How Food Processors Work

Cuisinart DLC-2011BC Prep 11 Plus Food Processor
Cuisinart DLC-2011BC Prep 11 Plus Food Processor
Photo courtesy Consumer Guide Products

A food processor is a versatile kitchen appliance that can quickly and easily chop, slice, shred, grind, and puree almost any food. Some models can also assist the home cook in making citrus and vegetable juice, beating cake batter, kneading bread dough, beating egg whites, and grinding meats and vegetables.

­­­The food processor was introduced to the North American market in 1973 by engineer Carl Sontheimer, who had spent a year adapting a French industrial blender for the home cook. It took a few years for consumers to realize how useful the new appliance could be, but once they did, the food processor became a bestseller. Sontheimer's invention revolutionized food preparation in home kitchens around the world.

In this article, we'll learn about food processors and how to use them to perform common kitchen tasks. We'll also walk you through an easy recipe for your food processor.

The Basic Components

Modern food processors come in three basic sizes: full, compact, and mini. No matter what size they are, however, the basic components are the same: a motor, a bowl with a lid and feed tube, and a set of attachments.

The motor is housed in the base of the appliance, and it is the heaviest part of the device. Full-size machines generally have larger, more powerful motors, and can weigh more than 20 lbs (9 kg). This weight has a utilitarian value: The heaviness of the base gives the appliance stability and ensures that it doesn't move around while the motor is running. Though the first food processor bases were clad only in white, hard plastic, today they are available in a range of stylish colors and with metal and plastic finishes, ensuring that your appliance will fit in with your kitchen decor.

From the motor, a shaft extends upward to power the attachments. The bowl, which is usually made of durable, transparent plastic, fits onto this shaft and locks into position. The lid, usually made of the same material, locks onto the top of the bowl; in many older models, engaging the locking mechanism turns on the motor, but newer models generally have an on/off switch or button.

The lid has a feed tube fitted with a plunger. You can insert food into the device through this feed tube, pushing it down with the plunger. Some models have wider and narrower feed tubes for use with larger and smaller food items. The size of the bowl varies according to the size of the machine:

  • Full-size bowls generally have a capacity of 9 to 13 cups.
  • Compact-size bowls can accommodate 5 to 7 cups.
  • Mini-size bowls can fit 2 to 5 cups.

Some models come with large and small bowls for use with the same base.

In the next section, we'll look at the attachments that do a food processor's slicing ­and dicing.

Food Processor Attachments

KitchenAid KFPDCS 5-Disc Set
KitchenAid KFPDCS 5-Disc Set
Photo courtesy Consumer Guide Products

In a basic food processor, the attachments fit over the shaft inside the bowl. Standard attachments for a food processor are an S-shaped blade -- also known as a sabatier blade -- and shredding and slicing discs.

The sabatier blade sits at the bottom of the bowl. It consists of two small, curved blades arranged on opposite sides of a central plastic pillar that fits onto the shaft inside the bowl. The blades of the sabatier are usually made of metal, but are sometimes made of hard plastic. You may find that metal blades are preferable because they retain their sharpness longer.

The shredding and slicing discs are made of metal and sit at the top of the bowl, over the shaft. You push food down the feed tube and it contacts the disc, at which point it is grated or sliced into the bowl. The holes on the shredding and slicing discs may yield fine, medium, or coarse bits of food. You can purchase these different versions of the discs separately if they are not included with your food processor.

Getting Fancy

In addition to the standard attachments that came with your food processor, you can supplement your equipment and make your appliance more versatile by buying additional attachments.

Other common attachments include:

  • A dough blade - This blade is made of plastic or metal and has straighter (less curved) paddles than the sabatier blade. You use this to make dough for bread and pizza.
  • An egg whip - This attachment has two straight arms with large open paddles at the ends. You use this to beat egg whites and whipping cream, incorporating sufficient air to ensure a fluffy end product.
  • A julienne disc - This piece has a row of protruding, short, sharp teeth. You use this to cut food into long, thin matchsticks.
  • A French fry disc - This is similar to the julienne disc but yields larger, fatter pieces.
  • A citrus juicer - This is a dome-shaped attachment that fits on top of the shaft and turns to squeeze the juice from oranges, grapefruits, lemons, limes, etc.
  • A non-citrus juicer - This purees fruits and vegetables introduced into the feed tube, collecting the pulp in the middle and straining the juice into the bottom of the bowl.

You can also find a special container to hold all of the attachments in one place, and extra work bowls, which can be handy if you are making several things in the food processor and don't want to wash out the bowl between tasks.

Also, as mentioned, some models have different-sized feed tubes and bowls that can be used with the same base. These can help you perform a range of tasks without having to buy two different appliances.

How to Use Your Food Processor

KitchenAid KFP670 Professional Food Processor
KitchenAid KFP670 Professional Food Processor
Photo courtesy Consumer Guide Products

Okay, you've got a food processor with all the accessories you need. Now how do you use it?

The shredding disc quickly and efficiently grates common ingredients like cheese and carrots, and the slicing disc yields perfectly even slices of potatoes and apples in no time at all. You just push the food through the feed tube using the plunger.

Chopping, grinding and pureeing involve a little more technique. Let's illustrate this by learning how to make fresh salsa using your processor.

A Basic Salsa Recipe

You know that fresh salsa contains vegetables such as tomatoes and hot chilies; it can also incorporate ingredients like scallions, garlic, and fresh coriander. You might be tempted to just throw all your ingredients into the food processor and turn it on, but you'll end up with something more like gazpacho soup than salsa.

It's better to work in stages, because the different ingredients in your salsa will have different textures: You want the chilies and garlic pureed so that their flavor is distributed evenly throughout; you want the scallions and coriander finely chopped but not pureed, so that small green pieces are visible; and you want your tomatoes in bite-sized chunks. To achieve this variation in size and texture, you're going to have to introduce the ingredients one or two at a time, processing them in turn.

Since the garlic and chilies need the most processing, let's start with them. Peel a clove of garlic, remove the stem from a hot chili, and throw them in the bottom of your food processor bowl. Then turn it on. You'll see that the garlic and chili quickly get chopped up, but if your bowl is large, you might find that they get thrown against the side, away from the blades. You will have to turn off the motor and scrape down the bowl, putting the food pieces nearer to the blades again. (Many food processors come with a small plastic spatula for this purpose.)

You will also find that adding a bit of liquid (a tablespoon of fresh lime juice, water or olive oil would be perfect for your salsa) will help ensure that food thrown against the side of the bowl drips back down to the bottom rather quickly. You'll also find that using a pulse action -- turning on the motor for one second, turning it off for one second, then turning it on again for one second -- gives the food time to drip down near the blades. Pulsing is one of the most important food-processor techniques; it allows you to keep an eye on the texture of your food to ensure that you don't over-process it.

After 10 to 15 one-second pulses, and several scrape-downs, your garlic and chilies should be pureed. Now let's add the scallion and coriander. Be sure that you wash all the vegetables well, and trim off the roots and ragged bits. Take the plunger out of the feed tube, throw in a scallion and a small handful of coriander, replace the plunger, and use five one-second pulses to chop up the greens, scraping down the sides of the bowl halfway through.

Now, the tomatoes. First, cut them in half lengthwise, then into quarters, and cut off the stem tip. Now feed the tomato chunks into the bowl through the feed tube (with the motor off), and process them with three or four one-second pulses. Voila! Easy salsa, beautifully prepared. Pour your masterpiece into a bowl, season with salt to taste, and grab some corn chips!

For more information on food processors and related topics, check out the links on the next page.

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