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There’s a story behind every invention, and Carl Sontheimer’s is the stuff of legend. A worldly man who had started, built and sold his own electronics and engineering firm, Sontheimer had reached that stage in life at which less-driven individuals of the world simply retire. But Sontheimer, who loved to cook as much as he loved to tinker, had concluded that his knives just weren’t, so to speak, cutting it, and he couldn’t rest until he did something about it. Visiting a cookery show in his native France, Sontheimer spied an enormous industrial blender that, his restless mind told him, just might be adapted for countertop use. Two years later, he invented the Cuisinart, which would forever change the way we cook—though no one knew it at the time. In 1973, the first year this earliest home-use food processor was on the market, only 200 sold, mainly because consumers had yet to learn it wasn’t a toy. By 1987, 15 years before Sontheimer died at the age of 83, food processors were in every well-dressed kitchen, and the inventor was able to sell the Cuisinart company for $42 million. But we’re all richer for it.
Good processors make light work of all the chopping and shredding many cooks complain about. Millions of them, in the kitchens of countless Americans, cut the time for preparing daily family meals and for entertaining friends with celebratory meals. It’s safe to say that the bowl of the food processor is the point at which food preparation and modern technology really unite. Today the Cuisinart is only one of many food-processor brands. Consumers can choose from hundreds of models from many manufacturers.
Sizes range from tiny 3-cup work bowls to enormous 22-cup commercial models. While all of them do basic chopping, shredding and slicing, some can also whip cream and egg whites and juice oranges. You can use a processor to make bread and pasta, purée soup fixings or shred a mountain of cheese. Which machine you choose will depend on how you intend to use it and how much storage space you have. If you plan to use your processor to make bread or pasta or if you expect to process large amounts of vegetables or cheese, you should probably look at the larger, higher-end machines. If you like to slice and chop with a knife, you might just want to have a mini-processor to chop garlic and use as a back up if pressed for time.
In terms of bowl size, bigger isn’t necessarily better. If you cook for just one or two people, and you usually chop small amounts of food such as a clove of garlic or a small onion, the small 3- to 5-cup bowls of mini-processors may be ideal for you. The mini-processor also has the ability to mince garlic, shallots, parsley, nuts and citrus peel well because of its size and shape—a job a large bowl just can’t handle. On the other hand, if your usual meal prep is a casserole for eight, if you shred several pounds of vegetables at a time or you want to make a batch of bread dough in your processor, a large work bowl is essential. Some machines such as the KitchenAid provide both a small bowl and an 11-cup work bowl.
The early Cuisinart was a whiz at chopping and shredding large quantities of vegetables, if you didn’t mind stopping every few minutes to empty the work bowl. New models from other manufacturers provide a chute that whisks the cut food into a bowl stationed on the counter. The smallest machine tested also chops using the chute, and it may be set for fine or coarse pieces. However, in some food processors the shreds go flying onto the counter as well as into the bowl. In others, both the work bowl and the bowl on the counter fill with shredded vegetable, doubling cleanup time and work. Beyond the convenience of continuous feed, the chute helps produce better shreds and slices.
Most processors are fitted with just one slicing blade. The more expensive models offer several slicing blades that make thicker, thinner or wavy slices or make french fries. The blades are usually purchased separately. Just remember that each blade is dangerously sharp and must be safely stored.
All food processors come with at least one shredding blade—and some with two, for both fine and medium shreds. Not all blades are created equal, however. They create some shreds that are uniform, crisp pieces, which look as if they have been julienned with a knife, or raggedy strips that resemble those made by a four-sided hand grater.
Chopping, a must for vegetarians, is probably the job most often performed by food processors. The knife blade can coarsely chop, mince and purée. Always look for a processor featuring a high-quality knife blade.
Although a food processor may be used to mix bread dough or pasta—and all new machines come with a dough knife—it is not the best way to mix heavy dough. The most powerful food processor will stall out if the dough is too thick. And even the 11-cup work bowl is too small for making more than one loaf of bread.
As many contemporary cooks have discovered, a food processor is a real workhorse that, for many kitchen tasks, does the work of both a blender and a set of sharpened knives. So whichever model you select, you’ll find that the new food processors will revolutionize how you face daily kitchen tasks.