A stand mixer may be the workhorse of my kitchen, but the food processor might be its unsung hero. While stand mixers excel at aeration, such as foaming eggs and sugar for a chiffon cake or creaming butter and sugar until fluffy and light for classic chocolate chip cookies, food processors are uniquely suited to an entirely different range of kitchen chores that make it just as vital to my work.
Thanks to its powerful motor and blade, a food processor is a remarkable tool for grinding chunky ingredients into a fine powder, giving stiff doughs a workout in record time, keeping fats cold as they're worked into flour, and blending toasted nuts into creamy butter.
Because some of those chores can be done with other tools, I don't want to focus on all the pastry projects a food processor can technically do; I want to focus on the jobs it does best. These are the kinds of chores that are accomplished faster, more easily, and more efficiently with a good food processor.
It's important to note that I'm talking about sturdy, large format machines, and not mini-choppers or "prep assistants." For more on what makes a good machine tick, see our guide to the best food processors.
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Keeping Solid Fats Cool
Quick breads, like biscuits, muffins, and scones, are traditionally made by combining the butter and flour up front. It's a common approach to making shortbread and other types of tender, crumbly cookies as well. This method coats the flour in fat, making it more difficult for gluten to form when the liquid ingredients are added later on.
It's a lengthy process when done by hand or with a pastry knife, which allows the butter to warm over time. This can often make doughs sticky and difficult to handle—hence why so many recipes include a step for chilling the dough before it's rolled and cut. Put a food processor on the case, though, and these chores can be done with cold butter in a few seconds flat, keeping the finished dough cool and easy to handle (and your hands clean).
It's my preferred approach for making delicate lemon scones, tender blueberry skillet cake, pumpkin coffee cake, and fluffy pancakes, as well as any cookie or cracker meant to have a crumbly, shortbread-like consistency.
That category of cookies includes lemon meltaways, Mexican wedding cookies, digestive biscuits, Tate's-style thin and crisp chocolate chip cookies, and even Carr's-style whole wheat crackers.
Promoting Gluten Development
Not all types of bread dough do well in a food processor, but it's a powerful tool for those that require more structure than the average home baker has the skill to develop by hand. Think crusty dinner rolls and homemade bagels (whether plain or cinnamon-raisin), as well as chewy pizza crust, à la Kenji's famous Sicilian-style pizza (a weekly endeavor at my house).
My yeasted pumpkin bread relies on a food processor to turn a dry mess of flour and pumpkin purée into a soft and supple dough, and my 100% whole wheat bread and multigrain loaf use a food processor to develop gluten even with grainy formulas that aren't inclined to do so on their own.
I also use my food processor to provide structure in crackers that need a crisp but sturdy texture, like homemade Wheat Thins or even beautifully blistered cannoli shells (yup, they're a type of cracker!).
A food processor is essential for working with freeze-dried fruit, as it quickly reduces the crispy pieces to a fine powder for making bright pink strawberry layer cake, fruit-infused whipped cream, no-bake cheesecake with freeze dried fruit, and fruity, no-churn ice cream.
Not only can a food processor whip up run-of-the-mill purées, they're powerful enough to purée dried fruit—the secret to my homemade Fig Newtons—and they make short work of fibrous winter squash in bulk, for a silky-smooth pumpkin pie.
I also use my food processor to wet grind fresh herbs into sugar, as when I make basil mousse.
Wet grinding is also crucial processing nuts until they express their oils, a key step in made-from-scratch pistachio paste and homemade Nutella, as well as the creamy hazelnut butter used in my favorite hazelnut cookies.
Perhaps dessert alone couldn't make the case for owning a food processor to anyone but a pastry chef, but, combined with its utility in savory applications, it's a tool that's worth the investment for serious home cooks.
While it may not be an appliance for everyone, my food processor has more than earned its keep in the kitchen, making old techniques faster and less messy, while helping me discover new techniques altogether.