The Whisk and the Witch’s Broom

A witch’s broom re-purposed as a whisk.

I’ve launched a new collaboration with Etsy this week: I’ll be blogging twice a month about making, doing and consuming  in the kitchen.  Look forward to history and adventures, all based on the treasures you can find on Etsy.

My first post was a whisk history–a humble kitchen tool that has changed design over the centuries, striving to make a laborious task, like beating eggs, simple and succinct.  Read The Magic Whisk here here to follow me whisking up meringue by hand.

A birch whisk from Deborah Peterson’s Pantry.

But before wire whisks were introduced in the 19th century,  cooks made whisks from bundles of sticks. You can still buy modern whisks made with birch twigs, but they are fairly expensive: $20-$30.  I was really curious to try one out, and test it against a modern whisk, but I had difficulty convincing myself to drop three tensies on sticks.  Reading this, you probably think I’m nuts:  “Go outside, get some sticks!” you’re thinking.  Well, I live in New York and things aren’t so simple.  In my neighborhood, I can get food from 30 different nationalities;  But sticks we don’t got.

Recently, I had a chance to handle one of these birch whisks in person.  I carefully turned it over in my hands, committing to memory the length and the weight of it, the texture and the stiffness of the straw-like twigs.  Then I went to my local craft store to see if I could find something to replicate it.  I noticed the store already had its “seasonal items” out  and immediately thought “witch’s broom!”  I scored one for $6.  To make my reproduction whisk, I sliced off the tape that held bushy twigs them to the broom handle, rebundled them with kitchen twine, and trimmed the ends to an even length. It looked almost exactly like the authentic $30 whisk, and seemed to be a pretty good recreation of a pre-industrial whisk.

It was time to try out my pre-industrial whisk.  I separated an egg, and set aside the yolk.  I let the white warm to room temperature in a deep mixing bowl, and then I grabbed my twig whisk and went to town.  It  took a surprisingly short amount of time to make a stiff meringue–ten minutes, twelve seconds–although my biceps ached after half a minute.   The twig whisk  had a huge downside: as I whipped the eggs, hundreds of shards of whisk broke off into my meringue.  Big sticks and tiny twigs peppered the egg froth.  It’s possible that after you use the twig whisk several times, it would stop shedding its bits and pieces.  But the first time through, it produced a voluminous, but woody, meringue.

A twig whisk and the woody meringue it produced.

I tested four more whisks and pitted them against my modern mixer; to see the results, head over to Etsy.

21 thoughts on “The Whisk and the Witch’s Broom

  1. I have a whisk like this, given to me by my mother in law who was in France just after WWII. She told me it was for making vinagrettes….

  2. I always have wondered if they worked. Maybe the old guys seasoned them like cast iron skillets? Like pen quills made from feathers, they have a shelf life but they did do a great job with the egg whites… what’s a little birch among friends?

  3. The comparison testing is very interesting. I had a pretty good laugh at that meringue. (Yay, fiber!)

    I wonder whether “younger” or “older” twigs would shed less — but I don’t really wonder enough that I’m going to give up my wire whisk…

  4. Interesting…One word of caution to branch- collecting whisk makers…not all wood is food safe…Birch is and so is Maple…and most edible fruit bearing trees…but I’m pretty sure that Mountain ash and lilac are not, as are many other woods.

  5. I have been cooking with a birch bundle for years and, I promise you, it is the best thing ever! While you may occasionally get a broken piece of birch in your sauce, it does not crumble like the one you made. I had my first one for at least 10 years before it got a little stubby and I purchased a new one. I have had that one for about 15 years and it is still going strong. Never, ever, ever a lump in any kind of sauce if you use this. You get a smooth sauce in no time at all. I have been looking for these to give as gifts and cannot find them anywhere. If you know where I can buy one, please let me know. I will definitely scoop up several.

  6. I just reread your original post and noticed the blue “buy” link embedded. Thanks to you, I have 3 new birch whisks ordered and on their way to me! I can’t wait to give them as gifts to my culinary friends. Thank you for finding them. I have been looking for a source ever since my favorite kitchen store closed years ago. Oh, and by the way, they are only $12.00 each at

  7. I am looking for a new birch whisk. Mine was purchased at least 30 or more years ago and I just used it last night for gravy. It’s also great for cooking pudding. It cleans so easily – just whisk it thru the dishwater a few times! Over the years I have lost a few twigs and some have broken off. It’s time for a new one!!!

  8. My family immigrated here from Stockholm,Sweden…My grandmother , my mother, and myself have always used the “Visp”, as it’s called in Sweden..It is so fantastic! makes the smoothest gravies and cream sauces that you can imagine…the wire whisk , to me, doesn’t compare…and frankly, I just love to occasionally pick out a little twig or2…It makes me feel sooo wonderfully true and old-fashioned with my cooking..I am then, a part of my ancestors…truly.

  9. Looking at the pictures I spot that you didn’t clean the bark of the twigs? I understand you need to steam the twigs and strip off the bark so you are left with the clean, white twigs.
    Did you try this?

    • I steamed and peeled bark off white birch I picked from my wood lot today and I have throughly cleaned sticks and bundled with kitchen twine and voila.A fabulous working whisk ..

  10. In research for part of a western saga I’m writing. Wiki is sometimes wrong. They have the steel whisk invented in France in @ 1850. They were invented before 1841 in the US.

    1844 I’m having a kitchen show and tell, where the new steel whisks are used to whip egg whites and egg yokes to make cake in fifteen minutes. So much less than the hour it sometimes took. Wrong technique of where not having the elbow tight to the body and not using mostly back and forth strokes made egg beating a real three women chore. Someone had to rosewater and sugar the butter at the same time. A three woman job.

    In the 1880 section of the western saga, I have the kitchen wonder machine, the Dover Egg Beater; the old hand cranked one. The Dover one was the perfected one. The Kitchen Aid of the day.

    Cream of Tartar was new on the market. Baking soda brand new. Baking Powder a couple years down the road.

    One needed whipped egg whites and separately whipped egg yoke to make a cake raise.
    “Better was in season fresh flavorful peach, apple or elm beaten end wooden whisk; adding their taste to the whipped egg whites or yokes.”

    Fresh….birch would also add taste. Like in birch beer….but in all cases the fresh twigs had to have it’s ends beaten a bit.
    There must be a tree garden somewhere, where one could order peach, apple, elm or birch twigs in the spring, when flavorful. Peeling them would of course be necessary and give all the length to the flavor.
    I’m sure as a woman stated, they do last a long time, but fresh would add taste; especially in an era when spices were rare and costly.
    So make your re-actors cake in the spring.
    Use the twigs later in the year for other things like a smooth sauce.

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