There are three types of cooks: those who own a mandoline, those who covet their neighbor's mandoline and those who think that a mandoline is a string instrument (that word is spelled mandolin).
A mandoline is a manual countertop contraption that can slice, julienne, shred, crinkle or waffle-cut large quantities in a relatively short amount of time. It is, arguably, nonessential kitchen equipment -- unless you're the type who prefers hands-on precision, can appreciate a perfect julienne of green papaya, craves cabbage shredded just so for slaw, envies a perfectly French-cut fry or waffle-cut chip, catches his breath at the almost-diaphanous cast of a cucumber shaved lengthwise, or who simply slices a lot of potatoes and apples for gratins and tartes Tatin.
If your heart just skipped a beat, you really ought to consider one.
But which one? Mandolines come in dozens of versions, from $19 plastic gizmos good only for infrequent use to imposing stainless-steel slicers that go for $190. Each consists of a similar setup: There are adjustable and interchangeable blades that allow for slices varying from paper-thin to up to half an inch thick (as well as additional blades that can be used to julienne, waffle cut and to shred); a runway or path along which the ingredient is pushed against the blades; and a pusher-cum-safety guard of some sort that holds the food in place, protects fingertips from the razor-sharp blade and prevents the undertaking from turning into a B-rated horror flick.
Three years ago, I set out to give a few mandolines a test drive with a couple of pounds of potatoes, hoping to find the mandoline most likely to make my life easier and least likely to endanger my already scarred hands.
A lot of cursing, dangerously difficult-to-adjust blades and mangled heaps of vegetables later, I can tell you that the distinctions between mandolines are significant and that each model has special drawbacks. Except for one.
Tips and Techniques
When in doubt, consult the instruction manual.
Many mandolines can be placed directly on top of a bowl rather than on the counter to catch the food as it falls.
To ensure stability, place the mandoline or the bowl upon which it rests on a damp towel.
Do not attempt to slice the last nubbin of fruit or vegetable. Slice it by hand, nibble it or toss it in the trash. It's not worth the extra Band-Aids.