Basting Brushes, Classic and Modern

by Elizabeth Skipper | September 10th, 2014 | Ask the Chef

silicon brush pdI own a classic basting brush.  My question is two-part.  First, what are the bristles in a classic brush made of? Second, should I upgrade to a silicone brush? It isn’t a matter of cost, I know, but I figure if what I have works, why change?  Thoughts?

Classic basting brushes, at least those made in France, are made of boar bristles. If you’ve never been up close to a live pig, you may not realize that they’re hairy creatures. And their coarse hair makes a great brush. It’s stiff yet flexible, and holds onto the basting liquid so it’s not running off all over the place when lifted out of the liquid. I still have a couple I bought while in chef school. Granted, I don’t use them all that much, as these are reserved for pastry and I don’t do that much baking, but I think that says something for their longevity if properly cared for.

I also have a goose feather brush, which is used exclusively for brushing egg wash or cream on delicate pastries as it’s so lightweight and gentle. This reminds me of the student who asked how I kept mine from smelling. This really puzzled me, until she told me she’d never washed hers! Turns out she didn’t know you could do that. Imagine a brush that’s been dipped in egg and never been washed – yech. I told her that washing pastry brushes is not only possible, but mandatory.

Which brings us to silicone. Silicone has a very interesting property, which I discovered when I got a four-cup Pyrex measuring cup with a silicone coated bottom. This was touted as a slip-proof surface to hold the bowl in place when you’re mixing. It worked a treat… on a dry counter. As soon as it got the slightest bit damp, it became slippery as can be. If you’ve ever used a silicone scraper – I have several and I love them; they’re a great improvement over rubber – you know liquids tend to run off them. Well, the same holds true of silicone brushes.

This means that while easy to clean, they’re not terribly functional. Manufacturers have come up with different ways to get around this. Some have little balls on the ends of the bristles, OXO (the best of the lot, to my mind) makes one with gaps in the center bristles to hold the liquid and tapered bristles on the outside to do the actual basting, some have more bristles than others. It puts me in mind of glass top ranges. They’re tin fiddles in my opinion; the purpose of a stove top is to cook, not be easy to clean. Not that I’m knocking easy to clean – it’s a wonderful thing – but a cook top is first and foremost to cook with.

So let’s break down the different tasks you might use a basting brush for, and the pros and cons of the two materials. For baking, where you’re brushing delicate and/or uneven surfaces like pastry and dough (think croissants or cinnamon rolls) or removing crumbs from the surface of a cake before applying frosting, the softness of natural bristles is superior. On the down side, the brushes can shed hairs occasionally, especially if they’re not top quality, and they can be difficult to clean, thus retaining odors. If exposed to heat, they can singe. On balance, though, traditional boars’ bristles brushes win my vote for baking.

For grilling or roasting, any brush is going to be exposed to high heat, which makes a natural bristle brush problematic. Mine has long since taken on a tapered shape from the outside hairs getting scorched. And it’s starting to shed, which means picking stray hairs off the food. I’ll keep this one a bit longer, but for the most part I use a silicone brush for these tasks. Holding the basting liquid closer to the food helps with the run-off problem, and the silicone brush comes apart for easy cleaning and can even go in the dishwasher. No staining, no odor retention, and heat resistance make this material a first choice for this kind of cooking.

One other feature to look for is a comfortable, functional handle. A long, angled handle makes basting grilled foods easier. The angle also keeps the business end of the brush off the counter when you set it down. A non-slip material which fits comfortably in the hand is important. I have one with a metal loop for a handle which I don’t care for. The metal can get hot, and it’s too thin. Rounded wood or textured silicone is preferable.

With either kind, it’s important to clean and dry the brush after each use. I wash the natural bristle brush by hand, working the detergent carefully into the base of the brush and rinsing thoroughly. I dry it with a towel and lay it horizontally over something that keeps it elevated, because if you stick it back in a holder or the drawer, the base of the bristles tends to hold moisture. A silicone brush can simply go in the dishwasher.

Do I have a problem with keeping both kinds on hand? Not at all. They don’t take up that much room, and I like having a preferred tool for a particular task. You may feel differently.

Happy with your basting brush but unhappy with how it retains odors and clumps when you clean it? Try the OXO Good Grips Silicone Basting Brush, which works like a natural bristle brush but with the added conveniences of heat resistance, odor resistance and cleanability. Multiple layers of silicone bristles tackle all tasks. Gaps in the center bristles hold liquid as you transfer sauce from the bowl to the work surface, and tapered outer bristles let you baste poultry and roasts with ease. The silicone bristles are heat resistant to 600 degrees F, so you can baste in a hot pan or on the grill, and the angled brush head keeps bristles off the countertop. Cleanup is easy in the dishwasher, and these bristles won’t clump, frizz or retain odors.

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