Blenders and Food Processors
Blenders and mixers are an important part of your kitchen equipment, especially if you plan on making creamy soups from starch bases such as Split Pea Soup. A potato masher and a fork just don’t do the job when it comes to reducing solid ingredients into a smooth consistency.
There are a lot of gadgets out there for such mixing, and some are better than others at different types of mixing and blending. If you have never used them before, or have never bought any, it can be pretty confusing. Even worse, you can end up with the wrong tool for the job, which is a waste of both money and kitchen space.
Blenders are good tools for mixing soups. They are typically tall, tapering to a more slender bottom, with two or four blades that are nearly long enough to touch the inside of the container. This means that solid pieces are unlikely to escape the blades, which makes for a smooth consistency if used long enough.
Also, the shorter blades and powerful motor in the base means that even ice can be blended. Obviously this is more than is required for blending soup, but any gadget you buy for the kitchen should be capable of doing more than one job. A blender is powerful enough and sturdy enough to handle fruit smoothies, ice-based slushy mixes (as in a Margarita), and some sauces.
However, a blender does have its limitations and down-sides. The single most important limitation of blenders is the capacity. Soups tend to be made in large batches, which means you need to blend the soup in small amounts at a time. And since the soup is hot, it tends to release steam as soon as you start blending, so you can’t even fill it half way without running the risk of blowing the top off the blender.
And with the multiple batches of blending, you end up with a lot more cleaning up. Not only will you have the soup pot to clean, but you now have a blender, plus whatever vessel you are using to store the blended soup as you complete each batch.
For non-soup usage, these devices do not work for solid ingredients, such as processing dried bread into bread crumbs. The larger pieces tend to stay up top, away from the blades. For all of these reasons, a blender is one of the last kitchen gadgets I would buy.
Food processors are shorter and wider than a blender is. Because of the extra width, the blades have to be longer to make sure nothing gets missed. This extra length makes for faster mixing time, but it also makes the blades weaker and the motor more prone to stress if something gets wedged between the container and the blades. You would never try to process ice, as you would with a blender for instance.
However, the shape of the container also makes it less useful for runny liquids. A blender forces the liquid to churn, creating a flow that passes the liquid through the blades. A food processor simply spins it to the outside, away from the blades. Also, with a flat bottom there tends to be a “dead zone” between the blades and the bottom. This makes food processors most ineffective for soups, but they are extremely useful for softer solids, such as bread, cheese, meat, veggies and fruit. They are also very good at making thicker sauces, but anything thinner than a mayonnaise is best handled in a blender.
A food processor is a very handy tool for the kitchen, but for making soup it is of limited benefit. About the only thing I have ever used one for in soup making is to chop my aromatic vegetables. I don’t do this any more, because I can use a knife to do the same thing faster than I can take the food processor out of the cupboard; plus the knife is easier to clean.
As their name implies, these tools are meant for mixing rather than breaking down ingredients. They are typically used to mix wet and dry ingredients together, as in a cake batter, or to add air bubbles to thick liquids, as in whipping cream. Hand mixers are also very useful in blending broken down starches, such as mashed potatoes.
However, once you add enough liquid there is no longer enough resistance to the beater bars to make them very useful in blending soups. Once the chunks become small enough to sneak through the beaters, that’s all they are going to do; they won’t get broken down any further without a lot of effort on your part. And if you start with small ingredients, like split peas, you won’t have much luck at all. I once did this out of desperation, and the consistency left something to be desired.
Since anything you can do with a hand mixer can also be done with some other tool, I would leave this item as one of your very last to purchase.
Note: Stand-up mixers are really just hand mixers with a stronger motor, more attachments and a bowl. They are great for baking, but not much use in making soups.
Without a doubt, this is my tool of choice when blending soups. An immersion blender is a hand-held tool that put the blades of a blender at the end of power tool. While the motor tends not to be quite as powerful as that of a stand-up blender, it is more than enough for anything in the soup category.
They are also very good for mixing smoothies or anything else relatively soft. But the real benefit is in the fact that you do not need another vessel for blending: you can just stick the immersion blender right into the soup pot and start mixing. No blender or food processor bowl to clean, no extra pot to hold batches of blended soup, just an immersion blender to rinse under hot water.
There are different sizes and strengths to choose from, but for soups you can use any of them from the very smallest up. The only benefit of getting a bigger one is the speed with which you can blend a pot of soup, but even then you run the risk of splashing. The only thing to avoid is anything really cheap. Remember that they are electric devices being immersed into a liquid; the last thing you need is for moisture to get inside it and ruin it, or worse, give you a shock.
And please, do not allow your spouse to use it for mixing paint. I know this from personal experience, unfortunately. Not only is it bad food safety (I don’t care if it is non-toxic paint; I still don’t want to eat it!), but it essentially becomes a one-use tool.
Deciding what to buy
If I were starting with a new kitchen, and had no mixing gadgets, I would start with an immersion blender. After that my next purchase would be a food processor. Between these two you can do any mixing job that requires power, with the exception of anything containing ice. Even then you can crush the ice and add it to a liquid and use the immersion blender without fear of damage.
After that I would go for a stand-up blender, and finally a hand mixer (unless I decided to hold out for the stand-up mixer), but I imagine I could easily live without either of these. I don’t live entirely on soup, but for the types of cooking I do I find I don’t pull these out of the cupboard all that often.