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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
(Adapted for the modern kitchen)
4 egg whites, beaten to soft peaks
1/2 cup super fine sugar
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.
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.