In the kitchen, I think tools generally fall into two categories: must-haves and nice-to-haves. Must-haves possess wide appeal across the board. They’re things it would be hard to do much cooking without — a chef’s knife, skillet, saucepan and a variety of other utilitarian pieces. Nice-to-haves begin edging into that gray area where they’re essential for some people but not others. Or maybe they do a job that you can accomplish another way but a lot faster or easier.
To me, a mandoline is a nice-to-have. I don’t own one, although I’ve often seen its advantages.
A mandoline is a tool that’s designed to give you very thin, even slices of vegetables and fruits. It consists of a stationary blade that attaches to a platform or other framework that lets you move the produce over it.
“I think they definitely have their place,” says Kate Merker, chief food director of Good Housekeeping and several of its sister publications at Hearst. “I would like to think I have pretty incredible knife skills,” but not as fast as what a mandoline can do.
If you’re considering whether to buy one, or just want to know how to safely use the mandoline you already have, read on.
What to look for. Be sure you find something durable. Good Housekeeping recently tested a bunch and probably held about 20, Merker says. Some were just “not hefty enough,” she says. Wobbly, unstable mandolines are not only inefficient but also potentially dangerous. They should also be able to hold up to firm pressure and, of course, firm vegetables. And if they don’t slice cleanly, there’s absolutely no point.
Some models include a foot that lets you stand the mandoline on the counter. Others, such as the no-frills Benriner that Merker likes, are shaped like a paddle with only a handle. That makes it easier to slice directly into a bowl. Think about the cuts you’re most likely to use. Blades that do julienne and waffle cuts are available on certain brands.
If you’re mostly in it for the thin slices, Merker recommends something like the Kyocera. Being able to adjust the thickness of the slices is a major plus. Good Housekeeping gave props to brands that have rubberized handles for no-slip gripping and textured surfaces that keep the food from sliding around.
In its rigorous equipment testing, America’s Test Kitchen offers several other features worth considering. Look for a mandoline with a long enough platform that you can slice long vegetables, such as zucchini. Be sure the surface and hand guard can accommodate large items, such as potatoes. You should be able to slice the vegetables and swap out the blades without your fingers getting too close to the sharp edges. Good mandolines are easy to clean and can be stored safely and compactly.
Why you might not need one. If you have patience and a sharp knife, you may not feel the need to buy a mandoline. If you don’t mind slightly uneven or thicker slices of vegetables, you can live without it. If the thought of your hand in proximity to a very sharp blade is something you cannot wrap your head around, or you can’t fathom adding one more tool to your crowded kitchen, don’t beat yourself up, especially if you have a food processor at your disposal.
Safety. It’s easy to be intimidated by a mandoline, but “if used the right way, it can be safe,” Merker says. She suspects a lot of people ditch the hand guard as soon as they get the mandoline. Not a good idea. “It’s not worth losing your fingertips,” she says.
Hand guards do just that: Protect your paws from the blades. They securely hold the food so you can focus on your slicing motion. If you’ve lost you guard or don’t feel it is effective — ATK dinged some models that did not hold the food securely or mangled it — at the very least, use a cut-resistant glove.
There’s also no reason you can’t use a glove in conjunction with the hand guard. If you insist on no protection whatsoever, know when to stop slicing so your fingers don’t get too close to the blade. A little chunk of leftover vegetable (snack on it! throw it in broth!) is more desirable than a trip to the ER.
How to use it. The best motion for slicing on a mandoline is to have the mandoline handle facing you, Merker says. That way you can push the vegetables away from you and take advantage of your natural momentum. Don’t slice side to side. If you want uniform slices, which is pretty much the whole point, be sure you apply even pressure to the vegetable. Especially with firm or lumpy vegetables, it can help to start by creating a flat surface, so don’t hesitate to use a knife to slice off one edge.
ATK suggests halving large items if necessary and says it’s safer and sturdier to put the food on a cutting board and then press the guard onto it, rather than pointing the prongs up and pushing the food onto them.
What to use it for. “I really want to use the mandoline for harder vegetables that feel like they’re a strain,” Merker says. Potatoes are an obvious choice, as are radishes, fennel, beets and winter squash. It’s helpful for softer foods that you still might want a thin slice on, including pears, zucchini, cucumber, onions and even citrus.
Stay away from softer foods that are more likely to be crushed than sliced, such as tomatoes. Mandolines are not always the most efficient tool for slicing, either. For heads of cabbage or a bunch of Brussels sprouts, Merker prefers the slicing disc of a food processor.
Dishes that benefit from one. Gratins or dishes with scalloped vegetables will make the most use of a mandoline. Chips — apple, beet, potato — also help the tool earn its keep. Thinly sliced fruit atop a tart is another way to go. Julienne vegetables for slaw, salad or, yep, fries. If you’re a fan of quick or regular pickles, the mandoline is your friend.
Merker likes to slice cucumbers so thinly that when tossed with rice vinegar, they’re ready to go immediately on top of a rice bowl. “I think mandolines are really great for ribbons,” she adds, such as zucchini that can be used in lasagna and roll-ups or marinated.