Tool Test

Big-Time Blending

Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, July 16, 2008; Page F01

Seven decades after its debut, the Vita-Mix blender might still be king of the But-That's-Not-All-It-Can-Do appliances. In fact, describing it without lapsing into infomercial-speak is easier said than done. Watch it grind flour, make ice cream, puree veggies into soup -- then heat the soup, too!

The fact is, I've been curious about the Vita-Mix ever since I saw commercials as a child that showed it turning a 2-by-4 into sawdust; not an ingredient in any recipe I could imagine, but such power could not be denied. Millions of them have been sold since the first iteration in 1937, making fans of chefs such as Charlie Trotter.

So when Vita-Mix of Cleveland announced that it was unveiling its first new model in 15 years, promising improvements to the motor, lid and canister design, it was time to test it myself.

But it turned out that I would need to put more than the Vita-Mix through its paces. Waring and Blendtec make models with similar features, selling at comparable (that is, expensive) price points. The main differences between these and less-expensive blenders are the motor (from 2.2 to 3-plus horsepower, three times that of many garbage disposals) and the blades, which are designed to simultaneously cut and smash food at speeds of more than 30,000 revolutions per minute.

Could any or all of them truly do the work of a juicer, blender, food processor, grain mill and ice cream maker?

After weeks of working with the Vita-Mix 5200, the Waring Pro 3HP and the Blendtec Total Blender, I think the answer is: almost, but not quite. Take out the food processor requirement, and any of these blenders could indeed be an all-in-one appliance. Granted, if you already have a fully stocked kitchen, spending $400 or more on such a workhorse might not fit into your budget, especially during tough economic times. But if you're building a kitchen from scratch or putting together a wedding registry, if you're a smoothie addict or if your diet demands lots of fruits and vegetables and perhaps some alternative flours, one of these nifty things might be worth a look.

If you decide to go for it, which one is most worth the outlay?

The Blendtec has two advantages. Computerized technology lets you press one button for a smoothie, another for soup, and so on, launching the blender through a series of speeds in a specific time setting designed for that function. To borrow from another product's infomercial: Set it and forget it. And its smaller profile makes it the only one of the three that can fit inside tight counter-to-cupboard spaces.

The Vita-Mix requires more babysitting than the Blendtec, but I found that it worked better on nut butters and ice cream, thanks to a well-designed tamper that let me push the food right into the blades. And its seven-year warranty is significantly longer than either competitor's. Its 2.2-horsepower motor might seem less powerful on paper than Blendtec's 3-plus and Waring's 3, but motor and blade design can affect how horsepower translates into actual performance. I'm no engineer, but none of these machines seemed to lack for strength.

One thing about the Waring's motor, though, did give me pause. Though both Blendtec and Vita-Mix say they've upgraded their motors to cut down on the risk of overheating, Waring's bare-bones manual seemed to indicate (and the company verified) that the machine should not run for much more than a minute at a time, followed by at least three minutes of cooling off. The Waring seems designed to imitate the Vita-Mix in controls and size but with a crucial difference: It has no tamper, and it needs one. It also arrived with precious little instructional material and no recipes.

Here's how they differed (or didn't) at performing five tasks:

ยท Making whole-food juices and smoothies. Traditional juicers strain out fiber-rich pulp, which often contains many, if not most, of the vitamins and minerals. These mega-blenders just grind it up. It takes a little practice before you can improvise with juices, because some fruits and vegetables have much less water than others. And because there is no straining function, you have to scrub away every last bit of dirt or you might taste grittiness. Follow the included recipes and you're golden.

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