The season for cold drinks, cold soups and smoothies is here, and a familiar whirring sound is being heard across the land.
Yes, blenders are back, and they are sleeker and more powerful than ever. The new home models are truly cooking appliances, not just bar accessories, though they perform their bar duties well: some now crush ice just as well as professional bar blenders. The new models are kitchen-friendly, too. Instead of hard-to-clean buttons, they have flat digital control pads, and at about 14 inches high, the machines fit easily beneath a standard kitchen cabinet.Though many cooks put aside their blenders for food processors more than a decade ago, the two appliances are not substitutes for each other. For certain dishes, like soups, nothing matches the blender's ability to puree and emulsify. And it is still unbeatable as a drinks mixer. Adventurous home cooks can make good use of both appliances.
The best of the new blenders can be found for under $100, which makes them serious competition for well-known heavy-duty workhorses made by Waring and Hamilton Beach, which, depending on the model, can cost $130 and more.
Choosing a new blender on looks alone is a hard call. Cooks nostalgic for the 1950s may be attracted to Waring's new line of blenders in retro colors like lime green and turquoise. The new curvaceous Krups, which the company calls its Marilyn Monroe model, beckons to be touched. The Black & Decker model has two blender jars, one glass, one stainless steel, which, if awkward in actual operation, make it appear to be a serious appliance indeed.
But after mixing, stirring, pureeing and blending with seven new models, my favorites are the five-speed Kitchen Aid Ultra Power and the seven-speed Smart Power by Cuisinart. Over all, both were excellent performers with notable features.
Each has a five-cup-capacity heat-proof glass jar with an easy-grip handle. The machines, which have heavy steel bases, do not shake or move around the counter, even at high speeds with a full load. Unlike older models, they don't need liquid to crush ice cubes. And the function pads actually deliver what they promise, instead of being just speed buttons: when you push "mix," for example, the machine actually mixes. And "liquefy" means just that.
Blender manufacturers often promote the motor power of their appliances, boasting, for instance, that their model can make 100 crushed ice drinks a day. Good news, perhaps, to a professional bartender, who needs high-volume longevity. But for average everyday use, both the Cuisinart and the Kitchen Aid perform well - and without ear-shattering noise.
The Kitchen Aid looks sturdier than the Cuisinart; the blade is larger and the base is wider and heavier. But because the base of the Cuisinart jar is not as broad, the Cuisinart crushes ice faster and more finely and big chunks do not get caught under the blade. The Cuisinart has a spout on the jar, for dripless pouring.
Both appliances come with excellent recipe and instruction booklets that remind the user of just how handy a blender can be. The Kitchen Aid manual is almost a complete cookbook, with recipes for soups, shakes, vegetable purees, sauces, pancakes, salad dressings and drinks, including a perfectly balanced, not-too-sweet icy Margarita.
The Kitchen Aid, which comes only in white, has a list price of $139.95; for local sources: 1-800-541-6390. The Cuisinart chrome-base model is $140; the white-base model, $120; for sources: 1-800-726-0190.
Both actually sell for less at many stores.