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The Magic Whisk

Sep 11, 2012

by Sarah Lohman

Etsy.com handmade and vintage goods

Sarah Lohman is a historic gastronomist. She recreates historic recipes as a way to make a personal connection with the past, as well as to inspire her contemporary cooking. You can follow her adventures on her blog, Four Pounds Flour. In this blog series, Lohman will comb Etsy for items that speak to America’s culinary past.

I love cooking from old recipes. Sometimes, they’re half a century old; sometimes they’re half a millennia old. When I cook from these texts, my interest is in the taste of different times: how the past can often reveal unique, and long forgotten, flavor combinations. But while buzzing spice blends in my food processor, or gently simmering a custard on my gas stove top, I rarely give much thought to the laborious process involved in making dinner a century or two ago.

One day, I was browsing the keywords “vintage kitchen” on Etsy and came across a collection of about twenty kitchen utensils for sale. The set included four different styles of wire whisks and rotary egg beaters, dated from about 1870 to 1940. In this group of kitchen tools, I could see the progression of time: how science and mechanics sought to make a laborious task simple and succinct.

William Heath

The whisks, from oldest (far) to newest (near).

I’ve always wondered: in the days before electric, upright mixers, how long did it take to make meringue? This fluffy dessert is made by beating air into egg whites to create a stiff foam. Sugar is added, and it’s baked to make crispy meringue cookies; or, it can be folded into cake batters to make them light and fluffy. Before chemical leavenings (like baking powder) were invented in the late 18th century, cooks often relied on stiffly beaten egg whites to add body and lightness to their cakes.

I like to learn through immersive experience. So if I want to learn what it was like to beat meringue by hand, then I had better start — well, beating some meringue by hand. I decided to test my four whisks purchased from Etsy against a modern, electric mixer.

William Heath

The French whisk, circa 1870 to 1900.

For help dating the wire and rotary whisks I had acquired from Etsy, I queried Harry Rosenblum, co-founder of the Brooklyn Kitchen and an avid kitchen tools collector. Wire whisks came into use in the 19th century, and the earliest of my four was a French whisk: a heavy, balloon-shaped tool which originally had a shiny, tin coating to prevent corrosion. Now, it has the worn patina of a well-loved kitchen tool. Rosenblum thought it was made sometime between 1870 and 1900.

Sarah Lohman

The French whisk’s cloudy results.

I separated an egg and let the white warm to room temperature in a deep mixing bowl. I grabbed my wire whisk and whipped for what felt like an eternity — but, in fact, it was only 6 minutes and 48 seconds (though my arm wanted to fall off and die after about 30 seconds). As I whisked and whisked, I thought of countless great-great-great grandmas with bad-ass arms after hours of whisking.

William Heath

The "sauce" whisk, circa 1920.

Another wire whisk in my collection, known as a “sauce whisk,” Rosenblum dated to about 1920 or after. Cheery red paint clings to a wood handle, from which a wire sticks out in a quirky, crooked loop, ringed with a spring. This diminutive whisk, only about six inches long, was extremely efficient. The springed loop grabbed the egg white and lifted it like velcro. With very little effort, I had light, airy meringue in 2 minutes and 32 seconds.

Sarah Lohman

The sauce whisk’s fluffy results.

The first rotary beaters were patented in the 1860s. Featuring one or two interlocking whisks powered by a hand crank, they cut down on the bicep-building work of whisking. I had two in my collection, one with a single beater likely from the 1920s, and a “High Speed Super Center Drive Beater,” which was patented in 1936.

William Heath

The 1920s rotary beater.

The first rotary whisk was poorly designed: if my hand slipped from the tiny, wooden top handle, my pinky was ground by the rotating gear. The action kept jamming, perhaps from age, and it took me 8 minutes, 32 seconds to get a sloppy, watery meringue. When I set the whisk down, my hands were buzzing from the vibration of the gears. Ugh.

Sarah Lohman

Sloppy meringue from the 1920s beater.

The “High Speed Super Center Drive Beater,” patented in 1936.

The shiny, patented, 1936 Super Center Drive Beater was a different story: the super smooth rotation gave me a creamy meringue in the least amount of time: 1 minute, 17 seconds.

Sarah Lohman

That’s some quick, nice meringue!

My last step was to compare these whisks to my modern, electrified, upright mixer: it took over two minutes to beat an egg into a meringue, and left some unbeaten white clinging to the bottom of the bowl — which means that a beater patented over 70 years ago was more efficient than my modern mixer, both in terms of how quickly it made meringue, and quality of the final product. What does that mean? Should the rotary whisk be reinstated into our kitchen armory as a means of producing a faster, finer meringue?

The more pressing question for me was “What to do with all this meringue?” I decided to make an adapted version of “Kisses,” a crispy meringue cookie filled with jam. You’ll find the original recipe in Sarah Josepha Hale’s 1839 cookbook, The Good Housekeeper.

Kisses
(Adapted for the modern kitchen)
4 egg whites, beaten to soft peaks
1/2 cup super fine sugar
Pinch salt
1/2 teaspoon lemon extract
Jam or Jelly

Preheat oven to 200 degrees. With an mixer on low, slowly sprinkle in sugar. Add lemon extract. Turn mixer to high and beat until stiff, glossy peaks form, about three more minutes.

Sarah Lohman

Drop meringue from a tablespoon in small mounds onto a parchment-lined baking sheet. Top with a dab — about a ½ teaspoon — of jelly or jam. Top with a teaspoon of meringue.

Bake one hour, until they come up easily from the parchment, and the bottoms have a hint of brown.

Sarah Lohman

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3 Featured Comments

  • shastafleur said 7 years ago Featured

    Love this! I'd also wondered how our great+ grandmothers (not to mention their generation of restaurant chefs) regularly produced things like whipped cream. It appears that sometimes elegant, ingenious simplicity is the best way to go. No electricity needed, a bonus!

  • eclecticintuition said 7 years ago Featured

    Just whisk me away!

  • PinwheelStudio said 7 years ago Featured

    So wonderful to learn the history of the whisk - and to see the results from each one! I've only acquired an electric mixer in the last month - I always felt like it would be cheating to not mix everything by hand. Love how you found the 1930s rotary whisk to be more effective than the modern electric one. Fabulous!

99 comments

  • leeannasjewerybox said 7 years ago

    I love vintage cooking utensils. I like them because they were built to last. My prize kitchen find is a cheese greater with extra-large holes. Thank you so much for the recipe, I can't wait to try it.

  • ArigigiArt said 7 years ago

    thanks for the recipe, it looks delicious

  • L2Country said 7 years ago

    FUN Article....I just love "old" whisks and beaters and blenders too, and some models are just plain FUN to use!...It was nice to see the results of using some of these old vintage kitchen utensils. ....TXs so much for this article!...XoXo...L2Country

  • timelapse said 7 years ago

    Love vintage! And how fun to actually try them out and see results!

  • aostudio9 said 7 years ago

    I think the mechanical feel and sound of the center drive rotary beater is the best part!

  • shastafleur said 7 years ago Featured

    Love this! I'd also wondered how our great+ grandmothers (not to mention their generation of restaurant chefs) regularly produced things like whipped cream. It appears that sometimes elegant, ingenious simplicity is the best way to go. No electricity needed, a bonus!

  • LivingVintage said 7 years ago

    Interesting! Who knew?

  • OuterKnits said 7 years ago

    Fascinating! Great recipe.

  • volkerwandering said 7 years ago

    I had no idea there were so many different kinds! Great article!

  • MegansMenagerie said 7 years ago

    This is great! Thanks!!!

  • CopperheadCreations said 7 years ago

    Oh whisk...what would I do without you? From frothing our morning cappuccinos to whisking eggs to coat a home-baked brioche, you're awesome, and you're a tool I use a bunch, so thanks, dude.

  • NaturalandVintage said 7 years ago

    love this post! I have a few whisks in the shop (and a few more that I haven't gotten around to listing). My husband has discussed just using one in our kitchen.... now I know it's probably better than my blender!!

  • JewelMeShop said 7 years ago

    Great recipe, I'll try it this weekend with my mother. Thanks for sharing it!

  • CrossExtreme said 7 years ago

    Such pretty cookies!

  • 42things said 7 years ago

    what a FUN blog post! makes me want to go try my old whisks ;) my favourite sauce whisk is a modern version of the rotary hand whisk... but i've not yet tried making merigue with it.

  • 42things said 7 years ago

    and by rotary I meant spring and wire ... oops.

  • MastersOfFate said 7 years ago

    VINTAGE WINS! I loved watching my grandmother make meringue, with her energy put into our food, it always feels more delicious. ^__^

  • TwoSarahs said 7 years ago

    I'd wondered about that too! Great article and lovely cookies. Thanks!

  • creativeclassics said 7 years ago

    The most annoying thing about some whisks (especially the blasted sauce whisk!!) is getting them properly clean after use! Cheese graters are easier to clean than whisks!

  • skevoulla said 7 years ago

    oh, the nerd in me loves this that recipe looks delicious too.. thanks!

  • slathered said 7 years ago

    Very interesting, especially because we love making meringue kisses. I use my modern beater, but now I'm thinking about stealing my daughter's rotary whisk to use. She's 6 and fell in love with it at an antique store; she uses it when she's playing chef. Mommy has to figure out a way to con her out of it. :-)

  • vintagefrenzy said 7 years ago

    I've always wondered how effective different types of whisks were... now I know!

  • tomsgrossmami said 7 years ago

    Fun and interesting article. Thank you!

  • wabiSabo said 7 years ago

    :-D Great article and LOVE the pictures. My kitchen is full of estate sale treasures because I've also found that they work much better than many modern tools!

  • genisepark said 7 years ago

    I love this! Great post.

  • lcarlsonjewelry said 7 years ago

    Thanks so much for sharing. I only use vintage items in my kitchen, because I feel that they are quicker and better. Thank you so much for sharing and for the recipe.

  • ballandchain said 7 years ago

    yummmmm

  • TreadleLady said 7 years ago

    Great article, loved the time and effort you put into the comparisons. Somewhere, stashed away, I have one of those old rotary mixers, may have to give it a home in the kitchen. I agree, the stand mixers often miss areas.

  • WinchesterLambourne said 7 years ago

    I do mine with a fork, as I don't have a whisk. I hear you on the arm-falling-off thing!

  • ParisCabinet said 7 years ago

    Fun article and thank you for the recipe, they look tasty! Will have to try it.

  • destroymodernart said 7 years ago

    I use old non electric things if I can help it- obviously not right now as non electric laptops don't exist... yet- but they take up less space and require renewable energy- our own arm energy, that we get back after eating the poppy seed cake of awesomeness. On the down side I have problematic shoulders so one day might have to invest in an electric one:( booo! Whisking egg whites with a fork took a whole episode of the Simpsons plus ad break.

  • jacklom3 said 7 years ago

    cookies look delicious! thank you for sharing your results!!

  • SuzisPillowStudio said 7 years ago

    You must be exhausted! I tried the same thing with hand sewing a few pillows to compare quality and time to a machine... in this instance, the machine won. Though, it was my very old, faithful, industrial machine. So, maybe there is a connection? At any rate, thanks for the meringue recipe- they are my all-time favorite cookie!

  • cberez said 7 years ago

    thanks for the recipe, looks yummy

  • rikkicondon said 7 years ago

    The sauce wisk ! My mother used that and was the perfect tool. Will happily hunt for one ..love your cookie recipe. Thank you.

  • ThePattypanShop said 7 years ago

    I love vintage cooking utensils and recipes!! Great article - thanks!

  • CraftyWoolFelt said 7 years ago

    Great article!

  • GlindaBunny said 7 years ago

    Is that rust on some of those? Hopefully you got it all off before making the meringue. :) Is that safe to eat meringue made with a rusted utensil?

  • VictoryBags said 7 years ago

    I loved this article! Thank you so much for sharing your experiences. It never would have accorded to me to ask such an interesting question. To follow through and buy the set of whisks to find the answer was a stoke of genius.

  • jennova said 7 years ago

    Ooh, I see rust! I hope everyone who ate that meringue is up to date on their shots! It is a very informative article though. I loved playing with the whisks at grandma's house as a child. She'd give all of us grandkids a bowl with frosting ingredients and we would race!

  • lindyjean said 7 years ago

    i use some old things almost every day....stuff we got from my husband's grandparents....we have this ancient cheese grater that makes short work o grating....my one son calls it the tetanus grater cuz it gets rusty if not dried right away.....we also have old pans and juicers, and really old measuring cups.....i also use my inherited Bauer bowls from the 30s.....

  • lindyjean said 7 years ago

    i also use a pastry cutter a lot....but not for its designed use.....it's great for busting up ground beef for tacos! just cook your meat and instead of poke-poke-poking at it with a spatula to break it into small bits, use a pastry cutter. awesome hint i read somewhere......

  • DewyMorningVintage said 7 years ago

    I love that line about our Grandma's having arms of steel after beating all their egg whites! I can believe it! I couldn't believe how much easier life got once I got an electric mixer! Making cookie dough is a snap now, no more stirring of seemingly cement consistency cookie dough. Great article, interesting how one of the whisks from 70 years ago beat out our modern day mixers!

  • lisawaterman said 7 years ago

    I remember seeing an informative cooking show on the chemistry of cooking. Apparently if you use a copper bowl with that first whisk, those egg whites should fluff right up in no time (and maybe a touch of cream of tartar to stabilize?)

  • MinaMinette said 7 years ago

    I love vintage kitchen stuff! I love buying it! I love displaying it and looking at it! I DON'T, however, love cooking with it. But then, I don't love cooking at all! Somehow, though, it's still fun to read about people who do.

  • FranceGallery said 7 years ago

    Interesting information. Love the great old antique whisks and hearing your experience with them!

  • jessamyjay said 7 years ago

    This is quite possible the BEST Etsy blog post ever! Really engaging and interesting. I find it especially so since this is something I have actually wondered about previously. Curiosity satisfied!

  • dragonhouseofyuen said 7 years ago

    wow! what an amazing and very funny article :) laughed all the way thru it, then drooled at the end with all those delish meringues to eat! yum yum. thanks so much Sarah! so enjoyed this :)

  • TheBeastPeddler said 7 years ago

    I can't wait to try that recipe! Thank you :)

  • RSRenew said 7 years ago

    I love this article!! Old kitchen gadgets are my favorite!

  • eclecticintuition said 7 years ago Featured

    Just whisk me away!

  • reflectionsjewelry said 7 years ago

    I love it! This is like a lesson from cooking class - only more interesting! Woo Hoo! Gonna make meringues! :-)

  • TheBeautyofBoredom said 7 years ago

    Wow, such old tools! I don't think I would ever use vintage kitchen tools in my kitchen though- I appreciate that some of the things we have now are a little more efficient and improved compared to the older tools. Cool recipe though, and love the pictures! Interesting to see how these kitchen tools are different now.

  • jennydoughty1 said 7 years ago

    This was great! It made me remember watching my grandmother as she worked away making goodies when we came to visit! She had the red-handled tools and produced some "mighty fine" grub using them!

  • BambuEarth said 7 years ago

    So fun! I love the hand crank whisks! ♥

  • mattyhandmadecrafts said 7 years ago

    Great!

  • furniply said 7 years ago

    Interesting story... lol at mixer from 1930's beating modern one... progression: like man 40 years ago stepped on moon, what even now seems impossible with all the pc's and iphones.

  • elleestpetite said 7 years ago

    The evolution of whisks, I love this!

  • PinwheelStudio said 7 years ago Featured

    So wonderful to learn the history of the whisk - and to see the results from each one! I've only acquired an electric mixer in the last month - I always felt like it would be cheating to not mix everything by hand. Love how you found the 1930s rotary whisk to be more effective than the modern electric one. Fabulous!

  • SmallkineCreations said 7 years ago

    Awesome! Thanks for the article. Aloha! =)

  • ikabags said 7 years ago

    ohhh love vintage !

  • MissLucyA said 7 years ago

    Great post, really interesting!

  • Boogiecat said 7 years ago

    Interesting! love the vintage kitchen utensils!

  • coalchild said 7 years ago

    awesome collection...since my mixer broke..i use two forks no fun..lol

  • ElChocolatin said 7 years ago

    interesting experiment. Thanks for the recipe! Perhaps it is very tasty.

  • laditt1329 said 7 years ago

    I have acquired several old kitchen tools and a few I use on a regular basis. I love my flour sifter. Now I am going to go look for that whisk at the next yardsale or vintage store jaunt. Sometimes I hate to get out the electric beater just for a little froth. And I am for sure going to try this recipe. :)

  • nonnasshop said 7 years ago

    So loved your post...so very interesting. I, too, love the look of the vintage utensils but always use my Kitchen Aid for meringue. Bet if we used the old wisks, we wouldn't get "angel wings" on our arms!!!! Meringue cookies are my grandkids favorite...I will often throw mini choc. chips in, which just puts the cookies over the top in their eyes. Gotta make them on a dry day, tho. Thanks for your research and am going to try your recipe!

  • SimpleJoysPaperie said 7 years ago

    Interesting topic... and a delicious looking recipe! Thanks for sharing!

  • BizzieLizzie said 7 years ago

    Fantastic post! Thanks for sharing!

  • brezomayo said 7 years ago

    love the top image! I would hang it in my kitchen.

  • GoldenDaysAntiques said 7 years ago

    Great post! I love a vintage kitchen.

  • CatholicCards said 7 years ago

    I remember reading Laura Ingalls Wilders' book about her husband, These Happy Golden Years or maybe Farm Boy. She tells of making her wedding cake and how she beat egg whites with a fork 'until her arm ached.' So glad I have a hand crank egg beater now! Great post.

  • FreakyPeas said 7 years ago

    I love the rotary beater.

  • FourPoundsFlour said 7 years ago

    Thanks for the responses, everyone! I've loved reading everyone's family stories (it's made me laugh a few times!) and I'm glad I've inspired a few people to give the rotary whisk a try--as well as the recipe for these unbelievable kisses! And I learned something, too--never heard about the copper bowl, but now I am giving to give it a try. Also--the meringue from the first rotary better was orange with rust! I threw it away and didn't use it in the final recipe:) It was all soupy and awful, anyway. I just posted on my blog about the whisk that would predate all of these, one made from twigs! I tried it out, too. Take a look: http://www.fourpoundsflour.com/the-whisk-and-the-witchs-broom/

  • glusk said 7 years ago

    Great read! It reminds me of when I was little and used to use my Grandmothers old whisks to try and make beautiful hand made paper. I always ended up with grey cardboard but had a blast making it.

  • JennMaruskaDesign said 7 years ago

    Hi - I really enjoyed this article - it was very interesting, reading about your "test runs" with the various whisks. Then I realized I had all the ingredients on hand to make the meringue kisses recipe. So I did. The first attempt was a flop. The egg whites never got fluffy. (using a stand mixer, and then giving an electric hand mixer a try). So, I looked around the internet and found another meringue cookie recipe. The ingredients were added in the opposite order (foam egg whites, add 1/4 t. *cream of tartar*, then sugar, then lemon.) The meringue came out shiny and fluffy, and the cookies are in the oven now, with 20 minutes to go. I used strawberry jam (*note: have your jam in a separate bowl from the jam jar, as raw egg whites will stick to your spoon when you put the jam on the meringues.) I ended up with just over 2 dozen cookies.

  • araisedbanner said 7 years ago

    ///The wisk is right up there with my 10" Victorinox as far as kitchen sidekicks are concerned! Brilliant article... God bless

  • messinabella said 7 years ago

    Interesting!

  • GardenDaisiesStudio said 7 years ago

    What a wonderful article. I adore vintage kitchen utensils and I have a strong belief that using them instead of new kitchen gadgets, whatever I am making just tastes better. Maybe it's the slow, handcrafted, loverly way of making food with the older utensils, maybe it's their patina and color, maybe it's just that the maker is having fun :)

  • lkmccray said 7 years ago

    My grandmother's sauce whisk still hangs over the stove at our family's summer cabin. Now that I know how efficient it is, I'll quit thinking of it as "quaint" and put it to good use!

  • BourgeoisDesigns said 7 years ago

    Fun post. Thanks

  • iampatricia said 7 years ago

    In May...The Honey and I set out to make a Lemon Meringue Pie for our son and take it to his work for his 24th birthday... We're retired...so Pie is great for any occasion especially birthdays, right? We used the first wire whisk that you showed... a week later, we made another pie and used an electric mixer. The electric mixer won...hands down! We didn't have the opportunity to try any others...but I loved this post. Because I could SOOO relate to the arms aching! Those little kisses look yummie! I enjoyed this post. Pat

  • recycledwares said 7 years ago

    I didn't think it would make a difference what type of whisk I used. I thought one took more elbow grease than the other - now I know. :) Thanks!

  • breadandroses2 said 7 years ago

    I don't do meringues but I have and still regularly use almost every vintage kitchen tool shown above. The old school tin grater is the simplest & by far best cooking accoutrement. Great article!

  • sianuska said 7 years ago

    my grandma used to make lovely, delicious meringues in her AGA. also, the finest toast known to man (or woman) using a 'tennis racquet' device on the hot plate. the resulting toast was branded with a criss-cross pattern. happy memories!

  • motleyme said 7 years ago

    I use a whisk similar to the French whisk fro egg whites. Though mine is a modern, lightweight piece. Of course my right arm gets pretty tired in the process - so I learnt to whisk with my left hand too :)

  • clipingpathindia said 7 years ago

    I’ve found lots of helpful info your recipe.

  • AntiquesAsh said 7 years ago

    That is really awesome how each whisk makes a different froth! Thank you for sharing.

  • KaiceJoy said 7 years ago

    Absolutely fascinating to learn about how each whisk worked!

  • NeoPopCabaret said 7 years ago

    Thank you for testing writing and sharing it! Fascinating!!

  • GrandmaDede said 7 years ago

    I love those old vintage and antique kitchen tools! Been collecting them for years (for display and emergency use only, lol!). .... Funny how the oldest whisk design is still in use. Love our (new) stainless steel one!

  • linenlaceandthread said 7 years ago

    Thanks for sharing this recipe! I will definetly try it...

  • BombshellShocked said 7 years ago

    I love the idea and the article. Please do more comparisons! I'd love to read them!

  • TurquoiseOwlFibers said 7 years ago

    That's what we use in our household, a mixer similar to the 1930's one you pictured. We've never owned an electric mixer. Growing up we had a whisk and wooden spoons. We also have a vintage pastry blender, and I was antiquing with a friend 2 weeks ago when she purchased an identical muffin tin to the one in the first photo! I thought it was so unique, an 8 muffin pan. I love looking through antique stores for items I can actually use in my home. They have stood the test of time and they all have history and a story. It is interesting to ponder on where that item might have come from, who might have held it, and what labors of love where concocted with it in the kitchens of yesteryear.

  • CStarJewelry said 7 years ago

    My grand-ma had one of those hand wheeled whisk! I can't believe it, it remind me of her so much. I played many hours just looking at it as I was operating it! Awesome tool. Also my sisters and I used to play with it to make pretend baby doll food with water, flour and whatever could give it a tint. Don't ask me what it was..,hahaha!

  • VenatorVintage said 7 years ago

    You're funny, Sarah Lohman! I love funny, interesting, and informative articles like this one. And especially about food and cooking! Keep 'em coming.

  • theheirloomaddict said 7 years ago

    My boyfriends father gave us 3 (count um) 3 boxes of vintage egg beaters. I would love to catalog them one day and put them up in the shop. Such an interesting collection.

  • edithugboaku said 6 years ago

    This is interesting. http://unn.edu.ng/academics/faculties

  • edithugboaku said 6 years ago

    This is beautiful. http://unn.edu.ng/academics/faculties

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