The sound of a balloon whisk beating egg whites rhythmically in a china bowl evokes a sense of pleasure in many cooks. As you begin to whip the raw egg whites you can feel their transformation from viscous gloop into snowy clouds. Capture the froth at just the right moment, and you can transform it into fragile meringues, soufflés and cakes. Misjudge it and your under-whipped whites will collapse into a sticky liquid mess as you whisk in the sugar. It’s much harder to get your timing right when using a electric or mechanical whisk.
Until the 19th century, many cooks used birch or willow twigs as whisks. The twigs were tied together in bundles, left to soak in a stream until their bark could be stripped away, and then hung up to dry. They were then bound at the handle end to create a supple whisk for sauces and creams. An illustration in “The Opera of Bartolomeo Scappi”, a cookbook published in 1570, shows a cook twizzling the handle of a whisk, which looks like it’s made from birch, to make “neve” (snow), a frothy cream piled up in a large bowl.
The only alternative to the twig whisk was a fork or a contraption called a chocolate mill, which was made of wood and consisted of a long handle attached to a series of wooden blades, a bit like a water mill. The cook then rubbed the handle between their hands to spin the mill and create a foam. The problem with all these methods was their inefficiency. It could take an hour to whip cream with a chocolate mill, and twigs were fragile and hard to keep clean and dry, which they needed to be for egg whites to form a froth. As a result recipes that required whipping and whisking were scarce.
The invention of the balloon whisk was a culinary god-send and a total mystery. As Ivan Day, a food historian, explains, “It’s very hard to find any information as to when whisks were first made with steel wire.” But they started to feature in both French and British cookery literature in the middle of the 19th century. The device was perfectly designed for the job. Its steel wires are shaped like a wide teardrop, enabling you to reach every drop of liquid in a round-sided mixing bowl (this is not a whisk for saucepans or other straight-sided containers). Its wires were flexible, which lessened resistance, reducing the degree of wrist action needed. Equally important was the ease with which it could be washed and dried. A greasy or wet whisk is the enemy of fluffy egg whites. The number of wires also matters. As Harold McGee explains in his book “McGee on Food & Cooking“, the process of whisking unfolds the tightly packed protein molecules in egg whites and destabilises the fat globules in cream, so that air can be drawn into them. Today the number of wires varies between six and 12, but the more you have the more proteins you’re unfolding and the more air you are instilling into the mixture.
Their simple design made whipping easier, far less time-consuming and more reliable. This opened up a world of whipped delicacies that could be made as easily by domestic cooks as professionals. British cookery writers such as Agnes B Marshall began to include whipped dishes in their books. In 1902 Marshall released an expanded edition of her “Larger Cookery Book”, which included new recipes like Soufflé à la Margaret (a cold savoury soufflé made with tomato puree whipped into aspic, before folding in whipped cream with chopped chicken and truffles) and Cream à la Meque, a pudding made with whipped cream, rum and strawberries and garnished with walnut-sized meringues and banana puree. Similarly, the 1899 edition of Cassell’s “Dictionary of Cooking” included myriad new cakes, leavened with whisked egg whites rather than yeast. Many of these, such as the Victoria sponge, have become familiar favourites.
In late 19th-century America, the fashion for aerated dishes like muffins and meringues led to an “egg-beater bubble”, when literally hundreds of mechanical egg-beaters were patented. Perhaps the most famous was William’s Egg Beater, patented in 1870 and consisting of a rotary wheel that turned two round beaters in opposite directions. At first these looked like improvements on the labour-intensive demands of manual whisks. But what cooks gained in style they lost in convenience. As Bee Wilson explains in her book “Consider the Fork, A History of How We Cook and Eat”, “not a single one…was actually an improvement in efficiency or ergonomics over the basic French balloon whisk”.
It was Julia Child, an American cookery writer, who re-established the popularity of the balloon whisk in America. In 1963 she made her first appearance on TV, and while demonstrating recipes from her book “Mastering the Art of French Cooking”, she explained that the old-fashioned methods were far better at getting air into egg whites than their less sensitive mechanical rivals. The balloon whisk’s simplicity and durability make it the whipping implement of choice for anyone who considers themselves a real cook.