A skillful combination of well-balanced ingredients is responsible for the unique mouthfeel and texture of a cake. The properties of some of the ingredients, however—liquids, fat and air—inhibit their cohesion under normal circumstances. Yet, by using a humble whisk and the right technique, the cook can incorporate them in a way that prevents their separation. The result: A successful cake topped with luscious cream whipped to perfection. Whisks also help us incorporate thickeners like a roux or slurry into a liquid. In addition, they are invaluable when making an emulsified sauce such as mayonnaise or hollandaise.
History and design
The oldest whisks were simple tools. Known as birch whisks, they were composed of a bunch of fine twigs taken from a silver birch or similar tree that were then wired together. The flexible birch whisk easily adjusts to the shape of a bowl or pot to smooth out sauces and perfectly aerate cream or egg whites. Sanitary considerations, however, make the birch whisk impractical to use.
Modern-day whisks are designed differently. The handle, approximately five to six inches long, is mostly made from stainless steel, hardwood or hard plastic. The strands, looped together at the handle, vary in length, flexibility and shape, depending on their intended task. The classic whisk has stainless steel strands; today, however, loops made of heat-resistant hard plastic, nylon or hard silicone are not uncommon. These materials are designed to be used in delicate containers and pans with a nonstick coating.
How to use a whisk
Working with a whisk can be very tiring to the wrist, hand and arm. Holding it the right way can avoid that problem. There are two basic whisk positions. For tasks such as whipping cream, hold the whisk between your thumb and index finger—almost like a pen or pencil—with the strands facing away from you. Half of the handle should rest on the upper side of your hand between thumb and fingers. Holding it gently will allow the whisk to swing back and forth as you make a circular motion. For stiffer mixtures, the whisk is best held with a firm grip around the handle, the strands facing toward you. Whisk in a horizontal circular motion for best results. This allows the whisk to incorporate and aerate all the ingredients.
The right whisk for the job
If aeration is the goal, as in beating egg whites or cream, a flexible balloon whisk with its light, springy wires and bulb-like shape is ideal. For a superior result, try a whisk where the curve of the strands matches the shape of the bowl.A sauce whisk differs from an egg or balloon whisk in shape and rigidity. Sturdy elongated loops extend from a strong handle, making it ideal for beating thick béchamel or velouté sauces in a straight-sided pan. In cases when only a very small amount of sauce is produced, a regular whisk is useless due to its size. In such situations, a coil or spiral whisk is the one to select. A single loop extends in a 130° angle from an approximately eight-inch-long handle around which a spring wire is coiled. With this whisk it is possible to whip even the smallest amount of sauce in a shallow pan.
Simple and essential
Whisks are one of the most underestimated tools, often hidden in drawers or cabinets. They neither look fancy nor are they a novel utensil that is difficult to come by. In addition, the availability of aerosol whipped cream has made many of us forget the delight of cream freshly whipped by hand. A quick comparison of both types will convince most cooks how indispensable a whisk can be.