Yes, You Really Do Need a Stand Mixer for That

stand mixer creaming butter and sugar

[Photographs: Vicky Wasik]

It's no secret that I love my stand mixer, and that it plays a role in an overwhelming number of my cookie, cake, and frosting recipes.

But when I talk about how important a stand mixer is for baking, folks usually respond with something along the lines of, "Well, then how did they do it in the olden days?" And the answer is, they didn't. What many bakers don't realize is that using a stand mixer is not a choice of convenience; I use a stand mixer in these recipes because it's better suited to the job than mixing by hand (or with a hand mixer). Aside from the fact that the stand mixer itself is more than 100 years old, making it a fixture of modern recipe development, the desserts made prior to that era were radically different from the ones we make today and better suited to preparation by hand. The advent of high-power mechanical mixing allowed for new techniques and ingredient ratios to create the desserts we know and love today.

A Brief History of Mixing

Modern American layer cakes are a great example of this; prior to mechanical mixing, Americans made cakes much like bakers in the Old World: sponge cakes made from egg whites and yolks whipped separately by hand, then combined with fat and flour folded in at the end. These were then finished with a simple meringue frosting or, potentially, a bit of unsweetened whipped cream (both quite easy to whip by hand).

But with a mechanical mixer's unique capabilities, bakers began to develop recipes with higher proportions of butter instead, eventually bringing us to the richer style of cake and frosting we find in American bakeries today. These buttery styles of cake and frosting simply didn't exist back when the only option was to prepare something by hand.

cake with vanilla buttercream frosting

Obviously, there's a good deal more to the story than that, but for now, suffice it to say that stand mixers have given way to their own genre of baking—one that happens to be of particular personal interest to me. This is in part due to my culinary school training as well as my own background in commercial bakeries and restaurants. I'm not here to say owning a stand mixer is essential to all bakers, only that it's fairly essential to the style of baking I focus on in my own work.

How Stand Mixers Work

The most important thing a stand mixer has to offer isn't convenience; it's power.

Thanks to their strong motors, stand mixers can work with butter at temperatures well below what a person could manage by hand, well below even what a hand mixer could tackle (try to cream 65°F butter with a hand mixer, and you'll just watch cubes of fat fly from the bowl). With that power, the wide, flat paddle attachment can rapidly beat relatively cold butter with sugar, working it into an airy matrix of fat, air, and sugar crystals.

Four stages of the creaming process, from gritty, dense, and dark to smooth, light, and pale.

That's an essential aspect of the creaming method, as butter loses its capacity for aeration as it warms, meaning that butter creamed at temperatures suitable for working by hand (or with a hand mixer) will never reach a stage as fluffy or light. The lower volume of batters and doughs that warmer butter produces translates to a lower yield (as aeration physically increases the amount of space a batter or dough will occupy) as well as a poor rise, making for heavy cakes and flat cookies. So if you've ever been plagued by flat cookies, the poor creaming action of a hand mixer may be to blame.

For more information, please see our detailed look at the technical process involved in the creaming method.

Beyond its power to work with relatively cold and hard butter, the action of a stand mixer's paddle attachment is unique; it's a single paddle that's wide and flat, able to bash, rub, smear, spread, and fold.

dense and dark butter at the start, creamy light and fluffy butter after creaming

While both a stand mixer and a hand mixer can incorporate butter and sugar, a stand mixer's paddle achieves more volume along the way, while maintaining a lower temperature for the ingredients (in turn, keeping my cookie dough thick and easy to handle, not sticky, and keeping my cake batters cool, better able to retain air for an even rise).

Because of their powerful motors, stand mixers are also able to whip whole eggs straight from the fridge, without any need for separating whites and yolks or bringing them to room temperature first. Whether I'm making glossy chocolate brownies or a crack-free jelly roll, working with cold eggs helps ensure a more stable foam for baked goods.

Photo collage of whipping eggs with sugar, salt, and instant espresso for brownies

Again, this allows for techniques that weren't possible in Ye Olden Days. In the 1800s, a baker would have to separate whites from yolks to whip each on its own to make something like a chocolate sponge cake, but a stand mixer has the sheer power to whip cold, whole eggs into a stable foam.

So for bakers who consistently experience a low rise with sponge cakes or find that foamed-egg brownies always seem raw or dense or that Swiss meringue always seems too heavy and buttery, the problem may well be an underpowered hand mixer.

So then what’s the best mixer, you ask? I’ve written all about my love for the six-quart KitchenAid Pro.