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Stir, Beat, Blend. . .

by Elizabeth Skipper | October 24th, 2012 | Techniques, Tools, and Tips
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Stir, beat, blend, fold, whip, whisk…  all of these terms can mean mixing two or more ingredients together, but they’re not interchangeable.

Like any art or science, cooking has its own terminology. Sometimes I forget that my students aren’t familiar with the most basic terms, or I see that they’re not understanding an instruction correctly. Let’s look at how these terms can be confusing.

Stirring is usually done with a spoon. For mixing, or stirring a sauce, a wooden spoon is the utensil of choice. The shape and the material tell you why. The handle is round, which makes it comfortable to work with. The bowl of the spoon fits into the corners of a bowl or saucepan nicely, and wood doesn’t scratch. Metal spoons are meant for serving, the flatter handles are more awkward to turn in your hand, and the small pointed ends don’t make sufficient contact with the bottom and sides of the vessel you’re mixing or cooking in to be effective. An exception to this is the use of a flat whisk for stirring gravies or sauces as they thicken, because they’re better at smoothing out lumps. Another is a wooden spatula for stirring sauces that involve scraping the bottom of a pan, like pan sauces that call for deglazing.

There’s less surface tension on a metal spoon, so sauces tend to run off them more readily. If you’re to cook a sauce until it coats the back of a spoon, a wooden spoon is ideal. Dip the spoon into the sauce, turn it over, and run your finger through the sauce. If it leaves a clean path through the sauce that doesn’t run (i.e., fill in), your sauce is sufficiently cooked.

Beating means to mix vigorously until either a single ingredient like eggs, or a mixture of ingredients for a sauce or batter, is smooth, properly blended, and aerated. Because this can mean hard physical labor (think of cakes made in the days before electricity), while it can be done with a spoon, fork, whisk or egg beater, these days it can also be done with a hand or stand mixer. Thank goodness! I remember making mayonnaise with a fork at an ill-equipped summer cottage while on vacation some years ago. It took a very, very long time.

Beating butter or another fat until it becomes soft, smooth, and fluffy is called creaming. This can be done with a spoon (again, a wooden one is the right choice), a very stiff whisk, or an electric mixer. Creaming aerates the fat and contributes to the final lightness of the baked good. So in essence, creaming is beating butter or fat.

Blending is to thoroughly combine two or more ingredients until they’re smooth and uniform in texture, color, and flavor. It differs from beating in that aeration is not a goal. Blending can be done manually with a spoon, fork, whisk, scraper (or spatula), or with an electric mixer, blender, or food processor. Sometimes blending is most effectively done with your hands, for example, when blending a meatloaf mixture.

Whipping is to beat rapidly with a wire whisk or electric mixer so as to incorporate air to lighten a mixture and increase its volume. Think egg whites or heavy cream. Whipping is done with a whisk, a rotary egg beater (I love my old one), or an electric mixer. Another great tool for these jobs is a balloon whisk (whisks are also called whips) which has a large round head for maximum aeration.

Folding is the mixing of two ingredients of different densities, such as folding beaten eggs whites into a cake batter or whipped cream into a mousse base. This is done with a large scraper (spatula.) Always fold the lighter mixture into the heavier one, and do it in two stages. First mix about one-quarter of the airier mixture into the base to lighten it; then fold in the remaining lighter mixture.

The folding technique itself is unique and often done wrong, especially on TV by people who should  know better (can you tell what irks me?) Place the scraper in the center of the bowl and cut down through the foam into the heavier mixture; lift up the bottom mixture and turn your wrist to deposit it on top of the foam. You are turning the scraper, not your wrist. While doing this, with your other hand turn the bowl from left to right. Working quickly, continue folding until the mixtures are uniformly blended. Fold from the center, not from the sides; and never allow the scraper to rest on the mixture. All these seemingly picky points ensure that the volume you so carefully incorporated into your foam doesn’t deflate through careless folding.

Folding can also refer to incorporated dry ingredients into an egg foam, as in certain kinds of cakes. To do this, divide the dry ingredients into three or four equal parts. These you sprinkle on top of the egg foam one part at a time. Fold each until completely incorporated before repeating with the remaining parts.

Whisking is to beat, or whip, with a wire whisk until blended and smooth.

Whew, who knew it was so complicated? It seems confusing when laid out like this. Once you’ve seen it demonstrated, though, it all makes sense. My point is to not take terms like “stir” or “mix” as a given. Think about what you’re trying to accomplish, and the right tool and technique will be obvious.

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