Comprehending blending

Learn to love your blender

By
September 2, 2009

A few years ago, my cheap old blender finally broke. My husband bought me a classic Waring blender with a chrome base — very pretty. The problem is that it doesn’t blend! I can’t make a smoothie without jamming a spoon into it to do half the work. I know that professional kitchens often use these blenders, so I’m wondering if you have tips for blending, especially with Waring blenders?
— Kim C., Portland, Oregon

I had a Waring (it was a wedding gift) for many years, and never really fell in love with it. As you mentioned, they look great, and the World-War-II-era metal toggle switch has a satisfying snap, but I was underwhelmed by the actual blending performance.

Although they are marketed as “professional” blenders, I can’t remember seeing one in a pro kitchen. Among other things, I don’t think the heavy glass pitchers would be practical in a restaurant environment.

An excellent smoothie.

A few years ago, I started making a lot of smoothies, and grew increasingly frustrated with the Waring’s tendency to bog down. It seemed like the base of the pitcher was too narrow to allow the ingredients to circulate freely. So, after extensive research, I decided to take the $400-plus plunge on a new Vita-Mix.

Despite the cheesy 1970s health-food name, I’ve been super-impressed with the Vita-Mix, and haven’t regretted the purchase. And I do see them frequently in restaurant kitchens, often under the professional label “Vita-Prep.” They are real workhorses.

The Vita-Mix has a huge, wide pitcher, a rugged 2-plus horsepower motor, and an infinitely variable speed-selector dial (plus a toggle switch for “high,” which is insanely high). They are effectively self-cleaning: whizzing hot water and a few drops of dish soap yields an internal-car-wash-type spectacle. (I can also attest that the Vita-Mix will launch a blanket of soapy water up to 10 feet if the operator forgets to reset the speed to “low” before turning on the power. Funny, then sad.)

In addition to smoothies, I use my Vita-Mix to make hummus, purée sauces, and whiz together simple, pure sorbets. (The sorbet secret? Just blend fresh fruit until liquefied, with a little sugar to taste, then freeze in an ice-cream maker.) The manual even suggests that you can cook soup while blending the ingredients on high speed (things do tend to warm up), but I doubt you’d win any efficiency awards doing it.

On the minus side, the Vita-Mix is huge, very loud, and has a redonkulous price tag for a small appliance. Nonetheless, it deserves a spot on your wish list. Used models show up regularly on eBay and craigslist, and they have a reputation for lasting forever.

There are similar blenders on the market, but I haven’t tried them. Notably, Waring has entered the over-the-top, hulking-blender game with their Pro 3HP model (around $400), and Blendtec sells their behemoth Total Blender for around $400 also.

(Even if you’re not shopping for a blender, check out Blendtec’s series of hilariously deadpan “Will it Blend?” marketing videos, in which they use their product to blend golf balls, glow sticks, an iPhone, and more.)

First, assemble your ingredients — in this case, frozen marionberries, a banana, 1-percent milk, and agave syrup (plus, ice cubes as necessary for texture/temperature).
Get the liquid ingredients moving . . .

. . . before adding the fruit.

But you still own a regular Waring, and you still need advice. The trick is understanding the strength of the blender, which is whizzing up liquids. If the mixture gets too thick/solid, any blender — as Matthew Amster-Burton realized when using the vaunted Vita-Mix to make milkshakes — will have problems.

The tendency when making a smoothie is to dump all of the ingredients — frozen fruit, milk, etc. — into the pitcher and turn it on. Instead, try starting with just the liquids in the pitcher, playing to the blender’s strength.

Get those moving, then add the bulk of any powders (sweetener, protein mix, whatever) to dissolve. Finally, start adding the fruit in batches, with the blender running at a good clip.

Frozen fruit will gum up the works more quickly, so try letting it thaw partially. The contents of the blender should mix freely during most of the process. If you add all of the fruit and the smoothie isn’t thick enough, try adding ice cubes one or two at a time until you get the desired consistency.

If/when the blender stops mixing — usually because an air pocket forms around the spinning blade under a dome of thick smoothie goodness — you have no safe choice but to turn it off and stick a utensil in to redistribute things. Adding a little more liquid helps, too. But these stoppages should be less frequent with the liquid-first method.

If you love super-thick smoothies and the liquid-first method doesn’t help, try your food processor. In contrast to blenders, food processors — with their slower blades and roomy bowls — excel at puréeing solid foods, but not so much at mixing thin liquids.

Process fresh or semi-frozen fruit until it smooths somewhat, then add the other ingredients to achieve the desired consistency and balance flavors. You may need to scrape the sides of the bowl periodically with a spatula, and you will definitely have to clean a bunch of clunky food-processor parts.

Other people swear by dumping everything in a tall glass and pureeing it with an immersion blender, but I’ve never used one that could make a smoothie smooth enough.

Based in Portland, Oregon, Hank Sawtelle has engineering, legal, and culinary degrees.

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1. by Caroline Cummins on Sep 2, 2009 at 10:55 AM PDT

In my barista days, we used big plastic Blendtecs for whipping up those thick cool drinks people like so much to buy in the summer. Those suckers were tough, surviving multiple drops on the floor.

Not so much my various fancy glass blenders (one drop on my lino-covered floor and they’re toast), or any of my Oster blenders (the setup that holds the blades is always breaking). I’ve kind of resigned myself to continually buying new (cheap) blenders over and over again. Of course, eventually I’ll have spent the equivalent of a Vita-Mix on cheapies. Sigh.

2. by anonymous on Sep 2, 2009 at 12:11 PM PDT

I’ve had great success with a Cuisinart immersion blender and smoothies. No need to add the ingredients sequentially, this blender actually tackles the whole thing at once. It also is a safer way to blend hot soups, not to mention saves on clean-up by blending in the pot. I’m a total convert from the standard blender.

3. by llondon on Sep 2, 2009 at 12:37 PM PDT

I’m a big smoothie fan and have been whipping them up for decades. I started with a Cuisinart blender that was wonderful and, when it died, I decided to splurge and bought the KitchenAid which I’d seen everyone on tv using. The bananas emerged from their whirl in chunks. I gave up on it and brought it back and bought a Waring (sorry, VitaMix in any incarnation is out of my league and over-the-top decadent for my usage). Everything I put in it blends thoroughly. My smoothies consist of yogurt, banana, juices and other fruits. And I’ve whipped up a lot of veggies and sauces, too, all beautifully. I wonder if the Waring user who wrote in is using enough liquid.

4. by anonymous on Sep 2, 2009 at 12:55 PM PDT

I’ve used my Oster blender (bought in 1978) for years making smoothies - Adding more liquid always makes it whip up smooth and silky. My blender has two rows with 10 buttons on each. High row and low row, depending on the puree and liquifying or blending and stirring required. I agree with llondon - possibly not enough liquid.

Cherri

5. by Richard Yarnell on Sep 2, 2009 at 1:07 PM PDT

As a youngster, I used to stand in the front row of the Vita-Mix demo stand at the County Fair. I got my share of samples, but the guy usually booted me out so a paying customer could get in. In those days, the whole thing was stainless. Now they’re plastic. Except for the cap that goes into the top, they’re Lexan. (The hole in the cover is to allow the specially made push stick to be used while the machine is running. It’s just short enough to stop above the blade. It helps to use it while making thick concoctions.

I disagree with Hank about making Humus in the Vita Mix. I like mine a little course so the food processor is a better choice, IMO.

Last week, when we were treated to a a recipe for cucumber soup, I was going to post about what we call “Yogi’s,” yogurt based smoothies, both sweet and savory - Hot summer ones are yogurt, cucumber or tomato or both, olive oil, lemon, salt, and a fragrant herb of choice. Since there isn’t a real liquid to start with, I coarsely cut the cucumbers and liquefy them first. Since I don’t peel the cukes, I like to run them on high (Vita Mix high) long enough to make the skin disappear. Everything else goes in to become smooth. Finally, to cool it all down, several ice cubes which, when reduced to water so fast, makes the Yogi cold.

For those of us of a certain age, my County Fair days were back in the late 40’s and 50’s, the Vita Mix, or any equivalent, powerful, blender has another important use. By making cream soups with totally macerated veggies, we improve by three and four times, the amount of nutrition our guts can extract from things like spinach, kale, chard, beet greens, broccoli, etc. It takes me about a minute to reduce a batch of lightly steamed spinach into a creamed soup.

flipping

One other thing: it’s berry season in Oregon. Although high powered blenders can dispose of the seeds, I think they spoil the taste of a berry Yogi. So in our kitchen, we run them through the Vita Mix and then a strainer before putting the juice back in the blender with the rest of the ingredients (lemon, sugar, and yogurt plus a few ice cubes.) The birds will love you for your trouble.

6. by anonymous on Sep 2, 2009 at 4:27 PM PDT

Another vote here for making smoothies with an immersion blender - works great. And I always hated having to clean out the blender container.

7. by diposson on Sep 2, 2009 at 6:44 PM PDT

A timely article... I was just thinking about blending a cantaloupe that is hanging around. I recently received a Breville blender for my birthday and it works almost as well as a Vita-Mix, but since it’s not as powerful, it behaves a little more like a traditional blender. The cantaloupe came out smooth and fluffy in seconds. Taking cues from a melon agua fresca recipe on Culinate’s website: http://www.culinate.com/search/q,vt=top,q=melon+agua+fresca/180187
, I added lime juice, Agave syrup, and some water to thin it out a bit. Refreshing!

8. by JudithK on Sep 3, 2009 at 3:02 AM PDT

It’s all about the Vita Mix! One other problem with the Vita Mix is that it’s too heavy to carry around to cooking gigs. (Forgetting to reset the machine to low does produce spectacular messes.) What is does to soup consistency is amazing. From time to time you can buy a refurbished Vita Mix, poke around on the Vita Mix website and you can find them.

9. by vesperlight on Sep 5, 2009 at 5:01 PM PDT

I bought my Vitamix at a veteran’s rummage sale for fifty cents, complete with manual. I love it and use it for grinding my own flour and for smoothies.

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Hank Sawtelle has engineering, legal, and culinary degrees, and an intense curiosity about food and cooking. Follow Hank’s blog, Sous Vide Jones.

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