Each week J. Kenji Lopez-Alt will drop by with a list of tools or a tool you might want to stock your kitchen with—if you haven't already. Kenji also writes The Food Lab column here on SE. You can fan The Food Lab on Facebook for play-by-plays on his future kitchen tests and recipe experiments.—The Mgmt.
The Winning Model
A good stand mixer is a true workhorse in the kitchen for anyone who bakes more than occasionally, and just like with food processors, the battle for kitchen superiority (at least for the home consumer) comes down to the choice between KitchenAid and Cuisinart. When selecting one, there are a few criteria that I try to look for.
- First off, it should have a dough hook attachment with a motor powerful enough to be able to mix at least two pounds of bread dough without straining, shaking, or burning out.
- Secondly, it should have a whisk attachment to whip cream and egg whites quickly and efficiently into frothy meringues and foams.
- It should also effortlessly cream butter and sugar with a paddle attachment, as well as make short work of mashed potatoes and meatball mixes.
- It should feature planetary motion with its whisk, with the attachment spinning around its axis in one direction, and orbiting around the work bowl in the opposite direction in order to maximize contact and mixing power.
- Finally, it should have a low-gear port for extra attachments such as a meat grinder or pasta maker.
Other factors to consider include:
Capacity and Bowl Design
Some mixers, like the Cuisinart Stainless Stand Mixer ($399) go as high as 7 quarts. Unless you plan on baking 5 or 6 loaves of bread at a time, this is entirely unnecessary. 5 quarts is ample for all but the most serious of home bakers.
For bowl shape, I prefer processor bowls with taller sides and a narrower mouth. Wide-bottomed bowls like the one that comes with the KitchenAid Professional 600 Series ($399.95) means that when working with small amounts of ingredients, the whipping head may have trouble reaching it. Trying to whip anything less than say, four to five egg whites is an exercise in futility. Taller, narrower bowls also help ingredients fall towards the bottom of the bowl more easily and so require less frequent scraping. Tall narrow bowls do make it a bit harder to add ingredients while the machine is running, but the clear plastic lid guards with feed tubes that come with most decent models solve this problem handily.
Despite the fact that many manufacturers boast their motor wattages in their advertising (for instance, Cuisinart does a side-by-side comparison of their 800 watt SM-55 mixer vs. the 325 watts offered by the KitchenAid Artisan), these numbers actually mean very little. Within a given manufacturer's product lineup, it is an indicator of how powerful the motor will be, but the wattage indicated is the power consumed by the mixer, not the power produced by the motor. It's a marketing gimmick, pure and simple.
Given two motors that perform equally well (say the 325 watt motor in the KitchenAid Pro 500 vs. the 800 watt motor in the Cuisinart SM-55), it's actually better to pick the one with lower wattage, as it produces equal results with less than half the power consumption!
For me, there are only two absolutely essential attachments. The first is a meat grinder. Given the number of burgers I make, the grinder alone is worth the cost of my mixer. Fortunately, both the KitchenAid and the Cuisinart have meat grinder attachments available. Here, the Cuisinart's Large Meat Grinder Attachment ($128.95) has an advantage over the KitchenAid's Food Grinder Attachment ($49.95). It's also much more expensive.
It has a larger capacity, and is made of metal as opposed to the Kitchenaid's heavy-duty plastic. This means that it will stay cold longer letting you work more before having to re-chill if you are planning any large-scale grinding operations. For me, it's not a deal-breaker. I've used my KitchenAid grinder for years and have only lamented its small size on one or two occasions.
The other essential attachment is an ice cream bowl. You may question this, and so did I until I got one. It now has a permanent place in my freezer, allowing me to whip up a batch of ice cream at moment's notice.*This one clearly goes to the KitchenAid, as Cuisinart does not offer one for their machine. The KitchenAid Ice Cream Maker Attachment ($79.95) is also great for keeping white wines cold for extended periods of time, to serve ice cubes out of, or to rapidly chill hot soups for the fridge.
*Tip: you can freeze fruit juice straight out of the carton for a quick and easy sorbet. Just add 2 tablespoons of vodka for every cup of juice to help keep it smooth and scoopable)
The main difference in design between various mixers is the way in which the spinning attachment is brought into contact with the food. The KitchenAid Pro Series feature a lifting mechanism that lifts the entire work bowl up and down to meet a stationary attachment. On the other hand, both the KitchenAid Artisan and the Cuisinart feature tilting heads. The difference is really a matter of space in your kitchen. Models featuring lifting bowls are taller and require an extra 5 to 6 inches of height underneath a cabinet. Tilting head models will require a bit of clearance behind them. In this instance, the KitchenAid—which tilts only at the head—has an advantage over the Cuisinart, which tilts at the joint where the body meets the base in a way that I find quite frustrating, requiring much more effort and space to remove or insert the bowl.
The Cuisinart does come with a built-in timer and an automatic shut-off which is neat, but hardly necessary.
And the winner is... the KitchenAid Pro 500 ($299.95). It's ideal for both heavy-duty bakers who make bread at least a couple times a week and want a real powerhouse in the kitchen, or for those who will be mostly mixing batters, whipping cream, or using attachments.