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Step into liquefy

September 17, 2003|Valli Herman-Cohen | Times Staff Writer

A blender is a blender is a blender -- or so we've always thought. After all, other than a sleek design or a choice of a dozen different speeds, basically they all do the same thing: whirl stuff around.

Or do they?

Suddenly, there's a dizzying array of blenders on the market, with prices from $15 to $600 and designs from Art Nouveau curvy to almost Humvee-like industrial. After putting six models through their paces, we learned that how well they work is as wide-ranging as their looks. The most expensive model got so hot, it cooked the eggs and scrambled our mayonnaise. A mid-priced blender was so poorly designed it couldn't puree well. The cheapest? It worked quietly and efficiently.

After Fred Waring introduced his Miracle Mixer at a 1937 Chicago restaurant show, the blender quickly became a must-have in every modern kitchen. If its luster faded when the Cuisinart food processor hit the scene in the 1970s, it wasn't for long. Although food processors, drink mixers and immersion blenders all shine at specific cooking tasks, the blender still rules as master of pureed soups, frozen cocktails and emulsified sauces.

So how to choose among the myriad options? The candy-apple red Oster with the see-through base would look great with your iMac, and the soon-to-be released Jenn-Air with its faux-etched glass jar would be swell displayed on your bar, but can either of them turn out a perfectly smooth carrot-ginger soup?

Blenders today can have 14 speeds, or two; pulse buttons, push buttons, touch pads or toggles; a motor that is adequate or tremendously powerful. And then there are the design issues: Setting looks aside, is it easy to scrape out all the sauce from the jar? Will it splatter you as you pour in liquid through the fill cap? Unless you're a margarita maniac or a mayonnaise maven who will use your machine for only one kind of task, you'll want the best all-around blender in your price range.

The physics behind the blender is simple. The blades, jar shape and motor speed are configured to push as much product, as fast as possible, into the blades, said Art Sansone, vice president of engineering for Waring. Lower-end blenders rotate the blades at about 16,000 rpm, while commercial models spin at 26,000 rpm or more -- a speed that, in about 10 seconds, turns ice cubes into snow and creates fine air bubbles to make a frothy sauce (faster motors introduce more air into a blend).

In testing six models, we looked for power, capacity and ease of operation and cleaning. Most of all, we wanted really smooth sauces and frothy drinks. To that end, we tested each by blending mayonnaise, crushing ice and pureeing smoothies.

Mayonnaise proved to be tricky -- in some blenders it won't emulsify; in others, a recessed base won't allow the ingredients to mix together completely. Ice isn't easy, either. Some motors aren't powerful enough to crush ice; some blades aren't efficient enough to make a completely smooth puree. And because others start so fast that they blast hot liquids all over, we ran a final test by filling each half-full of hot liquid.

If we had to choose just one blender to last a lifetime, we'd invest in the $200 Waring Commercial Drink Mixer blender. The smoothie and the mayonnaise were wonderfully smooth, light and evenly mixed. Ice pulverized in seconds. Several new features, such as a flip-up fill cap, made it even easier to use.

Our choice for the best inexpensive, all-purpose blender was a $25 Toastmaster model. It impressed us with very smooth, extremely frothy blending, efficient ice-crushing, an extra-wide container opening and fairly quiet operation. It lost out by a nose to the Waring Commercial because of its less-substantial plastic construction and its poor handling of our mayonnaise test.

The other four blenders had odd quirks and problems. Most were headache-inducing noisy. As we added oil through the lids' fill caps, most (except the Waring Commercial and the KitchenAid) splattered enough to coat countertops and condition our hair with mayonnaise. Some were too tall; others too heavy or wobbly.

Until we tested it, we were swooning over the potential of a professional model, the $389 Vita-Prep variable speed model 1002. With its hefty square base, 20-inch height and black rubber lid as big as a plunger, it looked as if it could guard Buckingham Palace.

Its detailed instruction book, stuffed with superlatives and warnings, claimed that it purees more smoothly than ordinary blenders in half the time, and it was true. It so powerfully pulverized smoothie ingredients that hardly a strawberry seed was visible after only 20 seconds. Yet the two-horsepower motor can heat up so much that the eggs in a batch of mayonnaise cooked into a scrambled mess.

The $44.95 Oster has a respectable 450 watts, 14 speeds and a compact design, but its shrill whine and wicked splattering made us run for cover.

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