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The way I cook, mixing bowls are almost as essential as cutting boards, knives, and pots and pans. I simply couldn't do without them—preferably in a good assortment of sizes.
For me, the ideal mixing bowl must have the following features:
- Durability. My bowls go through a lot of abuse. I don't want a bowl that will overly warp, dent, crack, or chip. For instance, the Pyrex Prepware 3-Piece Mixing Bowl Set ($15.79) that often comes highly recommended has a fatal flaw: the corners chip very easily. In some kitchens I've worked in, over half of the glass bowls had chips on their edges. Where do these glass bits go? On the floor? In the food? I'd rather not find out. An all-metal bowl is a much better option.
Stain and Odor-Proof. Plastic bowls, like the Mixing Bowl Set from Trudeau ($16.95) can absorb odors from vinaigrettes or become discolored from canned tomatoes or oil-based products. Once again, metal is the material of choice.
Wide and shallow shape. Bowls with really high sides, like the Stainless Steel Mixing Bowl Set from Cuisinart ($54.95) or the Stainless Steel Mixing Bowls from All-Clad ($99.99) make whisking and stirring difficult to do, and tossing large quantities of food downright impossible. As a general rule, a mixing bowl should have a height only slightly larger than its radius.
Lightweight. The most efficient way to whisk ingredients in a bowl properly is to hold the bowl with one hand, rapidly shaking it back and forth while whisking with the other hand. That means heavy bowls, like the Azur Mixing Bowl Set from Emile Henri ($79.99), while very pretty, are too difficult to use. Likewise, the best way to coat a large number of small pieces of food uniformly (say, when tossing potato chunks with olive oil, or bread crumbs with minced shallots) is to hold the bowl with two hands and toss foods towards you from the back lip. Another impossibility with heavy bowls.
Stovetop-Capable. Setting a bowl on top of a pot of simmering water is the best way to make hollandaise, melting chocolate, cooking a delicate custard, or any number of other kitchen projects. Occasionally, when I'm in a hurry, I'll even put the bowl directly over a low flame. While non-skid bases in products like the Non-skid Mixing Bowl Set from Amco ($34.95) are nice, they prevent you from using the bowls in a double boiler. Some of them are not heatproof, and even in the ones that are, the insulating properties of the non-skid coating make them an inefficient means of heat transfer. Oh, and forget about putting them directly on the stovetop.
Microwave-Proof. I microwave things in bowls all the time. Whether it's melting butter, steaming some greens, par cooking pie fillings, or making Five Minute Ricotta, a bowl must be microwaveable. Fortunately for us, unless your microwave is a relic from the 80's, metal bowls are completely safe to put in the microwave (just avoid putting more than one metal object in the microwave at the same time, and keep the bowl away from contact with the edges to prevent arcing). In fact, the only bowls that aren't microwaveable are some of the plastic models. But we're avoiding them already anyway.
The winning bowl happily also happens to be the cheapest by far. The Stainless Mixing Bowl series from ABC Valueline comes in multiple sizes. I'd recommend the 2 quart, 3 quart, and 5 quart models as a good starting set. All told, they'll only put you back about $10 for all three of them. If you've got a good Chinese restaurant supply store nearby you, you can get cheaper, even more generic versions of these. I have about a half dozen of them. Being super thin and lightweight, they are also easy to store, since they take up virtually no extra space when you stack them. I have a little over a half dozen, which take up no more room than the single largest one does.
"But what about the features?!" you might ask. As far as I'm concerned, bowl design has been pretty much perfected.
Skid-proof bottoms are useful, but placing the bowl in a saucepot with a damp towel draped over the rim to stabilize it solves the wobbly bowl problem better than any skid-proofing I've ever come across. Skid proofing also prevents you from using the bowl as a double boiler.
Accompanying lids seem like a good idea at first, but then you realize all it means is that your bowl sits in the fridge half-filled with potato salad rather than on your shelf ready to make a vinaigrette when you need it.
Pouring spouts are a minor improvement, but largely unnecessary. If you've got a ladle and a funnel, there's nothing a spout's got on you.
About the author: J. Kenji Lopez-Alt is the Chief Creative Officer of Serious Eats where he likes to explore the science of home cooking in his weekly column The Food Lab. You can follow him at @thefoodlab on Twitter, or at The Food Lab on Facebook.