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Picking the Proper Mixing Tool for Every Job

Whether it's stirring polenta, creaming cookie dough, or making a vinaigrette, every cooking task gets done easier, better, faster with the right tool

Fine Cooking Issue 28

Photos: Scott Phillips

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Stirring, whisking, blending, beating, folding—there are lots of ways to mix ingredients, and lots of tools you can use to mix them, depending on the results you want. From a simple a wooden spoon to a high-powered, high-ticket stand mixer, each tool performs in a specific way that has a specific effect on ingredients. Which is why, depending on the task, certain mixing tools work better than others.

Simple hand tools are favorites of the pros

Rubber spatulas, wooden spoons, and whisks are so commonplace that it might seem silly to even mention them. But these inexpensive, all-purpose faithfuls are the desert-island choices of every professional chef and food stylist I spoke to because they’re easy to use and perfectly engineered for many jobs.

Wooden spoons are inexpensive, simple, and heat resistant. They come flat, angled, bowled, and round-edged, and in various sizes. Wooden spoons are sturdy enough for smashing aromatic ingredients such as citrus zest and herbs to release their aromas and flavors, and the spoon’s curved bowl is perfect for smearing cookie dough against the sides of the bowl as you mix. Use them for stirring thick risotto, sauces, stews, and custards. The rounded edge is gentler on ingredients—and on pans—than a metal spoon. And a wooden spoon’s relatively rough surface is superior to metal for tasks like creaming butter and sugar, says Molly Stevens, a contributing editor to Fine Cooking, because the wood’s slightly rough surface helps cut air into the butter that turns it light and fluffy when you cream it. And just about every cook I know likes the simple comfort of a wooden spoon’s handcrafted feel.

Rubber spatulas also come in several sizes. The wide-paddled blade pushes and lifts ingredients and gently cuts through airy mixtures. The spatula’s design is perfect for gently folding soufflés, sponge cake batter, fools, and meringues. And the flexible paddle’s rounded edges make a rubber spatula the best scraper around, especially if it bugs you to leave the last bits of batter in the mixing bowl. You can even buy heatproof rubber spatulas, perfect for scrambling eggs and fluffing frittatas. Look for the gently scooped model by Le Creuset, which comes in bright colors, or the stiffer, long-handled version by Rubbermaid.

Whisks combine and they can aerate, too. The spaced wires agitate and disperse ingredients in several spots at once, while the area in between lets air into whatever you’re mixing. A whisk’s wires may be thin and flexible (ideal for whipping) or thick and rigid (useful for stirring and preventing lumps in custards, sauces, and even polenta). The wires should be gathered close together where they meet at the tip for thorough mixing. The handle should be sturdy and sealed off so water doesn’t get trapped and the wires don’t disengage.

  • An all-purpose whisk, also called a sauce whisk, ranges from a few inches long to several feet long. Sauce whisks are great for countless tasks, including making mayonnaise and other dressings, where the wires smash oil into the droplets needed to form an emulsion. A sauce whisk is the most versatile, but other types of whisks do special jobs.
  • A balloon whisk’s full rounded profile gets lots of air into ingredients and is especially good for whipping cream and egg whites.
  • A flat whisk (or roux whisk) is nifty for deglazing and blending pan gravy because the flat shape can get into corners and at every bit at the bottom of a shallow pan or skillet.
  • An egg beater has no redeeming value except quaintness. Hang it on your kitchen pegboard for eye-catching decoration, and use a whisk.

Mixers are a baker’s choice

Mixers are the motorized version of a whisk: they combine ingredients and can aerate them, too. They’re quicker, higher-powered, and require less arm strength than a whisk, but mixers don’t offer quite as much finesse and hands-on control as a whisk.

A hand mixer is great for whipping cream, egg whites, frosting, cookie doughs–and mashed potatoes, too, provided you go easy so they don’t get gummy. As with a hand blender, you’re bringing the mixer to the food, so cleanup is minimal–just a rinse of the beaters. If you like baking, be sure to buy a hand mixer with enough oomph (175 to 220 watts) to take on dense cookie dough and thick chocolate frostings. Susan Ehlich, a food stylist in New York City, likes KitchenAid’s hand mixer. “It isn’t as powerful as a stand mixer, but it has a good range of speeds for cookie doughs, going from very low for gentle stirring to very fast for finishing with a thorough beating.” KitchenAid makes hand mixers with six, seven, and nine speeds. Trailing a cord can be cumbersome and oomphier models can be heavy, so if it’s a choice between a hand mixer and a stand mixer, ask yourself how much whipped cream, cookie dough, frosting, and ganache you actually do. A good hand mixer will run you $50 to $90.

As for the beaters, “Flat-edged beaters seem to get at the food better than the spindly ones,” says Anne Disrude, a food stylist in New York. But the trend seems to be toward these spindly beaters, so again, be sure the motor has enough power.

A hand mixer is a mechanized whisk. Cleanup is easy — just rinse the beaters.

A stand mixer is a wooden spoon or a whisk in its mechanized, most powerful form. With paddle, hook, and whisk attachments, you’re set for crusty peasant bread, buttery brioches, delicate layer cakes, creamy frostings, and large batches of mayonnaise. For busy cooks, having your hands free is one of the most appealing features of a stand mixer. You can beat the egg whites for a meringue or a soufflé while you prepare other ingredients.

Most stand mixers come with bowls in capacities of about 3-1/2 to 5 quarts. KitchenAid is a favorite among chefs I polled, because the shape of the mixing bowl and reach of the dough hook make for more thorough mixing than other models. Abby Dodge, Fine Cooking’s test kitchen director, has a very personal relationship with her five-quart KitchenAid Heavy Duty. “He’s strong and big enough for nine dozen cookies, two loaves of French bread, or one ten-inch cheesecake,” she says. Dodge advises that, “If you’re a die-hard baker and you have to make a choice, stick to your chef’s knife for chopping and choose a stand mixer over a food processor.”

Stiffer bread doughs that need lengthy, vigorous mixing can cause a mixer to slink, sidle, or gallop across the counter. Most cooks deal with this by keeping an eye and a hand on the machine. Maggie Glezer, who is writing a book on artisan breadmaking in America, suggests putting towels underneath “to serve as shock absorbers. Or,” says Glezer, “just stop and rest for a few moments—your dough will be just fine.” You’ll often find certain models on sale, but expect to spend $250 to $450 for a KitchenAid.

A Magic Mill is a heavy-duty all-purpose mixer that kneads up to 15 pounds of bread dough with its roller attachment. Several impassioned Fine Cooking readers have written in to rave about the Magic Mill. It comes with attachments for whisking, blending, grinding, and juicing, as well as for making pasta and sausage. If you’re a serious baker who turns out several loaves a week, you might consider one of these, but if you just want your hands free while you whip egg whites or start cake batter, stick to a stand mixer. The Magic Mill is big, it’s heavy, and it rings in at $499.

A stand mixer frees up your hands to add ingredients as it mixes.

Blenders — hand and stand

A blender mixes with small, whirring, pronged blades. While most cooks use a blender to chop, purée, and liquefy, many find that both an immersion blender and a stand blender are really useful mixing tools.

An immersion blender is a lightweight, portable version of its big brother, the stand blender. This mixer on a wand has been the secret weapon of restaurant chefs for years, and now lightweight home models are available.

An immersion blender lets you take the mixer right to the food. It’s great for whipping air into sauces just before serving.

“The immersion blender sits right in the middle of our kitchen, and everyone’s always reaching for it,” says Joanne Chang, a pastry chef at Payard Pâtisserie in Manhattan. She counts on it for lump-free pastry cream, for “supersmooth ganache and custards,” and to quickly mix large quantities of egg wash for dozens of croissants. Jim Peterson, a contributing editor to Fine Cooking, likes his immersion blender for whipping a little frothiness into cream-based or butter sauces just before serving. An immersion blender is a cinch to clean— just run it under the faucet—and cordless models by Sanyo and Cuisinart eliminate the bother of a trailing cord. It’s essential, of course, to make sure the blender is turned off and has stopped rotating before you put it in or take it out of whatever you’re mixing; otherwise, you’ll end up with expressionist splatter all over you and your kitchen walls. Expect to spend $30 to $50.

Stand blenders mix in a closed container with small, pronged blades and violent tossing action. They’re great for mixing vinaigrettes, mayonnaise, and other emulsified dressings. And because of the jug container, they handle liquid well and they’re easy to pour from. Blenders can range from $40 to $150.

A stand blender handles more than margaritas. It’s perfect for mixing mayonnaise and vinaigrettes, too.

Your food processor can mix, too

A food processor’s sharp, spinning s-shaped blade chops, grinds, purées, and liquefies. It’s the tool you probably like best for pulverizing pesto, grinding nuts and breadcrumbs, and chopping chocolate. But a food processor is a mixing tool, too.

“It takes the mystery out of making smooth, emulsified vinaigrettes—much quicker and easier than whisking,” says Lucia Watson, chef-owner of Lucia’s in Minneapolis. Joanne Chang uses a food processor to repair broken ganache, spinning small amounts at a time. And Susan Purdy, author of Let Them Eat Cake and Easy as Pie, loves her processor for pie crusts and tart doughs. “But pulsing is essential,” she says. “You have to be careful not to overwork the dough.”

For kneading bread dough, “you’ll get a more flavorful result than with a stand mixer because the dough is being flipped around less, and in less danger of getting oxidized and bleached out,” says Charles van Over, author of The Best Bread Ever, an award-winning book based on food-processor kneading with the metal blade. For home bakers, van Over recommends buying a processor with a capacity of at least 11 cups. A machine that size will cost $250 to $350, but smaller models start under $150.

A food processor cuts cold butter quickly to mix tart and cracker doughs in seconds.


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