Why do some peelers skin produce with ease while others barely make the cut?
How We Tested
Maybe the wartime cartoonists who depicted military KP duty weren’t directly commenting on how punishing it can be to peel vegetables with a lousy tool, but the images of grimacing soldiers surrounded by piles of potatoes suggest the same point: that dull, inefficient peelers make a mountain of tiresome work out of a simple task.
A good peeler should be fast and smooth, shaving off just enough of the skin to avoid the need for repeat trips over the same section but not so much that the blade digs deeply into the flesh and wastes food. Whatever the task, the peeler should handle bumps and curves with ease and without clogging or losing its edge. And when the work is done, your hand shouldn’t feel worse for the wear.
Those were the standards I kept in mind as I rounded up vegetable peelers to test: 10 models (whittled down from an original roster of 16 after preliminary tests) of various shapes, materials, and prices ($3.50 all the way up to $18). My goal was to see if anything could best our old favorite, the Messermeister Pro-Touch Fine Edge Swivel Peeler. One by one, I put each peeler through produce boot camp, subjecting the tools to lightweight tasks like potatoes, carrots, and apples, as well as more challenging terrain like gnarly celery root, tough-skinned butternut squash, delicate ripe tomatoes, and knobby ginger. I also ran a precision test by pulling each blade across pieces of Parmesan cheese and chocolate, noting whether the peelers chipped at and stumbled along the blocks or if they pulled off long, elegant curls.
By the end of testing, all but three of the peelers had passed muster. Even better, we found two models that tackled every task effortlessly, including a dark horse that narrowly eked out the win.
Mind the Gap
Peelers are simple tools—basically evolved paring knives with double blades—and with the exception of a few innovative designs, most models can be classified in one of two categories based on the orientation of the blade to the handle. On “straight” peelers, the blade extends directly out from the handle; “Y” peelers look like wishbones, with a blade running perpendicular to the handle. In practice, they function similarly: You can both whittle away from yourself and pare toward yourself.
Right off the bat, I discovered that, with one exception, the type of material used to make the blade wasn’t a tipping point for how a peeler performed. While the lone ceramic blade had dulled and discolored by the end of testing, the other nine stainless or carbon steel blades came away more or less unscathed. So what accounted for why some models removed peels with ease while others struggled? After closer scrutiny, I realized that it boiled down to a handful of subtle design distinctions.
First: the distance between the peeler’s blade and the bridge that arches across it, holding it at each end. Ideally, this gap measured about an inch at its highest point; any narrower and the peels got stuck in the opening, forcing testers to tediously stop and off-load the waste by hand. The OXO was a good example of this, as its 1/2-inch opening clogged frequently. Worse, the space on the Chef’n peeler was so tight that chocolate curls shattered and vegetable peels didn’t lift away. Conversely, models with wider apertures discarded peels easily but lacked leverage and control.
Cutting Edge Design
Another significant design detail lies in how the blade of a vegetable peeler is constructed. The reason peelers have two parallel blades is that the leading half of the blade—the one that travels first as you pull or push the peeler over the food—acts as a guide for the cutting edge that follows.
This “guide” blade doesn’t cut: It just holds the cutting blade at a fixed angle and depth, so it skims along taking off the peel, rather than bouncing off the top of the food or digging too deeply and sticking. The entire peeler blade rotates to follow the curves of the food, so the guide and blade stay in the same relationship to the surface of the food, peeling consistently.
However, depending on the relative positions of the guide and blade, some peelers, such as the Calphalon model, dug in too deeply, taking off too much food with each stroke, while others (the OXO and Rachael Ray models) skimmed too shallowly or bounced off, requiring many extra strokes to skin a vegetable.
Then there was the ride itself: how fluidly—or, in several cases, jerkily—the peeler moved across the surface. Not surprisingly, potatoes and carrots were smooth sailing for most models. It was the gnarly, tendril-wreathed celery root and curvy fresh ginger that weeded out the weaker peelers, but we didn’t understand why until we consulted Dr. Daniel Braunstein, a senior lecturer in mechanical engineering from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He explained that a good guide should reduce friction and, in turn, surface drag. But the most important distinction he pointed out was that two of our top three peelers sported a raised ridge running along the front of the guide. This ridge has two purposes: It reinforces the guide’s stiffness, and because it protrudes, it means that less of the guide’s surface will be in contact with the food, allowing the peeler to glide like butter.
One of those two ridged models was our all-around winner. It's a featherweight (3/8 of an ounce), but surprisingly sturdy, and its razor-sharp blade effortlessly skinned anything we threw at it—and at $3.50, it’s a steal. Alternatively, for those who prefer a straight peeler, our former favorite followed close behind.
We measured time and average peel thickness as we pared potatoes and carrots. We also peeled bumpy celery root, tough butternut squash, ripe tomatoes, and knobby ginger root and made Parmesan shavings and chocolate curls. Peelers rated highest if they were smooth and efficient in all tests, with minimal food waste.
Ease of Use
We rated each peeler on how easy and comfortable it was to use on a variety of foods, averaging the impressions of testers with varying hand sizes.
We considered weight, shape, material, and other factors that contributed to comfort, efficiency, and durability. As a final test, we compared the peelers we’d used in the testings with new versions of each tool while peeling apples, assessing whether they had lost sharpness over the course of testing.