Whether you are grilling ribs or making croissants, a basting or pastry brush is an essential tool for collecting and distributing a liquid or sauce across a food surface. One of the most versatile instruments in the kitchen, these brushes are key to providing flavor and color for several savory and sweet foods. When choosing the right brush for the job, there are many things to consider.
The Best Brush for the Job
The difference between a pastry brush and a basting brush has less to do with its attributes and more to do with its use. Typically, a pastry brush is used for pastries and baked goods, while a basting brush is used for meats and vegetables. Both pastry brushes and basting brushes can be used for a variety of tasks by any home or professional cook. The important thing to remember is that you should never use the same brush for both tasks. Because flavors and odors may linger on brushes, dedicating a brush to each use prevents the transfer of flavor from baked goods to meats; no one wants a sweet pastry to taste like salmon. And to prevent cross-contamination, a clean brush should be used each time, regardless of the brush or task.
When baking, use a pastry brush to apply egg wash or melted butter prior to cooking in the oven to give the end product a golden-brown crust. A pastry brush also can be used to grease a pan quickly and without making a mess. For savory cooking applications, use a basting brush to apply a marinade or sauce to poultry, meat or fish. You also can use a basting brush to remove excess seasoning, such as when grilling meats.
Selecting the Right Size
The size of a brush is one of the biggest determinants of its versatility. Small brushes are great for a variety of tasks from applying glazes to cakes to spreading egg wash on dumplings. They also are the best choice for delicate and detailed tasks, such as glazing a fruit tart. Large brushes with a lot of bristles hold a great deal of liquid and can be used across more sizeable surface areas such as barbecue ribs. These are used most often by foodservice professionals and chefs who operate large industrial grills and less frequently at home where a standard brush is suitable for backyard grilling and cabinet storage.
Brushes also come in a variety of shapes: Round-headed brushes work best for smaller pastries, detailed glazing tasks or plate decoration. Angled brushes have tapered bristles that are effective for precise and detailed work, such as reaching far into an oven or grill to apply a sauce or glaze.
The Details Matter
Choose between brush handles based on your personal preference. Many handles are wood, which is sturdy and comfortable to hold. Handles also may be plastic, which is easy to clean, durable and strong for tough tasks. Brushes designed for grilling may have heat-resistant or heatproof handles, which are very easy to clean and maintain. Either way, the bristles really determine the difference.
Most pastry and basting brushes have thin, natural-fiber bristles that are ideal for everything from delicate doughs to hearty meats; however, they are too delicate for high heat applications such as grilling. Natural-fiber bristles have a soft texture for delicate tasks and tend to hold more liquid than synthetic bristles. These delicate fibers also can retain odor rather easily, so you may not want to use them for savory applications. Silicone brushes, on the other hand, are flexible, designed for high-heat cooking and are easier to clean than natural-fiber bristles. However, silicone bristles can damage fragile dough and delicate foods. Less common are nylon and Teflon bristles. Nylon bristles retain a lot of liquid with minimal risk of bristles falling out but are heat-sensitive; Teflon bristles have a lot of the same benefits as natural-fiber bristles with the ability to withstand high-heat cooking.
Use brushes with short bristles (1 to 2 inches) for tasks where a precise and gentle application is necessary, such as for phyllo dough. Of note, bristles that are too short (1 inch or less) may be too stubby and not give you the agility needed to coat a delicate product. Longer bristles (over 2 inches) are great for reaching into nooks and crannies, such as for a fruit tart, but they may be too unwieldy for more delicate tasks.
Cleaning and Maintenance
The key to cleaning pastry or basting brushes is to wash by hand with soapy water. Rinse under hot water to remove debris, gently rub soapy water into the bristles, rinse thoroughly without twisting bristles and lay flat to air dry. You can clean a silicone brush by hand, and many are also dishwasher safe. If you cannot clean a brush right away, soak it in warm water until you have time. Make sure cleaned brushes have no remaining food debris, grease or oil residue that can quickly deteriorate the overall quality.
To determine if a brush needs to be replaced, consider its quality after cleaning. Replace brushes if they begin to develop an odor. Brushes that shed bristles or appear melted or stained also should be replaced. The best ways to maintain a brush’s quality are through proper care and cleaning, using different brushes for sweet and savory applications, and choosing the right brush for the task to prevent deterioration.
Bromberg M. Pastry Brushes. America’s Test Kitchen website. Published July 1, 2018. Accessed June 15, 2021.
How to choose the best pastry brush: an essential guide. Webstaurant Store: Bakery Management website. Accessed April 12, 2021.
Meyers S. The Best Long-Handle Basting Brushes to Flavor Grilled Ribs, Chicken and More. Robb Report website. Published April 7, 2021. Accessed May 12, 2021.
Pastry Brush versus Silicone Brush. Cooks Illustrated website. Accessed April 12, 2021.
Culinary Brushes: Exploring Pastry and Basting Brushes | Food & Nutrition Magazine is written by Zachari Breeding for foodandnutrition.org