NOT long ago I watched a chef visiting from Italy make a showstopper of a dish, little pasta “hats” stuffed with beets, drizzled with a three-cheese sauce and garnished with twists of beet greens and cubes of beet gelee. He blazed right through this elaborate production not only with knives and whisks but with an immersion blender: pureeing Gorgonzola, mascarpone and Roquefort cheeses with cream for the airy sauce, dissolving gelatin in beet juice, whizzing beet juice and soy sauce into the inevitable foam.
And it was not the first such performance I had seen lately. The immersion blender has become so essential to chefs it could almost be considered a third hand, and not just because of the molecular craze. No other tool seems to work such immediate magic in emulsifying, aerating, pureeing and whipping.
Which is why I have finally invested in a KitchenAid KHB100 and have been going as crazy as a Martha Stewart groupie who has just discovered the glue gun. Forty-five minutes after ripping open the box and washing the detachable wand, without even glancing at the instruction book, I had whipped through pesto, tapenade, asparagus soup, red pepper puree and hummus, while also grinding walnuts into flour and converting a hard roll into fluffy bread crumbs. Imagine what blender season will be like, when it’s time for gazpacho and cucumber soup.
This new toy does everything my geriatric Osterizer did, but it works faster, smoother and smarter. Even more amazing: Both the pesto and the soup were the best I have ever made because it was so easy to control the amount of liquid.
The biggest improvement was between jobs: All I had to do to clean my new toy was pop the blade attachment off, run it through soapy water and rinse. Then I was ready to move on to mayonnaise and mincing herbs.
No wonder Michael Cimarusti, executive chef and co-owner of Providence in Los Angeles, says he has five immersion blenders plugged in on any given night. His pastry chef uses one for pureeing avocados and whipping egg whites for meringues, but he relies on the others to make sauces and then “bring them back to life” for individual orders. “I have 20 little pots of sauces on the stove” rather than in a bain marie, he says, and he can just whiz in a little vegetable stock to emulsify them and lighten them as needed.
Cimarusti uses hydrocolloids, the gels and other thickeners associated with so-called molecular gastronomy, but even in a proudly “foamless” kitchen like Leatherby’s Cafe Rouge in Costa Mesa, the immersion blender is a useful tool. Mark Gold, the executive chef, says it is ideal for emulsifying vinaigrettes and mayonnaises but even better for improving presentation. A soup or sauce aerated with the blender develops just enough bubbles to be enticing without going foamy.
Cimarusti says immersion blenders have become more useful in restaurant kitchens since they have gotten smaller, which makes them easier to use as he does, in small pots. “They used to be mammoth, for pureeing 15 gallons of soup at a time,” he said. “You could propel a boat with them.”
The daintiness of home immersion blenders is one reason I had assumed they were poor relations to the countertop workhorses. The early models for home use were, from all sad owners had always told me, pretty lame, more impressive for their reach than their grasp and basically best for smoothies. But the latest generation is much more powerful. I have yet to go beyond speed three on the nine-digit dial on mine.
It says everything that I started out looking for a professional/commercial immersion blender and happily settled on one designed for home kitchens. You could spend $350, $500 or more and get what chefs are being sold, but you can just as easily drop $30 to $50 and get what many are buying. (Both Cimarusti and Gold use Brauns at home.)
I narrowed my choice to one whose price covered only the blender, not the array of accouterments Braun packages with its version. I have a whisk and can wield it as well as a knife. (Cordless immersion blenders are also available, but like any battery-powered appliance they apparently weaken as their power source does -- think how slow a camera gets when the batteries are wheezing.)
The KitchenAid is beautifully designed, almost a magic wand, which is why it was rated best in the Food section’s comparison of four brands in 2005. (The Braun, the only other one I considered, lost points for being noisy and lacking finesse.) The KitchenAid’s blade attachment pops off instantly when you press two rubber buttons on the motorized end; it snaps back together even faster and easier. The on switch is fat and rubberized (it switches off when you remove your thumb). And it comes with a plastic beaker and lid, which are useful but not essential. I worked the blender in small bowls, big bowls and a soup pot with equally great results.
The only things it could not chop were ice cubes. Otherwise, what hooked me first and hardest was the one job I rely on my blender for most often: grinding nuts into flour for cakes and other baked things. Our 28-year-old Osterizer does a good job, but the nuts at the very narrow base of the jar are always almost turned nearly to butter. With the immersion blender, I could control the consistency top to bottom by just pouring the whole walnuts into the beaker and the blender into them, rotating it so that they ground evenly. (I have lost the tips of more rubber and silicone spatulas than I can count because they came in contact with the whirring blades while I was shoving food down into the conventional blender’s jar.)
Usually when I make pesto, I wind up using more oil than I would like just to make the whole basil leaves, pine nuts and grated Parmesan cohere; then I have to mince and stir in the garlic by hand because the blender’s blades tend to turn it unbearably bitter and sharp. Using the stick blender in the hard plastic beaker that came with it, I made the most intense pesto ever, processing everything together at once, including the whole clove of garlic.
My hummus is generally soupy for the same reason. It takes a lot of liquid to get the chickpeas to puree smoothly in a traditional blender. The immersion model ground them fine with no help.
An immersion blender made quick work of mayonnaise as well; the homogenization was actually easier to control in a small bowl than in the old awkward tapered jar. And whole roasted red peppers from a jar were in a smooth puree almost instantly after I drained them, no pre-chopping needed.
I made my first round of asparagus soup just by steaming a couple of bunches of whole spears, then pureeing them with a cup of cream using the blender. It was crude but stunningly flavorful, the essence of asparagus. Later I went the usual route and steeped shallots in butter, then asparagus in 1-inch pieces in a covered pot to concentrate the flavor (a trick swiped from the legendary Provencal chef Roger Verget), then added stock and let everything cook. I inserted the blender right into the pot and made an intensely flavorful bisque that did not need straining as a friend had warned it might (she uses an older Cuisinart immersion blender).
But I was so entranced with my new toy that I realized I could use it twice in one recipe if I whipped creme fraiche with chives and dill; all I did was combine the three in a small bowl, insert the blender and in seconds had a sprightly green puree to dollop into the hot soup.
Fresh bread crumbs were also super easy to make. Usually I waste energy shredding rolls or a baguette using a couple of forks and still wind up with clumps, not airy flakes. Once again, blender touched to roll for mere seconds produced a bowlful of white fluff.
Later I was glad I had not read the instruction book, because it includes crazy advice, such as cutting cheese into three-eighths-inch cubes before shredding it with the blender, which defeats the purpose of a tool meant to make life easier.
The instruction book also gives blending times for various ingredients, which is silly for anyone sighted.
One quibble with my new toy is that the beaker does not include any type of cover to keep oil and nuts and bread crumbs from flying while the motor is running. It would be so simple to design a round one with a hole in the center to fit around the wand and a slit on the side to open it up and slip it on. I improvised using a dish towel.
You would also not want to operate an immersion blender while drinking: That little exposed blade could do serious damage to anyone inattentive to the sharpness and the power. It has to be unplugged before cleaning or disassembling and when not in use.
I would wonder where this marvel has been all my life. However, right now I’m busy figuring out where to donate our old Osterizer, the one that refuses to die.