by Elizabeth Skipper | September 26th, 2012 | Techniques, Tools, and Tips

In all the discussions about what kind of knives a cook needs, or appliances, or cookware, one of my favorites is usually overlooked – bowls. I love them. A kitchen needs many more of them than some think.

Prep bowls, pinch bowls, mixing bowls, bowls with spouts and handles, serving bowls… wooden ones, metal, glass, ceramic, pottery, or plastic… tall ones, narrow ones, wide ones. So many choices! Why would you need so many different kinds and why different materials?

Pinch bowls are very small, just large enough to hold a pinch or a bit more of a spice, dried herb, or salt. They’re perfect for doing your mise en place, when you’re laying out all the ingredients prior to making a dish. Prep bowls vary in size, depending on what you’re making. If you’re a baker, you’re familiar with cake recipes that call for one bowl for dry ingredients, a larger one for wet ones (or mixing of the batter), and perhaps one for beating egg whites. So a range of sizes is required.

Different tasks also require different characteristics in a bowl. If you’re mixing up a big batch of batter, you need a large bowl, preferably one with a spout. For bread dough, a bowl has to be large enough for the dough to double in bulk without overflowing it and made of a material like pottery, which will keep the temperature of the dough warm and stable.

While they’re lightweight and unbreakable, metal bowls aren’t ideal for bread dough, especially sourdough. But because metal responds quickly to temperature changes, they make great double boilers when used on top of a pot of barely simmering water. When you want to cool something down quickly, like blanched vegetables or hard cooked eggs, drain and pop them into a stainless steel bowl filled with water and ice cubes. If it’s something like a dish with gelatin in it, mix it in a metal bowl and place that in another, larger bowl filled with ice. In both cases, they’ll cool off rapidly.

When you’re separating eggs, two bowls are required, one for the yolks and one for the whites, right? Three is better. The third one is the working bowl. As you break each egg, allow the white to drain into this smallest bowl. That way, if an egg is bad or the yolk breaks, you don’t ruin the rest of them. For the same reason, a working bowl also should be used if you’re adding whole eggs to a mixture like batter or meatloaf.

Glass and plastic are slippery, and plastic retains fat and food odors easily. So neither is great for beating egg whites. The expensive, single-purpose, yet ideal bowl for beating egg whites is made of copper. The French have perfected the shape of such a bowl to work together with a large balloon whisk for efficiency of beating; and copper reacts chemically with the egg whites to ensure maximum volume and optimum texture of the egg white foam. The final touch provided with these gorgeous bowls is a hanging ring, which ensures you can admire it when not in use. It’s too big to store in a cupboard.

Select the right size bowl for a job. Leave enough room to mix, not simply contain, something. It’s frustrating trying to stir while avoiding slopping or spilling. Too large a bowl, on the other hand, is inefficient. Chasing ingredients around inside it to incorporate them is annoying. Shape matters, too. A wide bowl with low sides is perfect for soaking French toast or marinating. But just try whipping cream in a bowl like that to find out how much of the kitchen you can decorate with white flecks. Unless you’re Jackson Pollock and enjoy that sort of thing, you’ll prefer a narrow bowl with high sides.

Bowls can be used to cook in, as well. Steamed pudding is made in a ceramic pudding basin (aka bowl) on the stove top. A one-inch lip around the top allows a cover to be tied on to keep moisture from getting inside and making the pudding soggy. Large Pyrex bowls or individual custard cups (essentially small bowls) go right into the oven for baking.

Lastly, bowls are for serving. White bowls allow the colors of food to pop; clear ones showcase foods like trifles, which are layered. Cut glass is beautiful for fruit salads; wooden bowls are a handsome backdrop for tossed salads. And decorated bowls can make up for foods with a less-than-inspiring appearance.

How many bowls are there in your kitchen?

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