How to Choose the Right Whisk

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[Photographs: Vicky Wasik]

Whether I'm making the custard for my chocolate cream pie, combining the dry ingredients for a crusty loaf of soda bread or whipping up the best carbonara, a good whisk is an essential kitchen tool.

On the flip side, the wrong whisk can make a task infinitely more annoying, so it's crucial to have the right tool for the job at hand. While whisks come in a thousand different shapes and sizes, these are the styles I find most helpful to have at home.

Balloon Whisk

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Strengths: Whisking in bowls or sauciers; keeping custards in motion; combining dry ingredients; smoothing batters.

Weaknesses: Aeration; whipping; reaching into corners.

I've been making desserts full-time my entire adult life, and a balloon whisk is just about all I ever use (admittedly, I never whip my meringues and whipped creams by hand—I prefer to use a stand mixer).

The curving shape of a balloon whisk conforms nicely to bowls and sauciers, making it easy to scrape every surface and reach every corner.

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Because there aren't too many tines, it won't get gunked up making thick batters like the yukone in my magic bagels and crusty dinner rolls, and its hollow shape makes it easy to knock out whatever's trapped inside.

Despite the name, "balloon" whisks don't help meringues balloon up in the bowl; their shape is just rather balloon-like. In fact, these whisks are fairly lousy at aeration, though styles with an extra layer of tines are a little better at it. This balloon whisk set includes both styles.

French Whisk

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Strengths: Aerating eggs or cream; reaching into tight corners; working in small pots; emulsifying sauces.

Weaknesses: Scraping bowls or sauciers; handling thick batters; keeping thick custards in motion.

As the name implies, these whisks excel when it comes to French cuisine: from making a classic b├ęchamel or traditional hollandaise, to mounting a pan sauce with butter, or whipping up a French meringue.

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Their shape and plethora of tines make it easy to maneuver in small pans, reach into the corners of a pot, and provide enough agitation to aerate or emulsify. By that same token, those many wires tend to get gunked up in thick batters and custards, to the point of creating significant loss in certain types of dough, so they're not a great choice for heavier projects.

Ball Whisk

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Strengths: Reaching into tight corners; scraping flat surfaces; combining dry ingredients.

Weaknesses: Scraping bowls or sauciers; handling thick batters; keeping custards in motion.

They may look like novelty whisks, but ball whisks are super useful for reaching into the sharp corners of a pot, where the rounded tines of a balloon whisk won't quite fit, as well as whisking across flat surfaces, like a wide skillet when making scrambled eggs.

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I use mine almost exclusively for whisking things in measuring cups, where the tines of a ball whisk will splay to reach the corners. Plus it's longer, easier to handle, and more effective than a simple fork.

On the down side, a ball whisk is something of a one-trick pony, as those tines will readily collapse to a single point in a thick custard or heavy batter, where the open design of a balloon whisk is much more effective.

Silicone Whisks

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Strengths: Protecting nonstick surfaces; working with delicate projects; ninja baking.

Weaknesses: Handling heavy batters; keeping thick custards in motion.

When working with nonstick cookware, a silicone balloon whisk, a silicone ball whisk, or a silicone French whisk is essential. But even with traditional metal cookware, silicone has a muting effect, like a silencer for your whisk, so it's pretty handy if you're trying to keep quiet in the kitchen (the clatter of a stainless ball whisk in a bowl can be fairly deafening in the early morning hours).

Of course, you'll find whisks of all other shapes and sizes online, but most of these strike me as novelty gimmicks, and my tiny kitchen doesn't have room for a whisk that I won't use all the time. Especially when I've yet to find a task the whisks above can't handle, when properly applied.