Puree, liquefy, crush: How to choose and use a blender
A blender was one of my first countertop appliances, proudly displayed in my first apartment. That's more years ago than I prefer to calculate at this point. Even now, though, as I've acquired many (too many?) more appliances and gadgets, a blender — that original one did eventually burn out — still earns its keep, and cabinet space.
I'm not the only fan. You'll find no greater evangelist than Tess Masters, a.k.a. Blender Girl, the blogger and cookbook author who says on her website, in bold no less, that "the blender is the greatest culinary gift that we have been given since fire and spoons." Masters does not come here to play.
Whether you agree or are perhaps a little less intense about your love for this handy appliance, here are some tips on buying, using and taking care of your blender.
Buy one that's right for you
"Buying a blender is like buying a car, particularly if you use it all the time," says Masters, who also serves as the global ambassador for KitchenAid blenders. You have a lot to choose from, in terms of capabilities and price. Consider how often you intend to use the blender, as well as what you want to make in it. Like Masters, America's Test Kitchen groups blenders (focusing on standard countertop, as opposed to immersion or personal here) in three tiers: Inexpensive/entry-level ($60 to $99), midpriced ($100 to $300) and high-end/high-power ($400 to $700). If you're mostly thinking about smoothies, sauces and the occasional frozen drink, an inexpensive one is probably fine, although they typically won't last as long.
Moving into the midpriced and high-end (Vitamix being the most well-known brand) models will give you smoother results and let you break down tough, fibrous foods, as well as make nut butters. High-end blenders may come with additional features, such as heating soup and juicing. ATK found that some of them — fancy screens, presets and specialty features (blender ice cream, anyone?) — did not pay off.
Regardless of the scope of your needs and budget, there are features to assess across the board. A blender works by creating a vortex that continuously sucks food down to the blade. ATK says that a narrow jar, as well as ribs on the inside of the jar, facilitate that. Wider jars need to be scraped down more often, cause the food to ricochet more off the sides and create frothier purées. Look for buttons and controls that are easy to use and clean. Take into account weight, both of the base and jar; plastic is the lighter option. Weight is especially important if you plan to store your blender somewhere other than the counter. If you do want to leave it out on the counter, measure the space under your cabinets and look at the appliance specs. Consumer Reports says models 17 inches and shorter will fit under most standard 18-inch cabinets - at least if you plan to store it assembled.
Play to its obvious strengths
A blender "levels the playing field in the kitchen," Masters says, letting you produce quick, easy food with very little time or skill. "I think it's a really, really great tool to empower novice cooks and children and people who aren't particularly confident in the kitchen."
Sometimes it's as easy as hitting a single button before you're on your way to a smoothie for breakfast or gazpacho for dinner. Blenders give a smooth texture you'd never be able to get by hand. Crushing ice? No problem! Plus you get "fantastic homogenization of flavor," Masters says, meaning distinct flavors come together as one and your sauce or soup will taste the same in every bite. You can harness its power to create something entirely new, too, such as cashew cream. Masters also appreciates the dietary benefits of a blender, which allow you to pack in an extraordinary number of ingredients into a single recipe with all their nutrients intact.
A short list of other no-brainers for the blender: Dressing, mayo, crepe batter and, naturally, baby purées.
Make some unexpected foods
Masters encourages you to think about how else to use your blender: "It doesn't all have to be purées." You can use it to pulse ingredients for a chunky consistency, although the size and shape of the pieces may be more irregular than you'd get in a food processor. The blender is therefore an option for making a fresh summer salsa. Even if you are still pureeing a soup, you don't have to make it completely smooth, or you can puree a portion of the ingredients and stir in others that have been merely chopped to add back some texture.
Masters is also a fan of blender rice pudding, which she makes by blending cooked rice to break down the grain and release its starch before she combines it with liquid on the stove-top to turn it into the pudding. KitchenAid global product manager Kate Crow says a blender can also be used to create your own flours, including rice and oat. Speaking of oats, save yourself a bit of money and make your own oat milk.
In "101 Blender Drinks," Kim Haasarud endorses the blender for grinding spices (30 seconds, make sure the jar is very dry) and whipping cream (10 to 15 seconds, and don't let it turn to butter).
Use it smartly
First, always read the manual. That's the best way to know how your particular model works. It may very well save you headache and heartache - and money.
I will admit to being the kind of person who used to put ice in first when making a blender smoothie. It's the hardest! It needs to be near the blades! As you can see in this smoothie graphic she put together for us, though, Masters recommends adding the liquid first, followed by your base ingredients (powders, produce, nuts, etc.) and then anything frozen. With the liquid on the bottom, you can begin to create that vortex to more efficiently blend the ingredients.
If you don't have a high-end blender, you may first want to soak tougher ingredients. Masters includes foods such as sun-dried tomatoes, dates and nuts in that category. It's also smart to at least give your ingredients a rough chop before tossing them into the blender.
Don't fill your blender more than three-quarters full, or past whatever the maximum fill line is on your jar. You may want to only go half-full when it comes to hot soup to prevent any accidents. It's also smart to let the soup cool slightly before blending. Then to be safe, remove the cap before blending (so it doesn't blow off) and cover the hole with a dish towel.
If your blender came with a tamper, save it. Crow says that it is designed to be used to break up ingredients that may be clumping around the blade. Tampers made for your specific blender can be used while the machine is running, Crow says. Otherwise, you'll want to stop the machine to scrape it down with a spatula.
Take care of it
The sooner you clean your blender, the better. You want to get to the task before food dries and sticks and before any odors can set in. A good first start is to blend a drop of soap with some warm water. You can then dump it out and do another round with clean water or finish the job in the sink. If you're using the blender a lot, Masters says the soapy blend is fine for a day or two, but then you should give it a thorough cleaning in the sink. Many models have dishwasher-safe parts, though Masters prefers to hand-wash everything to keep it pristine. She finds that dishwashing can lead to cloudy jars and pieces prone to leaking. Be sure to wipe down the lid, base and cord, after you've unplugged the machine.