When it comes to buying new kitchen tools it's a constant tension for we home cooks who are short on space but also sometimes simply want more toys. Who among us hasn't wandered into a cookware store and stared at a [fill in the blank: ceramic ginger grater . . . spring-loaded lemon wedge squeezer . . . Japanese fish boning knife . . .] and thought, "oh, that will make me a better cook." More likely it only adds novelty. And then clutter.
Once we get past the basics -- wooden spoons, a chef's knife, a sturdy sauté pan -- kitchen tools start reflecting the personality and proclivities of the cook. For example, I own no wok because I don't do stir-fries often enough to justify its storage space. But I can't imagine not having my salad spinner, which is equally clumsy to stow. So it's personal.
Still, there are some tools and appliances that are worth making room for. They can make it easier to produce better results. Plus they don't take up much space. And an immersion blender is a good example.
Invented in Europe in the 1950's and made popular in the U.S. in the 60's, immersion blenders -- also called hand blenders, stick blenders or wand blenders -- are electrified wands about 10 to 12 inches long with a rotary blade on the end. Most are hard-wired but some models come cordless with rechargeable batteries (I prefer the hard-wired ones -- they're much more robust) and some are sold with accessories like whisks or choppers. The most popular brands are Bamix, KitchenAid, Braun and Cuisinart and cost anywhere from $30 to $100.
Mine is a Braun that I've had for longer than I can remember. I was recently given a Bamix with changeable blades, including one for whipping cream, but I prefer my Braun because it has a shield over the blades making for less spattering. I also confess to liking the way my old Braun looks -- very Bauhaus.
An immersion blender works just as the name suggests: you immerse the wand into the ingredient so that the blade is below the surface and using the same hand with which you're holding the wand, you turn it on and off (there's often only one speed -- on). As long as the blade is in the food and as long as you keep it turned on, it will mix with a fury. If you lift the blade above the food while the blade is whirring, it will spatter and spit. You can use one hand to position the blade through the food, moving it around and up and down, leaving the other hand free to hold the container, which may be a hot pan still on the stove.
Immersion wands are related to your blender, food processor, or hand mixer and it does some of what each of these other appliances do. But not entirely. A food processor does a better job of liquefying and also gives more control when it comes to chopping ingredients like nuts. So if you want a completely smooth purée for your vichyssoise or evenly chopped pecans for topping a fruit crisp, use your food processor. Likewise for whipping. Some immersion blenders come with a whipping blade but the wand's aggressive speed means the cream can rapidly turn to butter; I also think it's too rough for mixing cake or cookie dough. So an immersion blender doesn't replace a hand mixer. And if you're a smoothie fan, a blender will aerate better.
So what does an immersion blender do that these other appliances don't? Well, nothing, actually. But it takes up very little space, does much of the work of these three other tools combined, and because it's acutely handy, you will use it more easily and often, leading you to make recipes you might otherwise not. Best of all, it lets you bring the blender to the food, meaning you skip the entire step of transferring the food to another container and back again. It does much of what the other three appliances do and in the spirit of the perfect being the enemy of the good, an immersion blender will purée a soup to 95 percent smoothness and for most of us, that's what we want anyway.
They're also a snap to clean, not a small factor for home cooks. Just keep the blender plugged in and immerse the wand and blade it into a glass or pot of hot, soapy water. Give it a couple of pulses and the blade will be spotless.
- Many buy an immersion blender only to make soup. Cook any favorite combination of vegetables -- cubes of butternut squash and onions, leeks and potatoes, celery and shallots -- in chicken or vegetable broth until soft and tender and without removing them from their pan, use the immersion blender to purée everything together. Adjust the seasoning and maybe add a little milk or light cream for luxury.
- Baby food. Cook organic fruit and vegetables and the immersion blender will convert them into meals that are both more nutritious and less expensive than store-bought.
- Tomato sauce. Use whole canned tomatoes (San Marzano if you can find them) that you crush with your hands as you add to the pan, plus slices of garlic and maybe onions that have been first softened in olive oil. Add a pinch of red pepper flakes and another of salt. Simmer for about 20 minutes and then use the blender to make a sauce as smooth as you like (the garlic and onion will completely combine with the tomatoes). If you want to keep the ingredients separated and the sauce more chunky, use the immersion blender to purée the tomatoes while they're still in the can and then add to the other ingredients.
- Cook a roast with a mirepoix of chopped celery, carrots and onion plus other aromatic vegetables like chopped garlic or shallots, and when the roast is done, bring your immersion blender to the roasting pan and create a gravy that captures all the flavors still in the pan.
- Mashed potatoes and puréed vegetables. Cook peeled chunks of potatoes in salted water until tender, drain and return to the same pan, adding butter and milk or other ingredients -- maybe also chunks of cooked parsnips or turnips. Use the blender directly in the pan and mash until everything is combined and the potatoes are the texture you want. The same method works for butternut squash, green peas, cauliflower, or any other vegetable that lends itself to being puréed.
- Applesauce. One of my favorite fall flavors is applesauce. But it's a chore to make -- peeling, simmering and then puréeing in batches in my food processor. The effort is cut nearly in half when I can cook a huge pot of chunks of apples and once all are softened, quickly turn the whole thing into applesauce with my immersion blender. Add a little sugar, some cinnamon, and as I learned from a Julia Child recipe -- some apricot preserves and a spoonful of Cognac.
- Use it with anything to be made smooth -- hummus, peanut butter made with good Virginia peanuts, gravy, sauces, puddings, salad dressings. Some use immersion blenders to make mayonnaise, although I prefer the control of mixing it by hand. It's also great for making salsa -- although watch how quickly you can go from chunky to smooth.
I'm glad to have my immersion blender if only for making Marcella Hazan's brilliant recipe for osso buco. Veal shanks are oven-simmered for several hours with canned tomatoes and vegetables, seasoned with bay leaves and lemon peel. Once the shanks are falling-off-the-bone, I transfer them to a plate, and then use the blender to combine all the vegetables that are still in the cast iron pot into a smooth and intensely flavored tomato sauce to serve with the veal plus rigatoni, a thick tubular pasta.
A dish worth buying an appliance for.
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