On kitchen science, and magic


Completely hemispheric (no flat spots) antique copper bowl, from France, with brass holding ring.  Get out the whisk and go to town. I usually avoid single-use tools in my kitchen but I make an exception for this beautiful bowl.

On many things in my life, I find I am a half-geek.  That is, I am really interested in knowing HOW something happens (and will often spend hours studying how) but I often stop myself before completely knowing WHY it does.  It’s like I still wish to be caught by surprise, or at least want to still have a bit of faith that something magical can happen.  Also, it’s no fun being a geek 100% of the time (trust me).

In an effort to remove all things electronic from my life, I have increasingly gone for hand-powered tools in the kitchen.   I like stirring/kneading/whisking things by hand, and fortunately my dependency on kitchen electronics was pretty thin to begin with…so not much has been recycled/rehomed.  New things have come in, though, and most of those things were found by my husband (the household shopper) at either the antique mall in town or at various thrift stores.  Here are two items I use all the time, especially now that eggs are in seriously great supply again:  this hand-blender and this copper bowl.


When I use my (much faster) c. 1925 hand blender, I need both hands, so I make a nest with a dishtowel, tip the bowl, and start whipping.  Loose whites to stiff peaks in less than 4 minutes.


Whipping egg whites is what I call lots of fun.  The whole process:  separating white from yolk, setting the whites in the bowl, reaching for the blender and the tea towel…it’s enjoyable to me.  The result is fun too (meringue, souffle, roulade, even a simple cake).  That I know how to whisk, or in this case blend, and even why it’s best done in a copper bowl are interesting facts to me…but that it happens at all is where I find the surprise.

And life in the kitchen would be quite boring without a bit of magic.


Herb and cheddar souffle

14 responses to “On kitchen science, and magic

  1. That is awesome 🙂 I too am a bit (okay, I admit, more than a bit) of a kitchen nerd in the sense of learning how different combos of food impact each other, the chemical reactions in cooking different things, the effect of various metals, etc….

    The copper interested me because in my background, copper is considered a source of health. People will drink water out of copper glasses first thing in the morning, and store liquids in copper pots. People wear copper bracelets too, for the same reason. I am not sure about the reasoning behind this (my family is from India) but it is something I’ve heard. When you mentioned copper and how it effects whipping egg whites, it got me thinking. Have you found anything else about the properties of copper and its effects on food prep?

  2. I love those hand blender/whisk/beater thingys. I have one that I use all the time. Mine is circa 1970 and was probably bought at Woolworths or the equivalent discount store.
    Sadly, still dreaming, waiting and hoping for that copper bowl and thrift store combination to occur.

  3. You are right about doing things by hand being satisfying. It takes time, you slow down, avoid that frenetic sense of being in rush, just enjoy the moment and the sensation of what your hands are doing.

    Good for you and the copper bowl. I’m looking in antique stores for a ceramic bowl. We have a set of stainless steel bowls, which work well. But there is something aesthetically offputting about them. Now that is a statement that modern efficiency types would not understand. But I bet you do!

  4. I strongly prefer to do all my cooking by hand. I haven’t tried a yeast bread yet…that’s to come. That’s the next fun challenge.

  5. That bowl is beautiful and your souffle is beautiful!


  6. My mom used to have one of these when I was little. I LOVED to use it. I’m pretty old-fashioned as well, although I stick to the regular old wisk – I like the excercise.

  7. Yum! now why does one need to use a copper bowl?

  8. Beautiful bowl. I love making things by hand. My Mom keeps trying to give me a bread machine. WHY???
    I do have a stand mixer but most things are still done with elbow grease- it’s more satisfying.

  9. beautiful bowl and love that egg beater! it’s wonderful to slow down and watch the magic unfold. thank you for your wonderful comments on my blog and now i am off to read all of yours! what a great find in so many ways, blessings! riana

  10. I enjoy working with simple tools in the kitchen as well. It’s like taking the backroad instead of the highway; I notice the little steps more. Plus, the noise of my hand blender is more pleasant than anything electric. That isn’t to say that if someone came to my door with a commercial stand mixer I would reject the offer.

  11. Interesting. And lovely bowl. Perhaps the shape helps too?

    I followed your link and read:
    “Another thing to realise is that small bubbles are stronger than big bubbles. Think how hard it is to blow up a balloon through the early “small” stage. But once the balloon gets bigger, it’s easy to blow it even bigger.”

    That doesn’t make sense to me. I would think that it is the thickness of the balloon, rather than the size that defines how hard it is to blow up.

  12. MC, oh yeah Harold McGee is my kitchen god too. I am not completely sure about the extent of copper’s magical properties but all I do know is it is an excellent conductor of heat. We have an old (1920s) copper English kettle that’s been fine and whistly for its whole life and so I am simply drawn to the magic of its beauty. But usually when a whole culture does something there’s usually a good reason behind it!

    Nada you cannot know how excited I was when he brought it home. He thought the bowl must be valuable, it wasn’t something I had necessarily told him to go and get. But yes, my pastry blender sounds like it was sold right next to your hand blender and I love its basic utility. It’s just funny and contrary to what we’re told we should want and then buy. (FWIW I know Ebay sells those bowls…)

    Oh Dennis I do understand. Maybe an old earthenware one with a chip on its rim. I am a bit of a fool for wood bowls too and I guess it’s all just the appeal of the basic utility of the things. Kinda like me: basically utilitarian.

    Zandt I wish you many well-risen loaves in your future. It’s a skill you can take with you anywhere: I love going to visit people and making a loaf or two for them. Kinda like a bit of bakery evangelism.

    Linda, thanks! I love souffles. Puffy magic.

    Oh Mrs Chiot I agree as I am usually all about the exercise too. I grab the blender when it’s a weeknight not a weekend as it shaves off a good 6-10 minutes until dinner is done…so as you can see I still do take shortcuts!

    Robin I guess it has something to do with the way copper reacts with one of the proteins in the egg whites; it makes them make smaller bubbles quicker than doing it in a glass or stainless bowl. That’s all.

    Judy I have a stand mixer too; it was something we actually registered for. I confess I do use it for things like frosting or creaming butter for cookies, but honestly I resent the space it takes up in the pantry. But a bread machine: yeah, I think your mom just doesn’t want you to feel “deprived” or something. You could tell her that having one would deprive you of the sensorial wonder that is kneading, shaping, proofing, and baking one’s own dough.

    Thanks, Riana. I knew you’d appreciate the arm muscle needed. Yep, it’s fun! 🙂

    Pamela, yeah, like I admitted stand mixers do have their place. I love my immersion blender too but that’s because I love my creamy soups. Ah well. The lights aren’t out yet…

    EJ, I dunno. Maybe he meant it’s easier because they’ve been stretched out? Yeah I didn’t think the reference I selected was terribly well-written but I thought it was fairly thorough as to the why…

  13. Michele (neighbor)

    I was looking ahead at our Sarett classes and the Bubbleology class reminded me of your post on the bubbles in beaten egg white. Does the egg white expand significantly more in the copper? If it does, I would love to talk to you about doing a little demonstration for the kids in order to relate it to the Bubbleology class. In fact, I think I will contact the naturalists to see whether they will be talking about egg whites!

  14. Michele, how fun, Bubbleology! My experience is that the copper makes the process happen a lot faster than it would in another kind of bowl. It’s a bit more forgiving, too, as in if you get a tiny bit of yolk in with the whites the whole frothing thing might not happen at all, but in the copper bowl it still does… But what a good idea. I do find that the smaller bubbles do just what the link I put down said it does: they’re tougher/more stable because there are a lot more of them, and smaller is better as far as bubble strength goes. Fluffy puffy meringues and souffles! (You can borrow the bowl to experiment with the kiddos if you’d like.)

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