Each week J. Kenji Lopez-Alt will drop by with a list of tools or a tool you might want to stock your kitchen with—if you haven't already. Kenji also writes The Food Lab column here on SE. You can fan The Food Lab on Facebook for play-by-plays on his future kitchen tests and recipe experiments.—The Mgmt.
The Winning Model
This week we start dipping into the realm of countertop appliances, and as far as usefulness goes, the food processor elbows for the top slot right along side the stand mixer. The thing about food processors is, they ain't cheap. What could be worse than shelling out three figures for an appliance that either doesn't do its job, or is so cumbersome to use that it ends up as just another place to practice your dusting?
At a bare minimum, a food processor should be able to:
- Chop dry ingredients, like nuts and bread crumbs. In order to do this, a processor must have easy-to-use pulsing action, and a motor that stops and starts on a turn.
- Roughly puree vegetables for things like marinade, dips, and rustic soups (for full-on smoothness, a blender should be your tool of choice). Bowl shape, power, and blade design will affect how well a processor can accomplish this. It should also not leak.
- Grind meat. Short of a dedicated meat grinder or attachment for the stand mixer, the food processor is the best way to grind fresh meat. Meat can be tough to chop, so a very sharp blade and powerful motor are necessary.
- Easily form emulsions when making sauces like mayonnaise or a tight vinaigrette. Bowl design can affect the way the blades make contact with ilquids inside.
- Knead bread dough quickly and efficiently. This is the most heavy-duty task of all, and relies mostly on the power of the motor.
When it comes down to it, the ability to perform is based on the following factors:
At 9-cups, the Cuisinart Prep 9 Food Processor ($148.95, right) holds the bare minimum that a decent food processor should hold. Much smaller than that, and you'll be going in so many batches that you might as well be chopping by hand.
I prefer models with at least 11 to 12-cup capacities, which gives you enough space to knead dough for two 8-ounce loaves, or to grind half a pound of meat at a go. Some models come with a mini-prep bowl that gets inserted into the top portion of the main bowl for small tasks. Sure they're cute, but essentially useless. Whatever the tiny bowl can do, I can do with a knife. It may take slightly longer to chop, but if you consider the time it takes to wash the blade, bowl insert, and lid, it's no contest.
There's no use in a processor that's going to get gummed up or jammed every time it hits a hard nut or sticky dough. Particularly prone to failure are models like the Hamilton Beach 6-cup Processor ($24.99, right), which features a side-mounted motor that drives the blade via a belt. Failing at even the easiest of tasks, processors with side-mounted motors aren't worth the box they come in.
Instead, look for models like the KitchenAid 12-cup Food Processor ($199.95) with solid state motorsthat attach directly to the blade shaft with no intermediary belt or chain. They take up a little extra height because the motor must be placed underneath the processor bowl, but that's an easy trade-off.
While a processor blade technically can be sharpened, it's tough to do, and I don't know anyone (including myself) who does it regularly. Therefore, a good processor blade should have some kind of micro-serrations, which retain cutting ability much longer than a smooth razor-like edge. While ultra-expensive restaurant-style models like the Robot Coupe ($995.98, right) contain motors powerful enough to run a NYC subway car during rush hour, their non-serrated blades quickly dull, leaving you pulverizing foods instead of chopping them.
Some models come with blunt blades specifically for making dough. A plus in my book.
So far, the only two models that meet all of my criteria are either the KitchenAid 12-cup Food Processor ($199.95), or the Cuisinart Prep 11 Plus ($198.95, right). And at such similar price points (admittedly much more expensive than most of the other useless models), it all comes down to bowl design.
First off, feed tube. The wide-mouth design of the Cuisinart feed tube is a good three to four square inches larger than the mouth on the KitchenAid processor. This means that things like shredding an entire block of cheese or a whole potato at a time requires less pre-processing knife work. On the other hand, it also has a safety feature which prevents the processor from turning on unless the plastic pusher is at least a quarter inch or so down the feed tube, limiting the length of the food you can insert. Neither version is ideal, but I still think the Cuisinart gets the edge on this one.
The real dealbreaker for me? Straight sides vs. sloping sides. For some inscrutable reason—perhaps it's to add bowl capacity without increasing footprint?—the KitchenAid processor has sides that gently slope inwards towards the bottom of the bowl. The Cuisinart, on the other hand, has sides that meet the bottom orthogonally. What difference does this make?
It means that the KitchenAid mixer is worse at evenly chopping foods, and particularly at making emulsified sauces like mayonnaises. In the Cuisinart mixer, egg yolks, vinegar, and oil all splatter up the walls as the blades spin, but quickly fall back down, getting constantly battered and whipped—ideal for emulsification. With the KitchenAid's gently sloping sides on the other hand, the liquids splatter higher and take longer to fall back into the spinning blades. The result are broken mayonnaise or unevenly chopped pesto. Unacceptable, in my book.
And the winner is the Cuisinart Prep 11 Plus Food Processor ($198.95).