Published May 1, 2008. From Cook's Illustrated.
Long the domain of chefs churning out precision-cut produce, mandolines are increasingly targeted toward the home cook. But does this specialty slicer really give you an edge?
Churning out large quantities of identically sliced fruit and vegetables is a challenge for any cook wielding only a chef’s knife. Even the most skilled might wish for a faster, more precise tool. There is such a device—the mandoline. An appliance more often found in classic French or Japanese restaurants than in the home, this countertop gadget resembles a horizontal grater. It has two working surfaces: a razor-sharp blade and an adjustable platform that creates a downward cutting angle. Once the desired thickness is set, slicing requires nothing more than running a piece of food against the blade.
Like most specialty kitchen tools, these slicers can vary dramatically in size, price, and design. Many eat up counter space, and the most expensive can cost well over $100. And some, we discovered, even felt dangerous. Was there a mandoline that truly belonged in a home kitchen?
Mandolines come in two styles: Classic, French-inspired models feature a straight blade for basic slicing, as well as serrated and comb blades for fancier applications such as julienned matchsticks or waffle cuts; handheld slicers offer only a straight slicing blade, usually fit flat in a utensil drawer, and cost less (many are plastic). Either type must be sharp enough to glide through firm produce such as potatoes without bumping or jerking and slice softer foods without snagging or mangling. Most important, all good mandolines must include extensive safety features.
Nearly all models handled firm food effortlessly; a few turned out slices of potato so clean they could be reassembled into a perfect whole. Softer produce was another matter. We tried slicing ripe beefsteak tomatoes as thinly as possible, figuring a blade that could cope with something so squishy could handle anything. Minutes later, we had two piles: a pulverized crime scene of red juice, seeds, and skins and a towering stack of beautiful, intact tomato disks. The difference? All of the flawlessly performing mandolines had V-shaped or diagonally slanted blades, which, like the teeth on a serrated knife, cut the tough skin more readily than did a horizontal edge.
We put a premium on the safety features of these potentially dangerous tools. Most models include hand guards to shield fingers from sharp blades and the prongs that grip the food. The safest guards were broad and ran smoothly along the slicing track. Some, shaped like derby hats, had brims whose diameters stretched at least as wide as the slicing plane. These felt far safer than guards shaped like small, plastic plates that fit in the palm of your hand.
The type of food prongs on the guards made a real difference, too. We came across three basic styles: short, blunt teeth that could only poke at hard or heavy vegetables like carrots or potatoes; sturdy skewerlike prongs of an inch or more sheathed by retractable food pushers, which worked best for both gripping produce and keeping hands out of harm’s way; and the spring-loaded prongs featured on the two most expensive slicers. The spring-loaded prongs were a disaster. While the coils were supposed to create enough tension to hold the food firmly against the blade—theoretically saving the cook from pressing down while sliding the food along the slicing plane—loading this device was not easy: The food went in . . . and the food sprang back out. Finally, as much as we thought we’d like models whose food grippers locked on tracks—several guards, representing each category, could slide onto the slicing plane to prevent slipping—this feature proved irritating when the produce was too bulky to fit underneath.
Nobody likes to have to pore over a user’s manual, and more than one slicer came with cryptic instructions or sent testers through multiple steps just to change a blade. Testers awarded highest marks to models with precise, measurement-marked dials that let you set the thickness of the slice. Not only could these knobs adjust thickness, on some models they simultaneously rotated the right blade into position, eliminating contact with sharp blades.
By the time we concluded testing, it was clear that a mandoline was a welcome addition to our kitchen.