Some people look at Pyrex mixing bowls and see something retro, maybe the kind of thing their grandmothers cooked with. I look at my Pyrex mixing bowls and see the way that I cook.
I own multiple pieces of the Pyrex primary colors edition, which first reached the market in 1946, as servicemen and -women were returning from World War II. My mother said she got her first set of Pyrex bowls as a wedding gift in 1951, and I can certainly see why someone would think these cheerful kitchen accessories would make a wonderful present. Her Pyrex bowls, and the ones I’ve bought during my lifetime, seem to be indestructible, although some have borne up better than others (more on that in a bit). More than anything else, they are my color-coded guide to cooking.
But before I get into the way I use them, here’s a little history of Pyrex: In 1880, the Corning Glass Works, in Corning, New York, developed Nonex, a highly durable glass that did not expand in heat or contract in cold. Its technical name was borosilicate glass for its main ingredients, silica and boron trioxide. Corning originally used it for railroad signal lanterns, in glass products developed for laboratories, and other manufacturing applications, such as containers for batteries.
Legend has it that in 1914, Jesse Littleton, a Corning employee, brought home a sawed-off battery container for his wife, Bessie (yes, Jesse and Bessie), to use after her earthenware casserole dish cracked. She began experimenting with it for baking with outstanding success.
A year later, the first consumer Pyrex products were introduced. Corning liked naming its products with “ex” on the end, and the “Pyr” may have come from “pyro,” meaning fire. In fact, the words “fire glass” appeared in early Pyrex ads. While clear Pyrex had a great reputation, it was expensive to produce and it wasn’t until the late 1930s that it became widely popular.
Pyrex really took off, though, after the war, when the company developed a method to apply colors and patterns to the outside of its bowls, baking pans, and other containers. Eventually, there were 150 different varieties of Pyrex dishes, which you can see in the Pyrex online library.
The primary colors bowls (also known as the 400 Series) have become so integrated into my cooking routine that I just reach for a color based on what I’m planning to make.
Blue, the smallest bowl, is my favorite, perhaps because it was the first one my mother let me handle. It is 5.5 inches in diameter and holds a pint. I use this little turquoise wonder to whisk up a couple of eggs before I add them to cookies or cakes. I also use it to make icing for loaf cakes, and it’s ideal for melting a stick of butter.
The red bowl is the next size up, at 1.25 quarts and seven inches across. I use it to combine dry baking ingredients before I add them to wet ones such as eggs, butter, or liquid. The red bowl is also good for serving roasted glazed vegetables, and it’s just the right capacity for a bag of popped microwave popcorn.
The green bowl, at 2.5 quarts and 8.5 inches, is a real workhorse. This is what I use when I serve salad, because the size gives me enough room to toss everything that goes into it. I also use this one often if I’m hand mixing cookie dough, as I did for Betty Ford’s double chocolate chip cookies. Sometimes, I fill it with ice for shocking cooked shrimp or other foods that need a quick cooldown.
The yellow bowl holds four quarts, and if you’ve recently gotten interested in baking bread, this is the bowl that you want. You can really get your hands into this 10-inch treasure for mixing dough, and you have enough room to shape quick breads like my Irish Soda Bread. I also use the yellow bowl as a punch bowl substitute (sometimes you don’t feel like hauling the crystal one up from the basement).
My mother’s original set has, incredibly, lasted all this time, but that doesn’t stop me from picking up extras when I see them. Needless to say, prices have skyrocketed from the $2.50 that the original set cost in 1945. I’ve seen them sell for as much as $100 or more on Etsy, and I was thrilled, when I lived in Phoenix, to find a perfect set for $65 at a street fair. More recently, I was excited to discover a yellow bowl in great shape at the Ann Arbor Thrift Shop for $10. (I’m not sure the staff knew they could have charged at least triple that.)
If you’re buying the bowls to collect rather than use them, you should read up on some variations that have taken place through the years.
Before you go searching for Pyrex, however, keep a couple of drawbacks in mind. The formula for clear glass products was changed in 1998, when Corning licensed Pyrex to Corelle Brands. Supposedly, all Pyrex since then has been made from soda-lime glass, which isn’t as durable. I can attest to that, having dropped some newer Pyrex on my kitchen floor. Older pieces simply bounce before they settle down. Newer ones shatter (I lost one just a few weeks ago).
Second, primary colored bowls can fade, and the outside can become covered with something that looks like the salt stains you get on your winter boots. I chalk this up (no pun intended) to harsh dishwasher detergent. You can try to restore them by rubbing gently with liquid Bar Keepers Friend or toothpaste (this is a good use for those sample tubes you get at the dentist). But if you really want to preserve the color, simply wash your Pyrex bowls by hand.
It’s worth taking good care of these bowls, because when you’ve used them as much as I do, you start thinking of them as culinary friends.