Stand mixers work wonders when you want to whip up baked goods such as layer cakes, cookies, meringue, or bread. But if you’re only an occasional baker—or just don’t have a lot of dough to spend on a stand mixer—do you really need a high-end model? The last time we tested stand mixers, we chose as our Best Buy the KitchenAid KSM75WH Classic Plus Series 4.5-Quart Tilt-Head Stand Mixer, which cost around $210. While this is less than half the price of our top-rated high-end mixer, it’s still not cheap; stand mixers are powerful machines, and their cost reflects that. Our previous Best Buy kept up with our high-end favorite until the last rounds of extreme durability testing, which involved mixing batch after batch of heavy-duty dough. But with new contenders available for less than $200, is it still the best choice? To find out, we bought six challengers and went to work.
Every mixer came with three standard attachments: a whisk, a paddle, and a dough hook for whipping, creaming, and kneading, respectively. With the whisks we whipped heavy cream and egg whites; we used the paddles for traditional creaming of butter and sugar in cookie dough and reverse-creaming flour and butter in cake batter (coating flour with butter slows gluten formation to ensure a tender cake); with the hooks we kneaded stiff dough for bagel bread and sticky dough for ciabatta.
The good news is that most mixers could perform all these tasks, with a few notable exceptions: When we tried to whip two egg whites, two models flopped. One just spun its whisk above the egg; another left unwhipped egg beneath the whipped portion. It’s an unusually small amount of egg white to whip, but our test demonstrated that some mixers couldn’t handle small volumes of ingredients, and this happened repeatedly throughout testing. Other mixers were not as bad but still didn’t match models whose attachments engaged immediately and fully with the ingredients.
To get to the bottom of this problem—literally—we measured the space between the bowl bottom and the three attachments, and the results were revealing: The whisks of the most efficient mixers were as little as 2.5 millimeters above the bowl; the least efficient mixers left more than a 10-millimeter gap. Under the paddle, effective models had 3- to 5-millimeter gaps; the weakest models had gaps more than twice that distance, at 10 millimeters. Likewise under the dough hook, the best mixers had gaps of 6 to 10 millimeters; the worst had gaps of 15 to 17 millimeters. And even though all the models rely on “planetary action” mixing, where the attachment spins on its axis while traveling around the bowl, the weakest model didn’t extend far enough: When we made cookies, mixing with the paddle happened only in the center, leaving bowl walls lined with an inch-thick coating of dry cookie ingredients. You may have to stop and scrape the bowl at least once with most mixers, but this one required it many more times. Overall, models whose attachments ran closer to the bottom and walls of the bowl were more versatile for small tasks and took less time and effort for every task, since ingredients mixed thoroughly without any extra help from us. Unlike some high-end mixers where you can manually reset the bowl-to-attachment distance, these inexpensive mixers did not have that option, so the built-in distances mattered.
While kneading bread dough by hand can be fun, it’s not always an option. Heavy, stiff doughs or very soft, sticky ones are best made in a stand mixer. Our recipes for Bagel Bread and Ciabatta call for 10 minutes of kneading on medium speed—a workout for any mixer. While every mixer made both doughs, some models rocked and whined throughout, revealing motor strain and indicating potential long-term durability issues. Two emitted a burning-oil smell and their casing felt hot. With ciabatta, a few mixers took so long to form a dough ball that dough was kneaded for far less time than the recipe called for.
Why the strain? Stand mixers require torque, a twisting force, for leverage to push against heavy dough. When their motors can’t produce enough torque, the power is driven back into the stand mixer’s motor, which can heat up and become damaged. When the machine rocks and shakes instead of kneading, its interior parts get the workout, not the dough. Some mixers visibly struggled, while our higher-ranking models stayed cooler, quieter, and steadier.
All the mixers in our lineup were “tilt-head” models, where you access the bowl by tilting back the horizontal head of the mixer, usually by pushing a button or lever that unlocks it. (The heads on most higher-end models are stationary and instead use a crank to lift and lower the bowl.) We strongly preferred models that offered head-release buttons or latches that were easy to find without fumbling.
A bowl handle wasn’t essential, but we prefer to have a large, vertical handle that makes it easy to grip the bowl securely when scraping out batter or when placing it on or removing it from the mixer base. Bowls themselves lock into the mixer base in various ways, usually by twisting. As they worked heavy dough, one mixer’s bowl loosened and couldn’t be retightened; another got jammed and we struggled to release it. We preferred bowl designs that made it easy to set the bowl in place and to remove it.
Bowl capacity proved interesting: The models in our lineup were labeled as 4.5- to 5.5-quart mixers, but that measurement is for the bowl filled right up to the rim—something you’d never do. When we used water to measure the volume that the bowls could actually hold (to the top of the attachments), all held about 3 to 3.5 quarts. You can buy high-end mixers in much larger sizes (up to 8 quarts), but we found that the bowls of these smaller mixers were big enough to accommodate all our recipes.
Splash guards, C-shaped plastic shields that sit atop the bowl, were mostly useless and we usually left them off. We didn’t miss them on models where they were not included; in fact, one model required the guard whenever the mixer was on, but its blue tint and tiny opening were a real hindrance for monitoring mixing. The number of speeds on any mixer did not matter; the models in our lineup had anywhere from four to 12 speeds, but all operated at low, medium, and high settings, just on different scales. Finally, we found that the weight of a mixer affects its stability; the models in our lineup ranged from about 6 to 22 pounds, and our favorite was on the high end. But if you have trouble lifting a heavy mixer, two models, by Oster and Bosch, offer decent mixing in compact sizes and at portable weights.
As it turns out, you don’t need to spend big bucks on a stand mixer to get good performance. After all the cream, meringue, cookies, cake, and bread were whipped and mixed, we had a winning mixer: The KitchenAid KSM75WH Classic Plus Series 4.5-Quart Tilt-Head Stand Mixer, at around $210, outperformed its competition once again. Its mixing action is highly efficient and powerful; ingredients came together quickly and blended thoroughly, and it handled difficult doughs with ease. While most of the rest of the lineup worked adequately, these mixers took more time and more effort from the cook; we also appreciate that this model fits the full range of attachments made by its manufacturer (including a pasta roller, meat grinder, ice cream maker, spiralizer, grain mill, and citrus juicer) so it could potentially take the place of other appliances, saving space and money.