Several kitchen tools can blend or puree. The jar blender and food processor are the big guys who hog the spotlight. The handheld immersion blender is the smaller-but-still-plenty-powerful dark horse for MVP.
When you're trying to decide which is best for you, Mary Rodgers, director of marketing and communications for Cuisinart, recommends that you think about what you're going to be making. Each appliance performs similar tasks. An immersion blender — also known as a stick or hand blender — can blend, puree and emulsify, she says. A standard jar blender can also handle rougher tasks such as crushing ice, but it requires more liquid to achieve smooth results. Food processors operate at lower speeds than both those types of blenders, she explains, which gives you greater control and lets you chop rather than puree, if you want, not to mention shred and slice with the proper attachments.
So what can you make with an immersion blender? Soups. Gravy. Smoothies. Mayonnaise. Guacamole. Vinaigrette. Pancake batter. Sauces. Frothed milk. Whipped cream. Baby food. Salsa.
In other words, this versatile little appliance can do a lot. Here's why you might want to have one in your kitchen, along with tips for making the most of it.
It's not a huge commitment. The most basic models, which offer one or two speeds, go for around $30. And they don't take up a lot of storage room either, especially when the motor body is disconnected from the blending shaft. If you haven't been able to take the leap to a jar blender or food processor, think about starting with an immersion blender. Some hand blenders move even more into the territory of other tools, offering interchangeable blades or attachments such as whisks and choppers.
It can be more efficient than other blending appliances. Some of my favorite soup recipes call for pureeing by transferring the mixture to a jar blender or food processor. This was always an annoying multistep process, usually involving batches and the whole problem of getting the contents of a Dutch oven into my blender by ladle and measuring cup. More things to clean, more fussing. With an immersion blender, you can do everything right in the pot and not worry about putting hot soup in a jar blender, which can blow the top off and make a huge mess, not to mention burn you.
Rodgers says her favorite thing to do with her immersion blender is to crush whole canned tomatoes for tomato sauce - right in the can. Other foods you can blend in their containers: tahini or peanut butter that has separated in the jar. An immersion blender is good at handling small amounts of ingredients that larger tools would struggle with, whether it's a single smoothie, small batch of homemade mayo or a serving of pureed baby food.
A stick blender is pretty powerful. Don't be fooled by the diminutive size. Immersion blenders can take a pot of vegetables from chunky to perfectly smooth in a matter of minutes. I recently tested mine on large pieces of unripe cantaloupe, too, and it had no problem turning it into a frothy puree.
But know its limitations. Rodgers said Cuisinart doesn't recommend trying to buzz through hard items such as coffee beans, frozen fruit or ice with immersion blenders because doing so can damage the blade. (Some models specify they can crush ice.)
And understand how to safely use it. Immersion blenders are right up there with mandolines when it comes to the tools home cooks are most likely to tell horror stories about. Many injuries have occurred when people have accidentally turned on the blender while reaching to pull something out of the blade. The blade is really sharp, so best to keep those fingers clear of it.
Also, just go ahead and unplug the appliance as soon as you stop using it and definitely before you detach the blending shaft. Some models offer a separate unlock button that you must press each time you want to use the blender. I say, however, better safe than sorry. For safe and neat usage, be sure you always keep the blade submerged, or "it will start spewing the liquid sideways and make a mess," Rodgers says. Immersion blenders are designed to create a sort of vortex and pull food under the blade and then out, but you do want to gently move the appliance around whatever container you're blending in to ensure you've reached all the food.
Clean it correctly. Do not immerse the motorized end of this type of blender in water. You can certainly hand-wash the blender shaft (just be careful of the blade, as noted above), though generally it can go in the dishwasher, especially on the top rack (Rodgers puts hers in the silverware holder). Still, be sure to read the manual for your particular model. Or fill an accompanying blender cup with a few drops of soap and some warm water before running the blender in it.