When I see the cache jar by my stove bristling with whisks, it's hard to remember that there was a time when a whisk wasn't something you saw in every American kitchen.
Some sources credit Julia Child with bringing the whisk habit back from France and professional kitchens and convincing home cooks that whisks should be an extension of our hands. I can't say for sure if that's true, but I know that in my mother's kitchen, we didn't have whisks. We had forks.
We had forks, by golly, and we were glad of it. There were always a few beaten-up forks that were too bent to be any good even on the lowliest weeknight dinner table. Those became our egg beaters and our fried-food stabbers.
Today, I have a whole jar of whisks. They seem to follow me home. And it's funny, but it was years into my career as a food writer before it occurred to me to notice that not all whisks are built alike.
Having lots of whisks isn't wasteful. It just means you have different whisks for different jobs. Whisks break down this way:
Balloon whisks. This are very light whisks, which thinner wires and wide, bulbous shapes. They should have at least nine wires, but more is even better. They're for mixing air into things, like egg whites and heavy cream, and they need to be light so they don't push the air out of things and so that they don't wear out your hand. You can also use them to mix dry mixtures, like getting the baking soda and salt well-distributed in the flour.
French, or sauce, whisks. These are narrower, for getting all around a mixture in a saucepan. They also can be heavier and sturdier than balloon whisks. You usually don't whisk as continously with a sauce whisk.
Flat, or roux, whisks. These look like squashed whisks, with a flattened shape. They're dandy for whisking flour into fat to make a gravy, although their elongated shapes also can be effective for whisking together batters in a mixing bowl.
A few things you need in your whisk collection:
A heavy whisk. I have one whisk that's not really a balloon and not really a French. But the tines are much thicker than my other whisks, making it really handy for bashing things into other things -- it can double as a potato masher, for instance, or it can handle a thick batter if I don't want to go to the trouble of involving the stand-mixer.
Good handles. We tend to notice the tines on a whisk, but we forget to notice the handle. And the handle is what actually spends time in our hands. Wooden handles are usually comfortable. Wire-wrapped handles? Not. And they have a bad habit of rusting.
Multiple sizes. Sometimes you need a big whisk, sometimes you need a medium-size whisk. There's nothing wrong with variety.
What you don't need: Novelty whisks. The ones that are straight wires with balls on the end, the ones with complicated shapes that involve wires bent into circles in the middle? I say skip 'em. They don't whisk any better, and they get all tangled up with the better whisks.
And after getting fooled many times by cute, tiny whisks, I finally learned: A fork works better. My mother could have told me that.