Kneading wet, heavy bread dough by hand is hard work. So is mixing together thick cookie dough. Thus, when KitchenAid debuted the first stand mixer designed for home cooks in 1919, it caused a big stir. For households that invested in one of these machines—and at $189 a pop, the equivalent of about $2,551 today, they were an investment—the chore of making breads and baked goods was gone with the flip of a switch.
As their relative cost has dropped considerably over the years, the appeal of stand mixers has only grown, and these days the appliance is a fixture in many kitchens. But deciding which one to buy has never been more complicated. KitchenAid still makes the majority of stand mixers, but other manufacturers now offer small commercial-grade machines that promise to knead, whip, and mix with even more ease and efficiency. Improvements range from bigger bowl capacities and more horsepower to timers with automatic shutoff and easy-to-use splash guards.
Given the dizzying range of features and still considerable cost of stand mixers, we shop carefully—and test exhaustively—before we commit. Our last round of evaluations singled out two winners, both originally priced at around $400 (their prices have since changed). What made them stand out was their ability to perform a range of core tasks—to muscle through stiff bread dough as confidently as they beat egg whites. But how do they stack up against newer machines that boast more power and (supposedly) more convenience? And, more important, does the home baker need all that added bling? We ordered nine models, priced from nearly $230 to a jaw-dropping $849, to find out.
All but one of the stand mixers came with three standard attachments: a whisk for whipping cream and egg whites, a paddle for creaming and incorporating cake and cookie ingredients, and a dough hook for kneading bread and pizza dough. However, every manufacturer designed its parts a little differently. Whisks were bulbous or narrow and tapered, and they had as few as 10 tines and as many as 24; the “fingers” within some paddle frames were Y-shaped while others were Z-shaped or even splayed in concentric arcs like a menorah; dough hooks were generally molded in the shape of a C—think Captain Hook’s weapon—or as loose spirals. We assumed that one particular design within each category would prove to be the best, and in some cases it did. But as we put each model through a battery of tests, we noticed that the relationship between the attachment and the bowl usually mattered more than the design of the attachment itself.
Consider whipping a pair of egg whites. This test, which involves only a small quantity of liquid, made it obvious which bowls and attachments had been carefully designed together for maximum contact between the whisk and the food and which hadn’t. The best combination came from one manufacturer: Its 7-quart model features a wide, shallow bowl that raised the whites relatively close to the attachment and a 22-tine whisk, the outer layer of which featured elbow-bent tines that almost grazed the walls when the whisk circled the bowl.
Conversely, whipping was a struggle for other machines because their bowls and whisks didn’t align closely enough for the whisk to engage all the whites. As a result, these machines took longer to whip small quantities and in some cases left an untouched pool of liquid beneath the cloud of silky peaks.
The same principle of bowl-to-attachment proximity applied when we used the paddles to cream together butter and sugar. In most cases, the lateral reach of these flat beaters wasn’t enough to grab food that had clung to the sides of the bowl, forcing us to regularly scrape down the unincorporated portions of the batter and remix. Only one mixer came with a beater that specifically addressed this problem: an extra “scraper” paddle with silicone extensions that continually swiped the sides of the bowl. As a result, it reduced the need to scrape, shaving minutes off mixing times. (One maker sells scraper blades separately; we tested included attachments only.) What’s more, this maker's paddle, as well as those included with all three mixers by another manufacturer, featured a distinct design advantage: the aforementioned Y-shaped webbing inside its frame. Because the angles between the “fingers” are relatively wide, cookie dough didn’t become clogged in the crevices as it did with the sharper-angled Z-style paddles that came with another maker's models, particularly the smaller one.
The Powers That Be
Attachment issues followed a couple of the 7-quart mixers into kneading tests, too. Their dough hooks made limited or no contact at all with the ingredients when we added enough for a single batch of pizza dough but capably mixed the ingredients when we added twice as much flour and water for double batches (though both machines needed extra time to finish the bigger job).
However, the shape of the bowl and the dough hook were secondary factors when it came to kneading. For one thing, we had successes and failures with both C- and spiral-shaped hooks. More important, heavyweight tasks like kneading are more affected by the machinery itself than by the attachments.
During kneading, dough develops more gluten and becomes stiffer; the stiffer it gets the more it pushes back against the machine and increases the “load” on the motor. If a machine has enough power, it can keep moving and mixing at its set speed despite that load; if it doesn’t, the mixer will slow, which causes the motor to heat up and potentially burn out. So what makes a stand mixer powerful?
Initially, we thought it boiled down to horsepower—that is, the force that the mixer exerts. But that wasn’t the whole story: Several machines with relatively high horsepower performed either inconsistently or markedly worse than mixers with less than half as much oomph.
Not only did it shudder and lurch as it churned a single batch of dough but it became very hot, emitted fumes, and from that test on rumbled angrily during both light and heavy tasks.
We later learned that a mixer’s power depends on a combination of factors—horsepower, yes, but also the machine’s torque. Torque, or rotational force, provides leverage: The more torque a machine has the more effectively it will not only push on dough but also rotate it in the bowl. “Abundant torque availability allows [the mixer’s] speed to be held constant over a wide load range, while the beater of an underpowered mixer will lose speed as ingredients are added or dough stiffens, resulting in inconsistent mixing batch to batch,” explained Michael Borgen, lead mechanical engineer at Metis Design Corporation in Boston, Massachusetts. From the manufacturer’s point of view, it’s not always cost-effective to provide plenty of power, he added. “There is a balance to be struck. A motor with superfluous power will unnecessarily increase the cost, size, and weight of a mixer.” But an underpowered mixer doesn’t just deliver bad dough: When it slows or stalls, this strain makes the motor more likely to burn out, explained Ruqiang Feng, professor of mechanical and materials engineering and an American Society of Mechanical Engineers fellow at the University of Nebraska–Lincoln.
No mixer exemplified this more clearly than one particular machine, a front-runner until the kneading tests. Not only did it shudder and lurch as it churned a single batch of dough but it became very hot (its top surface reached 100 degrees), emitted fumes, and from that test on rumbled angrily during both light and heavy tasks. A second brand-new copy failed similarly, struggling to knead for several minutes before finally shutting down. The bigger of the machines from another maker also struggled: Its dough hook actually ripped off the shaft when it became overworked mixing super-stiff bagel dough, our most demanding test. Suddenly, beefy-looking machines were boxing above their weight class—and a stand mixer that can’t do anything more than a hand mixer is not worth the investment.
But what was even more surprising than those machines' failures were the impressive results put up by the seemingly low-power KitchenAid Classic Plus, the company's smallest and cheapest model. (An earlier version of this machine won our inexpensive stand mixer testing.) This mixer outperformed almost every challenger, producing billowy egg whites as capably as it did a double batch of pizza dough. In fact, its only real competition was its sibling: the KitchenAid Pro Line, a machine with more than three times as much horsepower, nearly twice the capacity, and a much heftier price tag. The only time the Classic Plus faltered was in an abuse test: a KitchenAid versus KitchenAid standoff between these two models, our overall top performers, to see which could mix 10 batches of bagel dough and 10 batches of pizza dough (with 30-minute rests between batches) without flinching. After finishing the pizza dough, it was only on the sixth batch of bagels that the latch locking down the tilt head on the Classic Plus stopped working—a result that indicated more about the potential disadvantage of tilt-head mixers than it did about this machine's motor, which, by the way, carried on just fine if we held the mixer's head in place.
Besides a bowl-lift rather than a tilt-head design, we had a few wish list items for the Classic Plus: a bowl handle, preferably a vertical one to help us control the weight of the vessel and keep our other hand free for scraping, and a splash guard (one that could slip on and off easily, such as the one on the Pro Line). And for all three KitchenAid models, an easy-to-set timer with automatic shutoff would be nice. (Notably, a larger bowl capacity is not something we missed, as evidenced by its strong performance with a double batch of pizza dough. What's more, we measured each mixer bowl's usable capacity—the volume of the space between the top of the attachment and the bottom of the bowl—and discovered that no model actually made use of its bowl's total volume; some used barely more than half. Bottom line: A stand mixer's stated capacity may not only be misleading but it also may not be a good indication of the machine's ability to handle large loads.)
Thanks to its power, heft (at 21.5 pounds, it's one of the heaviest mixers we tested), compact size, simple operation, and relatively wallet-friendly price, the Classic Plus earned our Best Buy status. But if you do a lot of heavy-duty baking, you’ll want to save up for the Pro Line, a stand mixer whose range of ability and durability make it truly worthy of investment.