Julia Child heightened our interest in French cooking, and in so-doing, she used whisks well and often during her shows in the 1960s. They seemed so French! So culinary state-of-the-art! So sheik! Julia also taught us a whisk could be practical, even helpful, and it was okay to own one! Americans had something new to buy!
Whisks were used in medieval times. Workers in wealthy kitchen bundled twigs, as multi-pronged whips to get air into egg whites and to whip cream more quickly. The 18th century Shakers used bruised peach tree twigs to give a mild peach flavor to cakes. Whisks were first mentioned in print in The Frugal Housewife, published in London in 1765. The Japanese have also used bamboo whisks in their tea preparations.
Today we used whisks when we want to whip something as opposed to stirring or mixing. It tends to combine things quickly and is greatly appreciated for destroying lumps in sauces and a roux. It is also useful for unifying mixtures, such as melting chocolate and heavy cream, custards and polentas. This work for dry ingredients too. When a whole lot of air is needed, it makes light work of whipping cream and egg whites. Nothing brings a vinaigrette together more quickly than a whisk!
When one first uses a whisk, it can be messy. The idea is to keep all the mixture inside the bowl. This is regulated by the size of circles you generate with your arm. The whisk is used by holding it comfortably in your hand and making a repetitive small circular motions. As the volume increases, the speed of motion should increase, too. The more wires in the whisk, the more quickly air is whipped into the mixture increasing its foaming action.
There are many types and shapes of whisks. Most whisks consist of a long, narrow handle with a series of wire loops joined at the end. The wires are usually metal.
Whisks can be categorized in two basic ways: by number of wires and by shape. Round whisks with many wires are best for whipping air into liquids. Flat whisks with fewer wires whip in less air and are better for mixing products that require a smooth, dense finish, such as sauces and gravies. Below is a list of the more popular whisks. Several have many different regional names:
Flat whisk: Horizontal curled wire used to make a roux or gravy, helps with blending oil or melted fat with flour against a pot bottom.
Ball whisk: Has small balls at the end of wires, not looped. Works quickly.
Balloon whisk: Helps to get large amounts of air into a substance like egg whites.
Coil whisk: Like a pogo stick, it allows you to whisk foods with an up and down motion for small amounts in a small vessel.
Dough whisk: Brings dough together just before kneading.
Thermometer whisk: Contains a thermometer, helpful in gauging doneness of custards or sauces.
French whisk: General, all-purpose whisk, more vertical than round. Seen most often as a cook’s symbol.