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Senior testings and tastings editor Hannah Crowley explains the benefits—and pitfalls—of the miniature versions of a kitchen essential.
Owning a good food processor is like having a little motorized sous chef living in your cabinet. We use ours regularly to grate cheese, grind bread crumbs, chop nuts, blend soups, prep vegetables, and mix doughs for pizza, bread, cookies, and pie.
While we consider ours indispensable, standard food processors tend to be big and pricey. Smaller processors are a good choice for budget- or space-conscious cooks or for those who want to dip a toe in the processor pond before shelling out nearly $200.
We took a fresh look at the small food processors market to find the most versatile, efficient, and well-designed model. Options ran the gamut from chintzy choppers to miniature versions of full-sized models from major brands. They ranged from 1.5 to 6 cups in capacity (compared to 11 to 16 cups for larger models), but we wanted something that could cut and blend. So we saved the small, basic choppers for later and zeroed in on 3- to 6-cup models, of which we found seven, priced from $27.99 to $99.99. We put the processors through their paces: mincing garlic; dicing celery, onions, and carrots; grating Parmesan cheese; chopping almonds; and making mayonnaise, pesto, and hummus.
Size was an important factor: 3.5- and 4-cup models were ideal. They were compact yet large enough to handle a range of projects.
A few of the machines ran fast, which made it easy to overprocess. Others didn’t have enough oomph—their hummus and pesto never got completely smooth and were deemed “rustic” by tasters. Powerful-yet-responsive controls were optimal.
Feeding tubes are essential for making mayonnaise in a food processor: The oil has to be added slowly to properly emulsify with the other ingredients. Four models didn’t have feeding tubes; of the three that did, two made smooth, fluffy mayonnaise. The sole model with a feeding tube that still failed to make mayonnaise brings us to our final factor: the blade.
This model’s egg yolks fell below its blade, so the ingredients couldn’t emulsify; two other processors suffered a similar problem. Whole garlic cloves, almonds, and pine nuts remained stranded under their blades because they spun 5 to 8 millimeters above the bottom of the bowl and couldn’t reach the food. Low blades with just 3 to 4 millimeters of clearance made better, more evenly processed food. Sharp, straight blades were also important; serrated blades chewed up food, while straight blades made crisp, clean cuts.
There are downsides to smaller processors. First, they can’t handle doughs well; their workbowls are too small and their motors too weak. Second, they’re not efficient for large-quantity prep— they don’t have grating or slicing blades, and their smaller workbowls maxed out at about 2 cups of vegetables.
But a good small food processor can excel at mayonnaises, dressings, dips, marinades, and sauces—projects that would otherwise require serious muscle or a food mill. They can also handle smaller-quantity mincing, grinding, and dicing. If money or space is limited, you prefer a knife for prep, you only plan to do smaller projects, or you want to try a smaller and cheaper food processor before investing in a large model, our winner—at half the size and less than a third of the price of our winning full-sized machine—is the best small food processor on the market.
This processor had a sharp blade with great coverage. It turned out crisply cut vegetables and nuts and fluffy parsley. Its strong motor blended hummus and pesto with minimal scraping, and its small feeding tube allowed us to slowly add oil for fantastic mayonnaise.
This processor’s blade was higher, but a sweeping bar to incorporate food at the bottom of the bowl helped make up for this shortcoming. Its motor was weaker than the winner (pesto and hummus were “rustic” but acceptable), and it had no feeding tube.
This machine had nice blade coverage and diced mirepoix and grated Parmesan fairly well. But its motor ran fast, which made it easy to overprocess, and its blade was serrated, so it didn’t chop everything cleanly.
This model’s smaller bowl inhibited movement—mirepoix was a mess, and almonds were dusty. Because you press down on the lid to activate the motor, we had to unplug it every time we wanted to scrape down the sides, or it turned on with our hand inside.
This large processor-cum- personal-smoothie-maker’s powerful motor was hard to control and sprayed food up the sides of its carafe, which were lined with plastic ribs that made it tough to clean. It also didn’t have a feeding tube.
This processor had poor blade coverage: Garlic and pine nuts sat untouched in its bowl, and mayo never emulsified because half the ingredients fell below the blade. Its pulse button kept spinning far too long, and its rough serrated blade battered parsley.
Because of a weaker motor, a narrow canister, and poor blade coverage, this processor left Parmesan, pesto, and hummus all unacceptably chunky, even with extra processing. It also lacked a feeding tube, so it couldn’t make mayonnaise.