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Blenders

By Cook's Illustrated Published September 2012
Update: January 2014
When we rated blenders in our September/October 2012 issue, we highly recommended the Hemisphere Control Blender ($199.99) by Breville; it was the co-winner with our high-end favorite, the Vitamix 5200 ($449). But we promised to keep an eye on the Breville’s long-term durability. Since then, we’ve made more than 400 smoothies in a single copy of the Breville blender, choosing a motor-challenging combination of juice, chunks of frozen fruit, and raw kale. We also purchased six more models for routine use in the test kitchen. The blender that made hundreds of smoothies is still going strong; however, we did have some issues with three of the six kitchen machines. In all cases, the motors worked fine, but problems centered on a tiny button on the base. It’s a secondary safety device, which starts the motor when activated by pressure from a slim plastic rib on the inside bottom of the jar. One jar had a broken rib, keeping it from pressing the button. But other faulty machines with intact ribs were more puzzling: If we pressed hard on the outside of the jar, the switch engaged. Breville engineers examined the machines and concluded that food had dribbled into the button, making the switch sticky, so it failed to engage—so we will be sure to try not to let food drip in that area. Given that our blenders experience unusually heavy use, we still recommend this machine. That said, if you subject your blender to heavy-duty use, you should consider investing in the Vitamix, a powerful commercial-style blender with a seven-year warranty.

How we tested

In 2009, we spent weeks test-driving 10 blenders and eventually found two machines that could easily do it all: crush ice, make frozen drinks, and blend lump-free smoothies, milkshakes, and hummus—and without damaging our eardrums. Those were the Vitamix 5200 and the KitchenAid 5-Speed Blender. We’d already been fans of the Vitamix. This Ferrari of blenders ($449), the darling of restaurant chefs, has gone unmatched in the test kitchen for years. The KitchenAid didn’t quite rival the Vitamix, but it proved itself a worthy, far more affordable ($150) alternative, so we ranked it number one. (We also tested the Blendtec Total Blender in 2009 but were not impressed; see "Upscale Blenders" under related content for details.)

But since that time, some readers and test kitchen staffers who purchased the KitchenAid reported that their machines leaked or that the jar cracked after less than a year of use. Though many of these folks were die-hard smoothie makers who used their blenders daily, this was hardly the level of durability that we thought we were signing on for. So we circled back to square one with a simple question: Is the Vitamix really the only blender that can stand up to constant, hard-core use, or might there be another, less expensive contender that can also stay the course?

To find out, we corralled nine models—everything from an affordable $40 appliance to our luxe benchmark, the Vitamix, as well as a new copy of the KitchenAid. And you can be sure that we raised the bar since the last round of testing. Hummus, crushed ice, margarita, and milkshake tests were givens, but to separate the workhorses from the wimps, every day for a month we also made smoothies in each one with fibrous frozen pineapple and stringy raw kale.

Nuts and Bolts

The losers—and there were many—were easy to pick out. Some blenders flat-out failed at ice crushing. Others sputtered their way through milkshakes and fruit smoothies. The task of demolishing kale proved the downfall of a number of machines. The best that some could do was chop the leaves into small pieces, while one lesser model completely broke down during the challenge. Only two models plowed through this and every other task without flinching.

To make sense of why these two machines did so much better than the others, we consulted Dr. Daniel J. Braunstein, senior lecturer in mechanical engineering at MIT, who explained that there are three key factors that make or break a blender’s performance: jar shape, the number and position of the blades, and motor strength. The motor spins the blades to create a vortex, which pulls the food toward the blades, then to the bottom of the jar, and back up the sides to start all over again.

That’s why flat-bottomed jars generally slowed the blending process. Their 90-degree angles impeded flow (think of the speed you can reach taking a curve, as opposed to going around a corner), whereas curvy models kept the food moving at a steady clip. Gentle tapering also helped move food to the blades.

The length of the blades and how they were configured also altered a blender’s performance; this actually mattered more than whether a jar was fitted with four or six spikes. To maximize the chance that they’d whack the food, it was crucial not only that the blades be fixed at different positions and angles but also that the gap between the blade and the jar be minimal. (This way the food couldn’t fall and get trapped at the bottom or pass by at the edges without being chopped.) This “wingspan” helped explain the velvety-smooth drinks made by the better machines (whose blades left a gap of less than ¼ inch from the jar walls) and the lumpy output of lower-ranking models, whose blades left gaps as wide as 3/4 inch from the wall.

The final piece of the puzzle: motor strength. More power behind the blades increases their contact with food and literally gives the blender the energy to face down the toughest jobs, so we weren’t altogether surprised when blenders with three of the highest wattages performed best. The top two machines also had automatic shutoffs that allowed their motors to take a breather when faced with particularly strenuous tasks instead of shifting into overdrive and potentially burning out.

Long-Term Commitment

Those factors helped us figure out what makes a blender work well out of the box, but we hadn’t yet addressed the KitchenAid’s Achilles’ heel: durability. Our new copy of this blender did, in fact, show signs of breaking down by the end of testing (the blade apparatus loosened and a rubber gasket popped out), so we removed it from our final rankings. We also took a closer look at the materials used to create blender jars and made an important discovery: KitchenAid manufactures its pitchers from commercial-grade polycarbonate, whereas our top two performers use Eastman Tritan™ copolyester, considered more durable and resistant to impact and the harsh combination of heat, water pressure, and dishwasher chemicals. Not unexpectedly, one of those two blenders was the Vitamix. Just as it has for years, this test kitchen stalwart proved that there’s virtually nothing it can’t handle, thanks to its long-armed, well-configured blades and souped-up (1,380-watt) motor. Its performance comes at a steep price, but its exceptional durability (not to mention seven-year warranty) makes it cheaper in the long run than a less expensive blender that needs continual replacing.

But we have a co-winner. It sports all three key blender features: long blades, each set at a different position and angle; a bowl-shaped jar; and a relatively powerful (750-watt) motor. As a result, it sailed through every test. At $200, it’s less than half the price of the Vitamix. If it proves as durable as that machine—and during the coming months we will continue to test its powers by making multiple kale smoothies in it every day—we may award it the sole top spot. We’ll keep you posted.

Methodology

We tested nine blenders, heavily weighting the durability test when we tallied the score.

Durability: We evaluated whether performance declined during overall testing, administering a test in which we made kale and frozen fruit smoothies in each model every day for a month. (One brand broke down before we finished testing.)

Speed: We added yellow and blue food coloring to plain yogurt, timing how long it took to turn green with the blender on low.

Noise: We recorded decibel levels during each test and noted whether models whined or rattled. Quiet models got 3 stars.

Hummus: We processed chickpeas, olive oil, and tahini on high, preferring models that made an evenly emulsified, smooth spread.

Fruit Smoothie: We pureed frozen fruit with juice and yogurt on high (or the “puree” or “liquefy” settings), assigning high marks for smooth purees.

Kale Smoothie: We blended kale and frozen fruit chunks with juice on high (or the “puree” or “liquefy” settings), assigning high marks for purees with little or no pulp.

Milkshake: We made extra-thick chocolate milkshakes on high, giving highest marks to blenders that left no unprocessed streaks.

Margarita: We blended alcohol, juice, ice cubes, and sugar on high (or the “frozen drink” setting). The best blenders produced a uniform slush.

Ice Crushing: We pulsed small and large ice cubes (adding liquid only if the blender’s manual recommended it). We rated highest the models that produced uniform “snow.”

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The Results

Winner
Recommended

Design Trifecta 360 Knife Block

Admittedly expensive, this handsome block certainly seemed to live up to its billing as “the last knife block you ever have to buy.” The heaviest model in our testing, this block was ultrastable, and its durable bamboo exterior was a breeze to clean. Well-placed medium-strength magnets made it easy to attach all our knives, and a rotating base gave us quick access to them. One tiny quibble: The blade of our 12-inch slicing knife stuck out a little.

$248.64*
Recommended

Schmidt Brothers Downtown Block

This roomy block completely sheathed our entire winning knife set using just one of its two sides—and quite securely, thanks to long, medium-strength magnet bars. Heavy, with a grippy base, this block was very stable. An acrylic guard made this model extra-safe but also made it a little trickier to insert knives and to clean; the wood block itself showed some minor cosmetic scratching during use.

$141.90*
Best Buy
Recommended

Schmidt Brothers Midtown Block

This smaller version of the Downtown Block secured all our knives nicely, though the blade of the slicing knife stuck out a bit. With a base lined with grippy material, this block was very stable. An acrylic guard afforded extra protection against contact with blades but made it a little harder to insert knives and to clean; the wood itself got a little scratched during use.

$67.99*
Recommended with Reservations

Swissmar Bamboo Magnetic Knife Block

This small, scratch-resistant model had a stable, rubber-lined base and could hold all our knives, though the blade of the 12-inch slicing knife stuck out a bit. But inch-long gaps between its small magnets made coverage uneven and forced us to find the magnetic hot spots in order to secure the knives. Its acrylic guard made it safer to use but harder to insert knives and to clean.

$49.93*
Not Recommended

Messermeister Walnut Magnet Block

This handsome block was done in by its shape—a tippy, top-heavy quarter-circle that wasn’t tall or broad enough to keep the blades of three knives from poking out. It lacked a nonslip base, and its extra-strong magnets made it unnerving to attach or remove our heavy cleaver. Finally, it got a bit scratched after extensive use.

$129.95*

Epicurean Standing Knife Rack 12"

This magnetic block sheathed all our knives completely, though with a bit of crowding. But it was hard to insert each knife without hitting the block’s decorative slats on way down, and because the block was light and narrow, it wobbled when bumped. Worse, we couldn’t take it apart, so splatters that hit the interior were there to stay. Additionally, the outside stained easily, and when we wiped it down, the unit smelled like wet dog.

$99.95*

Kapoosh Rondelle Knife Block

This model stabilized knives with a mass of stiff, spaghetti-like bristles that shed and nicked easily after extensive use, covering our knives with plastic debris. While all our knives fit securely, several of the blades stuck out, making this unit feel less safe overall. Finally, though the bristles could be removed and cleaned in the dishwasher, their nooks and crannies made this block hard to wash by hand.

$24.99*

Kuhn Rikon Vision Knife Block, Clear

This plastic block required us to aim each knife into the folds of an accordion-pleated insert that was removable for easy cleaning but got nicked easily with repeated use. Because we could only insert the knives vertically, longer knife blades stuck out; a cleaver was too wide to fit. The lightest model in our lineup, this block was dangerously top-heavy when loaded with knives.

$35.88*