THOUGH THE MACHINE age took a century to reach the kitchen, it has finally arrived. Blenders, juicers, mixers, grinders, processors–we have machines that will do almost everything to food except eat it.
The most widely used–and most useful–kitchen machines are food processors, mixers, and blenders. Though each of these has its own attributes and assets, all are the same in a fundamental way. They are all labor-saving devices in which a motor drives a shaft. Clearly, the quality of the motor–its size and strength and workmanship–is vital. As a rule, professional equipment, or as close as you can come to it, will serve you best. The extra cost is more than made up for by durability and ease of operation, cleaning, and maintenance.
Food processors are all the rage–and rightly so, for they are different from the cooking tools we had before. They permit the preparation of refined and complicated things that were impossible in the past, unless we had all the time in the world, or a staff of trained professionals at our command. However, manufacturers’ claims and many food experts to the contrary, there are a number of things they cannot do. Or don’t do well. Or do in ways that are so cumbersome as to be self-defeating. After all, there are only two reasons for using a machine: it does something better than you can by hand, or it takes a time-consuming task and makes it fast and easy.
When asked to do what they do best, processors are wonderful. They make purees superbly. They turn out souffle bases that are light and silken. They are marvelous for mixing pasta dough and making bread crumbs. They take all the grief from certain messy jobs, as anybody who has ever struggled with panades, quenelles, or pate a choux will tell you. For pie crusts, they are fabulous. They work the fat into the dough more evenly and quickly and with less heat than is possible by hand, making crusts that are both firm and flaky. And for chopping, slicing, and shredding when appearances don’t matter–making cole slaw, mincing mushrooms for duxelles, cutting celery for stuffing or onions for sauteing or stew–they are a blessing.
When appearances do matter, they are less effective. When they cut, the end result is seldom uniform. In general, they fail when doing things for show. Nor do they function well with liquids. Any time the quantity of liquid rises higher than the mount around the drive shaft at the center of the bowl, it’s going to leak. And when the time comes to remove the blade, you really have a mess. Even less acceptable is the job processors do of beating air into anything. Regardless of manufacturers’ claims or articles in food magazines, you must use a beater for fluffy batters or for whipping cream or egg whites. Processors are inconsistent when grating, yielding a mix in part too coarse, in part too fine. The results are just as fast and better by hand with a Mouli or a stand-up grater. In fact, a lot of things are faster and better done by hand. When quantities are small–if you’re just chopping up some celery or a carrot–knives are easier and quicker and create a lot less mess to clean up afterward. Even when quantities are larger, a processor can be so cumbersome to use that the machine stops being labor-saving.
- By way of example, the following is taken from a recent article in a national food magazine. We are dealing with fresh peppers.
- After being instructed to cut them open and remove the seeds in the traditional manner, we are told: “To slice [peppers] into matchsticks, cut through one flat side of pepper from top to bottom. Repeat on remaining three sides.
- Stand rectangles side by side in feed tube, wedging very tightly. Slice rectangles using light pressure. Use Medium Slicer.” As dice players like to put it, this is making eight the hard way.
The moral, of course, is always to ask of your machine only what it does best. This caveat applies especially to attachments. All kinds are available for processors, including ones that juice and ones that make spaghetti. Though they do these jobs, they do them poorly, and they are best avoided. Stick to basics.
Processors range in price from about $100 to $400. As is often–but not always–the case, the best ones tend to be the most expensive. Processors by Cuisinart, Robot Coupe, and KitchenAid are certainly among the best. The most important thing to look for is the size and power of the motor. Small ones burn out, and they won’t perform heavy tasks, like making forcemeats or pasta dough. Then check the plastic work-bowl and lid. They should be solid and substantial, smoothly finished, with no sharp edges; it is all too easy to cut yourself on some of them. The larger the capacity of the work-bowl the better, to spare you removing, emptying, and returning it when making large quantities. The blades should seem heavy-duty; you can tell a lot by simply handling them. Take a good look at the on/off mechanism; some work more easily than others.
PROCESSORS AND BLENDERS, with their blades that spin hundreds of times a minute, perform in ways no human being could. They are like sports cars, specialized and flashy; they do tricks. Mixers, however, perform essentially as you would if you were a machine. Though they can do many things, their two unique and basic functions are beating air into substances and approximating the motion of the human hand in stirring. The movement of their paddles, stirrers, whisks, and dough hooks is an extension of the way these tasks have traditionally been done. Mixers were the first major electrical appliance to reach the kitchen, more than fifty years ago. Not only have they survived, they have prospered and multiplied. There is a reason: they are superb machines.
Only mixers permit low levels of speed. Turn your back on blenders and processors, or let them whirr ten seconds too long, and you have mush. With mixers you are in control of what you’re doing. You are also in close contact with what you are making. So much of quality and success in cooking depends on look and touch; a mixer puts no canisters or shields between you and your ingredients. You can bend close, peer, and sniff while you work.
Mixers, like processors, have an extensive range of uses. With the appropriate attachments they will slice and shred, grind meat, puree fruits and vegetables, and extrude spaghetti. On the whole, the attachments are like the federal bureaucracy; remarkable not because they perform well but because they perform at all. Even so, when you have a task that both processors and mixers can do, like grinding meat, the mixer is the way to go. It is easier to achieve the consistency you want, and you are not hampered by the size of the workbowl, because the attachments go on top of the mixer and direct food into anything you choose.
There are two kinds of mixers: handheld and counter models. Though hand held mixers are nothing more than electrified egg beaters, they are useful. They save time and effort beating egg whites and whipping cream when the quantities are small. (If you’re dealing with a dozen egg whites or a pint or more of cream, counter models, with their larger motors, are far faster.) They are easy to clean, and most brands are remarkably well made. Considering their modest price–$25, give or take a few dollars–it makes no sense to do without one.
But it is the counter model that is truly indispensable. Once again it is the size and power of the motor that is critical. Though a few brands, such as Sunbeam and Kenwood, are very good, the Hobart KitchenAid is far and away the best. Hobart’s machines are powerful, durable, reliable, and responsive, and easy to clean. The largest model for home use, the K5SS, is as close as you can get to professional equipment.
BLENDERS, LIKE FOOD processors, perform their functions through the use of sharpened blades revolving at high speeds. They are, however, far more limited in range and flexibility.
What blenders do is blend. They are designed primarily for handling liquids. While it’s true that they are capable of chopping and shredding, using them for this is clumsy, time-consuming, and laborious. The motors in most of them do not provide the power necessary to deal with anything substantial or pulpy. All too often they will clog or stall. Because the blades are short and the canisters tall and relatively narrow, it is constantly necessary to stop them, readjust the food so that it comes in contact with the blades, and start them up again.
There are three kinds of blenders on the market. The standard, inexpensive blenders–they run between $20 and $50–are the ones most widely used. These are lightweight machines with lightweight motors. They are terrific for mixing milkshakes, cocktails, packaged batters, powdered drinks, and liquids of all kinds. And they can deal with certain solids if they’re soft or light enough, like sour cream mixed with cream cheese, or Tiger’s Milk. When you are blending denser substances, such as cooked vegetables or cooked fish, the addition of liquid to loosen the mass is necessary. Uncooked vegetables are hard for them, and heavy jobs like panades and thick frostings are out of bounds. The labels on the row of buttons on most models are misleading. They imply that different tasks–from chopping to whipping–can be performed, whereas in fact all that the buttons actually control is the speed at which the blades revolve.
Professional or commercial blenders are simply heavy-duty versions of the standard ones–solid, stainless-steel machines with relatively powerful motors. They are less dependent on the presence of liquids, less likely to clog or stall, less exasperating to use. They can mix and make purees very well. In fact, with certain foods, such as cooked chicken livers and poached or tinned fish, blenders of all types deliver a finer puree than processors do. Also, because of their small diameter in relation to their volume, the contents stay closer to the blades and they do their work more thoroughly, with less adjustment of the contents than a processor requires.
The third variety of blender is the great one. It is a unique and all but magical machine: the Vita-Mix 3600. If you have never heard of it, that is because the manufacturer has failed to capitalize on its extraordinary capabilities. It is sold primarily in health-food stores, and through mail order, as a juicer and a money-saving device for performing such functions as grinding your own grain into flour, and then making bread dough in three minutes.
The secret to the 3600 is, of course, its motor. Originally designed for driving a circular saw, it weighs close to ten pounds and its drive shaft rotates both ways. Its blades are instantly reversible. You flip a switch, and what was whirling clockwise goes counterclockwise. The substance in the canister is hurled against the blades with far greater impact-at speeds of up to 530 miles per hour–than when both were traveling in the same direction. This instantaneous reversibility produces results not possible before. The soups it makes are revolutionary. You simply poach whatever vegetables you like in whatever liquid you choose and dump the results into the canister. The 3600 pulverizes the contents so completely that it duplicates the homogenous texture of a cream soup, without binders. That is to say, no eggs, no flour, no cream. Nothing. Not only does this make a soup with fewer calories and less cholesterol but it accentuates and clarifies the flavors of the basic ingredients. These soups are absolutely stunning.
And there’s more. The power of the motor, whether you reverse the blades or not, is so great that the 3600 never stalls or clogs. You need not work with modest quantities, constantly filling and emptying the canister. The power also lets you deal with substances that would burn out the motors of even the best commercial blenders. Shrimp and lobster shells are literally turned to powder; thus you can turn out bisques and butters with less effort and more flavor than any other machine allows. All this does not come cheap. The 3600 is about $425, list. It is not for everyone, but if you are a serious cook, or would like to be one, it is more than worth the cost.
The choice of which machine to buy depends on your needs and skills and interests. If you do much baking, or plan to, a mixer is the machine for you. If your cooking is primarily for small or occasional meals, the blender is the wisest choice. If your goals or your abilities are more ambitious, and you cook regularly for large groups, a food processor best fills the bill.
Our kitchen has all three. This is, of course, the ideal solution; each machine is asked to do only what it does best. But if we could have only one appliance, it would be a mixer. That’s because we do a lot of baking, and because so much of what we chop and slice gets done by hand because it has to show.
Owning one of these appliances permits each of us to be a part of the revolutionary change taking place in cooking tastes and techniques. The only puzzling question is which came first–the revolution or the new machines?
James Goldman, a playwright and novelist, and his wife, Barbara, a producer, write frequently about food and wine.
Goldman, James^Goldman, Barbara