There are few pieces of kitchen equipment with as much prestige and cachet as the stand mixer. If you’re a serious baker, you should have one, the conventional wisdom goes. I’m not going to disagree with that. My parents bought me my stand mixer as a gift for my first apartment more than a decade ago, and I have treasured it — and used it frequently — ever since. (My mom, meanwhile, has been using her mother’s stand mixer for many decades.)
That said, it can be easy to give short shrift to its smaller cousin, the handheld mixer, which some home cooks may prefer because of space and/or budget concerns, or if they’re only an occasional baker. Whenever I publish a recipe that calls for a stand mixer, the question inevitably arises: Can I make this using a handheld machine?
“When I write a recipe, it’s always, always on my mind,” says pastry chef and cookbook author Emily Luchetti, who has tested many models of handheld mixers over the years but has yet to fall in love with any particular one. “I want to be inclusive. I want to encourage everyone to bake.”
Even though Luchetti’s loyalty lies with the stand mixer, she says you can do just about everything using a hand mixer, with a few caveats and adjustments. Here’s some advice on how to adapt.
Expect a difference in time. “You have to be patient with it,” Luchetti says of the handheld mixer. Beating egg whites, creaming butter and sugar together — just about everything will take longer with the small appliance. In a head-to-head test, America’s Test Kitchen found that whipping whole eggs for a génoise cake took twice as long with a handheld mixer as its stand mixer competition. (The batter from the stand mixer ended up with a higher volume, although the cakes baked up nearly identical.) Luchetti says that many recipes are written with times based on a stand mixer, which is why it’s so important to pay attention to the visual cues provided in a recipe to know whether you’re done.
Prepare to be more hands-on. As the name indicates, you’ll be using those trusty appendages more with your handheld mixer, and that can make things slightly more complicated. “You have to chase stuff all around the bowl,” Luchetti says. Make sure you run the mixer around the edges of the bowl as well as through the center. Luchetti sometimes adds extra insurance by using a spatula to push ingredients into the middle of the bowl and the path of the handheld mixer. Often when I use a hand mixer, I hold the machine with one hand and the bowl with the other. This can be tricky if you’re supposed to gradually add an ingredient into the bowl. To ensure the bowl doesn’t hop around once you take your hand off it, you can nestle the bowl in a damp towel shaped into a ring to hold it in place.
America’s Test Kitchen also found that a cookie dough ultimately came together the best when briefly kneaded by hand after using the hand mixer. Be prepared to do that if necessary. Or have a flexible spatula ready for incorporating ingredients and scraping the bowl down during mixing and at the end, which is something I do in pretty much every recipe regardless of the type of mixer used.
Play to the handheld mixer’s strengths. A stand mixer doesn’t necessarily do everything better, and even if you have both, sometimes the little guy is preferable. “For smaller amounts of ingredients, such as cream for whipping, and for recipes that involve beating hot syrup into eggs or egg whites, a handheld mixer is more practical than a stand mixer,” says cookbook author Rose Levy Beranbaum in “The Baking Bible.” As great as a stand mixer is, its attachments may not make enough contact with whatever is in the deep bowl if there isn’t a lot of it. The portability of a handheld mixer is a major asset when you need to beat ingredients in a bowl set over a saucepan of hot water (i.e. a double boiler) on the stove top, such as for some sponge cake batters or a boiled/seven-minute frosting.
Know its limits. Need to whip a large number of egg whites or put together a heavy cookie dough? Think twice before pulling out the hand mixer, if you have a choice. Whipping large amounts of ingredients will take a very long time with a hand mixer and may not end up giving you the same amount of aeration. Moreover, the extended time can be a strain on your arm, especially with heavier models. Luchetti also says hand mixers may be too aggressive for recipes in which you want to paddle the ingredients just to gently break them up, such as for a tart dough.
When it comes to power, there’s no comparison between a handheld and stand mixer. The smaller mixer can struggle with thick doughs or, worse, potentially burn out. That’s why a stand mixer is vastly preferable for bread dough. Some handheld mixers do come with dough hooks these days, although, given the need to move the mixer around, I’d be worried about insufficient, uneven coverage (the attachments are nothing like the large, thick dough hook of a stand mixer) and therefore a lack of consistent kneading and gluten development. Without a stand mixer, I’d be much more inclined to start mixing the dough in a bowl with a wooden spoon before moving to the counter to knead by hand.
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