Let's talk about Pyrex, shall we?
And yes, I am talking about the kind of Pyrex your grandmother owned. The kind made from white glass (instead of clear) and painted with crazy designs. Specifically, let’s talk Pyrex Cinderella Nesting Mixing Bowls.
Not familiar? Well, Cinderella bowls were shaped with a particularly peculiar design involving two different sized spouts on either side of the bowl - the larger spout to serve as a handle, the smaller for pouring. Supposedly, these bowls were christened “Cinderella” bowls because they were introduced about the same time as the Disney classic film and like Cinderella’s glass slipper, these bowls were the perfect size, shape and fit for the American kitchen.
Quite frankly, I believe Pyrex was right - but more on that later. Because despite such a perfect shape and size, these spouted bowls and their crazy painted designs disappeared from American kitchens over 30 years ago. Which begs the question: Why am I devoting an entire post to mixing bowls no longer commercially available?
I’ll answer my question with another question: What do you want from a quality set of mixing bowls? Here’s my checklist and I suspect yours will be similar:
- Durability: I need work-horse bowls that can survive relentless abuse. I don’t need bowls that will break easily when bumped against other objects in my kitchen. Or explode when they come in contact with really hot or cold liquids. And once I find a set of bowls I like, I want them to last and last and last.
- Functionality: The bowls must be microwave, dishwasher and oven-safe. In addition, I find bowls with spouts to be more useful, especially when baking.
- Sizes: I need a set of graduated bowls with useful sizes that all nest together so they won’t take up a crazy amount of space in my little apartment kitchen. I do not need 50 different sizes, most of which I’ll never use.
- Value: I don’t mind paying more for a bowls as long as I know they’re exactly what I want. But whenever possible, I like to scrimp my pennies and save up for that replacement stand mixer or bread machine. So cost is certainly a factor in any purchase I make.
But vintage Pyrex Cinderella Nesting Bowls, with their white interiors, dated patterns and peculiar designs, will beat out the modern competition every time. Yet after so many decades with opportunities along the way to improve the design, how can it be possible that vintage is better?
Two words: Durability and Functionality
The truth is, a lot has changed since the 1940’s when Pyrex first introduced their legendary glass nesting bowls. The patterns have changed. The shapes have changed. The colors have changed. Even the chemistry of the glass has changed. Just as Corning Ware discontinued the line of Pyroceram cookware to instead pedal inferior stoneware, the Pyrex bowls offered in stores today are not made of the same Pyrex glass your grandmother cherished.
I’m sure a chemist could explain why the glass made before the 1990’s offers superior resistance to cracking, crazing, breaking and thermal shock verses the Pyrex products offered in stores today. However, I’m not a chemist and so I won’t pretend to understand the technical reasons for the superiority of vintage Pyrex - I’m just interested in performance. And when it comes to durability, vintage Pyrex has endured the test of time.
Take a look at the bowl pictured above (picked up at a thrift store) that I've been actively abusing for 5+ years. It’s gone through the dishwasher hundreds of times, I've used it over simmering pots of water as a double boiler and I've frequently poured simmering soup directly from a kettle into this bowl. I've even dropped this bowl a couple time, knocked it into other dishes and pots and whacked it by accident with metal spoons. Yet still no cracks, no chips, no nicks. Just a little marring of the paint.
And that bowl is over 60 years old. If you want bowls that are durable enough to last for decades, consider your search over.
The functionality of these Cinderella bowls is just as impressive as their durability. As aesthetically odd as the spouts on these bowls may appear, they’re quite useful in the kitchen and I’ve come to rely on them for just about everything I make. In fact, I’m surprised this design fell out of favor because it has become even more useful now that so many kitchens are equipped with microwaves and stand mixers.
When baking, the unique design of the spouts makes it easy to tip ingredients into a stand mixer without making a mess. I just rest the larger of the two spouts on the lip of the stand mixer bowl and use the smaller spout as a handle - so much easier to manage than a spout-less bowl.
When I’m cooking, the spouts make it easy to tip ingredients into boiling pots of water without getting scalded. Again, I hold the smaller of the two spouts like a handle and pour with the larger spout. Because these bowls can endure some thermal shock, I feel safer using them around vats of boiling water. In fact, I frequently use these bowls over simmering water as double-boilers when melting chocolate.
The spouts also come in handy when transporting hot liquids. Even if the sides of the bowl are too hot to safely touch, the spouts stay moderately cool and serve as convenient handles during transport.
But there’s more than just spouts. Most Cinderella bowls are also microwave safe (exceptions are bowls painted with gold designs as the paint can spark in the microwave). And all Cinderella bowls are dishwasher and oven-safe. The bowls are also sufficiently heavy that you can whisk vigorously without the bowl traveling across the counter - useful when you’re making whipped cream by hand.
Typical Cinderella bowl sets come in four useful graduated nesting sizes: 4 Quarts, 2 1/2 Quarts, 1 1/2 Quarts, 1 1/2 Pints. Believe it or not, these sizes work for pretty much every task in the kitchen. I very rarely go in search of a smaller or larger bowl beyond these four sizes. And because I use these bowls so frequently, I find it helpful to have at least two sets.
Of course, in order to own two sets, you first have to find two sets. And since you can’t stroll over to Crate & Barrel and grab a set off the shelf, you may be wondering where one can acquire vintage Pyrex. Funny enough, these bowls are becoming harder and harder to obtain at reasonable prices.
If you want a specific pattern or a complete set of matching bowls, your best bet will be Craigslist, eBay or Etsy. Just watch out for price-gouging as some collectors have crazy-high expectations for the value of their bowls.
If you’re less concerned about matching patterns and just want to get your hands on some of this durability and functionality, start religiously prowling local thrift stores. Be patient and vigilant - these bowls get snapped up pretty quick. And some thrift stores have gotten wise to the value of these bowls and are pricing them higher accordingly ($6 - $12 a bowl, depending on size and condition).
If all this sounds like too much work for a simple set of bowls, consider these final thoughts:
- Buying vintage helps the environment by keeping reusable items out of landfills
- Buying vintage reduces your environmental footprint by eliminating your demand for new products (and related manufacturing, marketing and packaging waste)
- Purchasing items from thrift stores generally benefits worthwhile charitable causes - rather than contributing to the bottom line of a corporation
- Vintage items offer unique designs that are commercially unavailable