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The Chef's Secret Weapon

Dangerous to use but exquisitely efficient, the mandoline will ensure that you aren’t losing precious time slicing those vegetables—just make sure you don’t lose a finger. Chad Ward presents five facts about the culinary tool.

11.03.09 10:17 PM ET

1. These things are dangerous.

Just as working chefs invariably have a mandoline—the French spelling is used to distinguish the culinary tool from the musical instrument—in their kits, they also have scars on their knuckles, and every one has a mandoline horror story. To use a mandoline, in fact, you must slide your hand toward a sharp blade. The best ones have a workable hand guard that holds the food in place while keeping your precious digits from ending up in the Caesar salad. Some even have the hand guard on rails so you can’t screw up. Treat your mandoline with the same respect you treat your chef’s knives—possibly even more. After all, you rarely swipe your hand directly into the blade of your chef’s knife.

Coleslaw for a crowd and gratin by the cubic yard are not a problem if you have a mandoline in your arsenal.

2. The hand guard is really important.

Use the hand guard! If it isn’t big enough to hold the product or doesn’t grip securely, invest in a cut-proof glove or use a folded side towel to grab the veggie in question before slicing and dicing. Some chefs freehand it, but see the previous note about scars. They all have them. Watch your fingers. Don’t try to get every last slice out of the vegetable. Stop while you still have something to hold on to. Save the leftovers for the stockpot instead of trying to get the last chip from a potato or shred from a carrot—that’s a recipe for pain. If you must eke out the last bit of vegetable, take a tip from the pros: Don’t grip the veg with your fingers. Lay your palm flat on the food with your fingers arced upward to ensure that everything is well above the blade when you slide that last bit through.

3. You don’t need a mandoline (but they’re damned handy).

A mandoline is part of every working chef’s toolbox. But do you need one in your kitchen? Not really. If you have even modest knife skills and don’t do a lot of entertaining, you can do anything and everything you ever need to do in a kitchen with just a chef’s knife and paring knife. That gets tedious, however, if you need to turn out large quantities of fine julienne or produce a boatload of precisely sliced vegetables in a hurry. That’s where a mandoline comes in handy. You can produce pounds of matchstick carrots and heaps of uniform potatoes or apple slices in a fraction of the time it would take to do it by hand. Coleslaw for a crowd and gratin by the cubic yard are not a problem if you have a mandoline in your kitchen arsenal.

An example from my own life: Not long ago, our CSA box yielded more sweet potatoes than any family could reasonably eat. While a pot of oil heated on the stovetop, I adjusted the blade on a heavy-duty mandoline, taking a couple of test swipes with a sweet potato to get the slice just slightly thicker than whisper thin—a feat not readily repeatable with a chef’s knife, no matter how much practice you’ve had. While the first double handful of sweet potato chips were crisping up in the oil, I ran a couple of more sweet potatoes across the blade of the mandoline, slicing the next batch as each pot cooked to golden brown. The net result was about four pounds of sweet potato chips in barely more than the time it took to heat the oil. I’ve got decent knife skills, but there is no way I could have done that as quickly or uniformly as I could with a mandoline. Whether you are frying potato chips or julienning vegetables for a side dish, consistently cut vegetables cook more evenly, ensuring that everything reaches doneness at the same time. And, yes, for the skeptics, mandolines cut more precisely and uniformly than even the most expensive food processor.

4. Three types fit all budgets.

While they all are built on the same basic pattern, a fixed blade set into an adjustable ramp, mandolines come in three basic varieties. At the top of the pecking order are the all-metal, French or French-inspired traditional mandolines with interchangeable blades. These are expensive and sizable enough to require dedicated storage space. On the upside, they are sturdy, tend to have well-designed hand guards, and the blades can be resharpened or replaced if they become dull. Expect to spend $150 to $200 (and in one special case, $300). Most come with a crinkle-cut blade that will allow you to make gaufrettes, or waffle fries—something lacking in most of the cheaper plastic varieties.

Next up are the inexpensive plastic-bodied mandolines and V-slicers. Some don’t have the foldout legs of the metal French-style mandolines and instead hook over the lip of a bowl. Some don’t even have adjustable platforms. The center section of the ramp is reversible; one side producing thicker slices, the other thinner. On the plus side, these mandolines are lightweight and don’t require a lot of storage room. If you only occasionally need a mandoline, an inexpensive plastic model will do everything you need with relatively little outlay. Most are in the $30 to $40 range. Also, most can be run through the dishwasher for easy cleanup.

The third type is the relatively recent paddle-style mandolin. These are small, plastic-bodied slicers with a ceramic blade set into a short platform at the end of a handle. There are indents to hook the far end on the lip of a bowl. The depth of cut is adjustable to multiple settings, but there is no julienne blade. For whipping out sliced cucumbers for a salad or a single tart’s worth of apples, these sub-$20 slicers are hard to beat, and they’re small enough to keep in a kitchen drawer and are completely dishwasher safe. The hand guards are rudimentary at best, though.

5. You get what you pay for (mostly).

Having spent several years researching kitchen tools, I have some firm opinions about what makes a good mandoline, and, more important, who makes a good mandoline. While Bron and Matfer are the classic examples of the traditional French-style mandoline (and both are very good), the mack daddy of heavy-duty mandolines comes from Shun, the kitchen knife company out of Oregon. Shun’s mandoline is big, it’s heavy, it’s expensive...and it is awesome. The Shun mandoline is everything a mandoline should be. The VG10 (modern supersteel) blade is head and shoulders above the steel used in most mandolines. The chassis is so much sturdier and safer than the traditional French mandoline that there is truly no comparison. The hand guard is on a rail so each stroke is precise and safe. The only downside is storage space. The Shun mandoline takes up a lot of room. If you have a small catering operation, a deli, or even a church kitchen, the Shun is hands-down the best mandoline on the market. It’s overkill for most home kitchens, though. Owners will struggle to figure out where to put this beast.

In the next tier down, we find the inexpensive mandolines most used by home cooks. Readers might be surprised to know that these are also the most used mandolines among professional cooks, who rely on the Benriner Japanese mandoline to knock out restaurant quantities of precision vegetables with remarkable speed. Benriner is also my recommendation for home cooks. At this price point, it is hard to beat. The blades are razor sharp and the ramp is finely adjustable. Chefs love this thing for its ease of use and portability, which translates to easy storage for the home cook. Be aware that the instruction booklet reads like it was translated by a third grader. Fortunately, the mandoline itself is reasonably self-explanatory and usually comes with three julienne widths but no waffle-cut blade.

If you only have the need, budget, or storage space for a small paddle mandoline, Kyocera makes a perfect slicer for you. It is small, fits easily in a standard kitchen utility drawer, and does yeoman duty when called upon. Just don’t expect to slice butternut squash with one and you’ll be happy.

There you have it. If you need to deliver large quantities of vegetables—even if only occasionally—you need a mandoline. Doing the same thing with a chef’s knife is a pain. Pay attention to what you are doing. Keep your speed steady and reasonable. Use the hand guard, cut-proof glove, or side towel to keep your fingers out of harm’s way. Be smart. Be safe. Keep these tips in mind and you can turn out restaurant quantities of precision vegetables in record time.

Plus: Check out Hungry Beast for more news on the latest restaurants, hot chefs, and tasty recipes.

Veteran writer and cook Chad Ward is the author of An Edge in the Kitchen: The Ultimate Guide to Kitchen Knives, named one of Slate.com’s Best Books of 2008  and the Chicago Tribune’s Favorite Food Books of 2008. To date, more than 500,000 people have taken Chad’s online knife sharpening class on eGullet.org. He lives in North Carolina.