reeds or twigs. And though modern whisks are generally made of metal, plastic, or silicone, the essential form and function of these instruments remains largely unchanged from original prototypes.
So it seems Monsieur This's take on the whisk is likely rather accurate. That said, while there may be better tools or methods to come for whipping egg whites and cream, the whisk is more than a tool for aeration. Useful for making sauces, emulsions and more, archaic though the whisk may be, it is one of the home kitchen’s greatest multitaskers.
Here is some information for selecting and making the most of this medieval apparatus:
The three most common styles of whisk are French, balloon, and flat or pan, but there are many others: ball, coil, double balloon, flat balloon, etc. For my money, if you have one decent, medium-sized – say, 10-inch – French whisk (if you make lots of pan sauces and roux, maybe a flat whisk, too) you should be pretty well set for most purposes.
The French whisk is shaped more or less like a tear drop with straight sides, which are helpful for scraping down the sides of pots during cooking. It is a good all-purpose whisk, generally well suited to agitating thick custards, mounting sauces, making emulsions (as for mayonnaise) and whipping cream or egg whites.
The flat whisk is essentially what you’d expect: more or less flat—perhaps with a slight arc for making good contact with the bottom, sides and corners of the pan—and composed of several concentric loops. In terms of blending, this style ranks closely with a fork, and for aerating it’s fairly useless, but for making a roux or a sauce, when it’s important to keep the mixture moving, and prevent it from getting stuck in the corners or on the bottom of the pan, this type of whisk is very useful. I tend to think of it as a cross between a spatula and a whisk, and use it whenever such an instrument would be appropriate.
The balloon whisk is bulbous, something like a French whisk that’s wearing an invisible corset. This type of whisk functions similarly to the French style, except that it’s not as good for scraping down the sides of bowls and pans. Often described as the best choice for aerating, i.e. making meringue, whipped cream, sabayon, etc., I’ve never found the balloon whisk to be much better than a French whisk for this purpose (though, it is a little easier to knock stiff whipped cream and meringue out of the slightly more open head of a balloon whisk).
Whisk Usage and Materials
In general, when using a whisk to aerate or emulsify, the more wires or tines, the better, regardless of the whisk’s shape. The extra wires help to unfurl proteins, divide and disperse fat droplets and introduce air bubbles more quickly. (This is the reasoning behind the double balloon whisk, which is, as it sounds, a balloon whisk within a balloon whisk, and the whisk-ball-inside-a-regular-whisk styles, but these are difficult to get scrupulously clean—important for meringues—and are generally overkill, unless you do a lot of cream whipping by hand.)
For stirring thick custards, polentas or the like, a whisk with fewer, thicker wires is best. This provides the sturdiness to plow through thick masses with less resistance.
Aside from metal, there are also bamboo and plastic whisks and metal whisks coated with silicone. These are all good for use in non-stick cookware, but I tend to find their spindles a bit thick, and the silicone and bamboo versions are particularly difficult to rid of residue for successful meringue production.
To my mind, the best type of whisk, regardless of shape, is a metal one with a heat-proof plastic handle, into which the wires are firmly and cleanly cast, such as those made by Matfer. With this type of construction wires rarely come loose (I’ve never seen it happen), and food cannot easily collect in the area where the wires meet the handle. The handles tend to stay cool during cooking, and they won’t melt if they’re left to lean against the inside of the pan for a minute or two.
In addition to using whisks for all of the aforementioned tasks, I also like to use them as a shortcut for aerating and blending the dry ingredients for baked goods whenever sifting is indicated for this purpose (unless the recipe suggests sifting multiple times, in which case, it’s generally best to do so). It saves time and avoids the messes that often result from sifting. Plus, whisks are much easier to clean than wire mesh sieves.
I’ve thought about sifting with a bicycle pump and then about stirring a sputtering pot of pastry cream with one—and then I’ve thanked my lucky stars for the good old whisk.
About the author: Amanda Clarke is a recovering restaurant pastry chef with a background in architecture. She lives in Brooklyn, New York, where she writes, tests, and develops recipes and works on freelance food-styling gigs between walkings and feedings of her two dogs and husband.