If a luxury product isn’t already mainstream, the surest way to create national awareness is appearing in a Saturday Night Live skit — buckle your seatbelt before clicking if you haven’t seen this famously NSFW Moët & Chandon infomercial. Last year, SNL gave the 94-year-old deluxe blender company Vitamix its moment in the spotlight: an infomercial spoof where two friends discussed Vitamix-made smoothies, only to devolve into an argument over their comparative financial status and priorities.
The spoof was funny, but it also raised a serious question I’m tackling in this week’s Kitchen Tech: is a fancy countertop blender worth ten times as much as a basic model? Professional chefs have repeatedly told me “yes,” praising the power and long-term durability of Vitamix’s entry-level $350 blenders compared with essentially disposable consumer models: a Vitamix can chop pretty much anything to your preferred texture, notably producing silky-smooth soups and drinks, and operate continuously in commercial-grade settings without the need for repairs. I’ve used and loved a Vitamix for years, but there are also some inexpensive blenders that can produce impressive results using lesser-known magic tricks. Let’s dive right in…
While SNL focused on the $650 Vitamix Pro Series 750 (shown, right) for comedic effect, Vitamix actually sells blenders with street prices starting at $300 (reconditioned) to $350 (new, such as the S30 Personal Blender shown at left). To put those prices in some perspective, basic blenders designed to make smoothies can be had for $35, though the cheap models cut corners: their inexpensive plastic containers, blades, and motors are typically designed just well enough to last through their one-year warranties. By comparison, Ohio-based Vitamix builds its products in the United States with at least 70% American parts, offering five- to seven-year warranties across its lineup.
“You get what you pay for” is the basic pitch Vitamix makes for its products. On its web site, a page titled “Engineered to Change Your Life” shows powder-level pulverization of slippery black beans, full- and thick-metal blade assemblies, container design and ventilation characteristics. I’m not typically a big fan of hyperbolic marketing pitches, and even as a Vitamix fan, I’ll be the first one to note that none of these things get considered when most people are buying blenders.
But thoughtful, quality touches are the keys to making a Vitamix special, and in real-world use, they’re not trivial. Because of those superb blades, you can drop intact fruits, vegetables, nuts and other solids into a Vitamix blender and see them reduced to juices, creams, and pastes within seconds. Recipes for cold Spanish soups calling for large tomatoes, small almonds, or cloves of garlic require little more than washing the ingredients before they hit the Vitamix blades; using a dial, the final texture can be set to the fineness or coarseness you desire. Prefer your soup warm? The Vitamix can heat liquids up on its own — without burning out its motor.
The most amazing part is one I didn’t believe until I saw it myself: the cleanup process. Rather than manually scraping stuff off the blending container and tossing it in the dishwasher, cleaning requires only that you fill it with water, briefly run it, then add soapy water for a final rinse. This is only possible because the blades and the container have been designed to prevent anything from sticking to them, and actually work. Before owning a Vitamix, I thought such a simple cleaning procedure was impossible for a blender; it was always necessary to uncomfortably dig fingers into little recesses near the blades to remove chunks of food. Properly shaping and texturing the blender’s parts eliminates that issue.
Are these sorts of conveniences worth a hefty premium? The answer honestly depends a lot more on your financial philosophy than anything else. My wife and I owned a bunch of blenders before the Vitamix, ranging from hand-me-downs to entry and mid-range Cuisinarts and KitchenAids. They all broke or lost blade sharpness to a point of becoming non-functional. That’s why we started researching better-quality alternatives. We could have spent $80 to $100 on a good enough KitchenAid that looks nice enough and works pretty well for a year or two before requiring replacement — but after doing this a few times, we’d already spent as much as we would have on a Vitamix. If we’d just made the right choice early on, we would have enjoyed better results with easier cleanup for at least the length of the five-year warranty.
The Vitamix we own is the earlier version of the Vitamix 5200, which can be had from Amazon for $475 to $495 (reg. $550) depending on your color preference. It comes with a seven-year warranty, and regardless of whether you want to use it for making soups, blending anything you might need for a larger recipe, or simply making smoothies, you’ll be astonished by how capable and easily cleaned it is.
If you’re looking for an affordable blender that can produce more minor miracles – but still enough to wow people – what I’d recommend is an immersion hand blender like this #1 Amazon best-selling $35 Cuisinart Smart Stick (reg. $65). The price is lower because it’s smaller, has fewer parts, and is designed for more specific uses. Although the cord isn’t shown in this photo, the Smart Stick plugs into an outlet and operates a tiny steel blade using a 200-watt motor. The bottom part can be submerged in liquids and detached for easy washing, while the powered top portion is kept away from your dishwasher or sink. This one has two speeds – an optional frill – but for the asking price, it’s a great little blender. Thirteen different colors are available.
What can an immersion blender do? Well, it can be used in bowls or pots to blend soups, mix batters, and blend drinks. But it can also be used in avant garde recipes such as this famous José Andrés cocktail creation, the Salt Air Margarita (recipe). Placing an immersion blender in a mix of water, lime juice, salt, and either sucro or soy lecithin lets you whip up a salty foam that covers the top of a margarita, replacing the coarse salt that most commonly rims the drink.
Inspired by bubbling sea foam, this “air” (as Andrés calls it) is far superior to hard salt for margaritas, perfectly using light saltiness and bitterness to bring out the cocktail’s sweet and sour flavors. A similar technique can be used to make airs/foams for savory dishes, as shown below.
That leads nicely into the topic of my next Kitchen Tech column: a different type of technique and tools from anything discussed here before. I can’t wait to share it with you next week.
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