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July 1999 Issue
Mix. Blend. Chop. Process!
by Chris Schaefer
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This month, by request, I will be introducing you to two items. These kitchen tools are essential to some, while to others they merely take up valuable counter-space. First, however, I would like to extend a very warm thank you to all my readers and readers of the other fine articles found in this e-zine. Months after I wrote a comparison of then popular espresso/cappuccino machines, Seasoned Cooking is still getting great feedback and questions. Hats off to you all! And a heartfelt thanks.

"And now, page two." Do you have a blender? Do you like it? Did you get it as one of many blenders received as a wedding present or graduation gift? Do you use it? Well, if the answer to at least two of those questions is "no", then why not!?!

It could be that you're just not the "blending type." And that's okay. Some people just do not like to blend things. Others, however, like actor Will Smith's lead character from this year's film, "Enemy of the State", like to blend. And while his use of blending is for relaxation, some blend because that's what we do. We blend.

"Chris, that's just plain strange."

Or is it? Why do we blend? Is it for drinks? Health shakes? Your dog/cat is quite picky about their kibble or can? Anyway you look at it, the blender is very much a part of the kitchen. And the right blender can be an important feature of the kitchen; it can make or break your joy of working/living in the kitchen.

What is a blender?
From a mechanical standpoint, a blender is merely a motor, attached to a blade, sealed in a jar, and covered with a lid. But as you will soon find out, the design and make-up of a blender is far more important than that. Far more important than a name-brand or even a price. Because a good blender has a more intrinsic value than its off-the-shelf price.

Let's back up for a moment. How does the blender "blend"? The blender works by either running at a constant speed or on a series of pulses, which translate force from its blade into whatever food mass you wish to manipulate. And various speeds determine how that food mass will respond to the blade's action. For example, slower and steady speeds (we'll call it "mixing") have less of an acting force and therefore combine the food mass. While at the other end of the spectrum, higher speeds forcefully separate both solids and liquids into a quasi-matrix. For solids, this could be a fine particulate matter. And for liquids, it could be the introduction of air (or "foaming") into the mass-matrix. Speeds in-between are self-explanatory, I would think.

Details... details... details.
What makes up a good blender? What should you look for when you next purchase a blender?

Here are my top picks for features you need to keep an eye out for, and why.

  • Adequate size: On the average, how much do you want to blend at once? Most likely you will not need a commercial/bar-sized machine. Today's blenders share a non-spoken standard in jar size.

  • Jar material: This is important. In my opinion, plastic jars -- no matter how well they are made or how smart they look -- still scratch. And that looks bad. Scratching may also lead to inefficiency in your blending. Because of this, I would suggest the purchase of a blender that uses a solid, heavy, thick glass jar. You will be thanking yourself later for this wise-decision.

  • Variable speed: OK, I'll admit it. I am a control-freak. If something is meant to be controlled, I need at least a billion different levels to control. But here is why. Blenders can do a lot of different things to different foods. If I want to chop ice, I don't want one setting to mutilate it and the next to puree' it. I want it chopped. Conversely, if I choose to mix liquids, I want a uniform mixing action that I can speed up at will. Not a "SLOW, MEDIUM, FAST" that means absolutely nothing to me. Look for blenders that offer clearly defined and marked control. Be sure you feel comfortable operating the controls.

  • Motor speed/power: It seems that some manufacturers feel they can skimp out on power and that you, the customer, won't notice. Yeah, right. Look for blenders whose wattage is the highest of the ones on the shelf. Next time you're making that margarita, you will thank me.

  • Lid design: Can you pour/add ingredients easily? Without spilling or dripping? Does the lid flop around during operation? Is there a small escape hole for the build-up of pressure during operation? All of those conditions need to be met before you think about purchasing a blender.

  • Construction: Nothing says, "under-powered, will break if I accidentally drop it once" more than shoddy plastic exteriors. But it's a tough market out there and an all-metal outside construction costs. Not all manufacturers' machines are cheap and chincy if they are made with a plastic shell. But be forewarned, you do get what you pay for.

The cost of it all.
I found a strong trend with almost every manufacturer's blenders. They all seem to be in the same price frame, for identical features. Go figure. It's the house wares industry. But the good thing is that you can find high-quality blenders, today, at almost every retail store. No longer do you need to go to a special chef's catalogue or high-end department store. I am confident that if you maintain close attention to the product being sold, you will make an educated decision. Follow the above tips and... happy blending!

...And you thought that this was going to end!

In the same family of blenders is its close cousin, the food processor. And like the blender, the food processor is a motor, jar, blade, and lid. However, food processors offer more variety in food preparation styles.

The processor is not a new kitchen invention to this century. Early on in "modern" kitchens (those having an extensive use of food preparation tools and utensils), the kitchen had one device or another that one could feed a food mass into, turn a crank, and change the output of the food. Today we have this lovely idea boxed up and packaged with various blade styles, lid designs, and power.

What are processors good for?
Quite simply, you will want to use a processor anytime you need to make a large volume of a liquid-solid mix or need to change the food's shape on a large scale. For example, if you're making a personalized mayonnaise and serving 20 guests, it becomes quite arduous to chop each ingredient separately and to evenly whip the sauce components at the same time. However, if you need to chop some garlic for a topping to a pasta sauce for a family of four, you will only need a cutting board, a good knife, your attention, and a clove of garlic.

Food processors have one main advantage over blenders or manual processing. They generally are capable of processing larger volumes and to manipulate that volume in far more numerous ways. This is accomplished by the myriad of blade attachments one finds with today's food processors. The versatility of this device allows the user to make dough, mince meats or vegetables, shred cheeses, or blend soup. Let's look at some of the desirable features of a processor.

  • Control location: Personally, I like my operating controls in the front of the machine. And most every manufacturer has this.

  • Container design: This is important. You must feel comfortable with taking the container on and off the base. And like our friend the blender, the container's lid. If you don't find it easy enough to use, then don't buy it. In the long run, it will make your food preparation go easier.

  • Container colour: I prefer clear(er) containers so I can see the development of the food. Some manufacturers may use a grayish or smoke-coloured plastic.

  • Container size: Rule of thumb -- buy what you know you will use. If you don't plan on processing large quantities of food, then there is no advantage to using a larger container. In fact, it may be a downfall as small quantities of food don't mix as well when exposed to large open volumes.

What will all of this cost me?
An arm and a leg... if you don't secure the cover appropriately. Hahahaha. Ok, bad house wares humour. My apologies. In all seriousness, I found that the cost of every major brand of standard-sized food processors fall into a shared vector. Cost is differentiated by container volume size. For example, the most popular models, those sold under the Cuisinart name, began at 150$ for a 7-cup container. 11-cup and 14-cup are priced at 200$ and 300$, respectively. And they are available in white, beige, and black.

And then there's the new kid on the block.

I know you've seen them. The mini-food processors. I think they're cute and, for some, worthwhile. They offer the ability to mix small quantities quickly but really perform their best with dry ingredients. I also find that I pulse much more frequently with these makes than I do with my larger food processor (which, by the way, is an original model Cuisinart from the 1980s). I found that all miniature processors are in the 30$ range.

Recipes.
Well, actually, no. The food processor and blenders are two kitchen tools that I find one uses more for food preparation than for meal creation. But I must note that the blender I use primarily for making iced drinks. I had a difficult time finding a blender whose claim to evenly and finely chop ice were true. This seems to be the true test of a blender. In the end, I chose a KitchenAid for my satisfied purchase.

In conclusion...
The decision to purchase any one of these products -- or both -- I think boils down to primary need. In a one-person household, I have a very minimal need to prepare large quantities of food and so I limit my use of the processor to blending for sauces and soup. And my blender has made three types of drinks in it's entire life: iced-cappuccino, iced-blueberry frosties, and iced-peach shakes. You will need to identify for yourself your needs. Rest assured, though, that answering the above questions at the beginning of this article and taking heed of the advice will aid you in making a more wise purchase.



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