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December/January 2018

Inexpensive Blenders

Our winning midrange and high-end blenders are excellent—but pricey. Could we find a decent option for less than $100?

How We Tested

The Breville Hemisphere Control ($199.95) and the Vitamix 5200 ($449.00), our winning midrange and high-end blenders, respectively, are great. The Vitamix gets finer results, but they’re both uniquely capable and durable—and expensive. Could we find a good blender for less than $100.00 for those who can’t, or don’t want to, spend more?

To find out, we selected seven top sellers, priced from $60.68 to $99.99, and conducted a taxing series of tests looking at food quality, ease of use, and durability.

What You Sacrifice with a Cheaper Blender

Flash forward three weeks to our final gauntlet—almond butter—and its aftermath.

One blender is fully dead, smoke wafting from its buttons. Two are playing dead. A massacre. And the four survivors have taken forever to produce so-so results. We tried this hard test to see if they could do the same things as the pricier blenders. The answer? Not quite.

But grinding almonds into a paste is challenging, and not everyone wants to make nut butter, pulverize wheat berries, or crack farro. Some folks just want a darn margarita. Or a smoothie. Or some soup. For them, we found a very good blender.

How Blender Jar Design Affects Performance

But first, let’s cut to earlier, when all seven blenders were still alive and kicking. Throughout testing we noticed that some blended their contents nicely, while others left large chunks of food behind, up to ⅓ cup. We compared power; blade shape, size, and positioning; and jar shape and size across all our machines, but we found no blanket explanation for why some blended better than others. Instead, small differences in blade shape and orientation, jar design, and power allowed some blenders to create better movement inside their jars so that all the food moved down onto the blades, around, and up again.

We noticed that food inside wider jars, more than 5 inches across, was bashed about, incorporating extra air; we had to scrape them down more, too. We preferred blenders with narrower jars, as they kept their contents more contained so that their blends were dense and smooth, not frothy, and they required fewer scrape-downs.

Our winner had the narrowest jar, 4.25 inches, plus three deep vertical ribs running up its sides. At the bottom of the jar, the ribs curved into little ramps designed to direct food from the bottom of the jar up, around, and down again. And they really worked. We could see the food traveling along them and down onto the blades quickly and efficiently, and the results were notably smooth.

Small Quantities and Staining in Blenders

We often use blenders to makes sauces, dressings, and dips, which can have pungent ingredients or smaller volumes. To see if the jars would stain or retain odors, we processed chipotle peppers and garlic in each machine. We then tried to make mayonnaise to see how they fared with a small amount of ingredients. Some stained more than others, and four of seven couldn’t make mayonnaise. Mayo is especially tricky because it’s a small-volume recipe that has to be combined at a slow, even rate to emulsify properly. Two of the blenders’ blades were set too high in relation to the shape of their jars, so they couldn’t reach the ingredients underneath to combine them. And three of our blenders had low speeds that were simply too fast—between 10,000 and 20,000 rotations per minute (rpm)—which prevented the mixture from emulsifying. Blenders with slower low speeds, less than roughly 8,500 rpm, were more likely to be able to emulsify.

A Blender That’s Easy to Use

We also found major differences in how easy the blenders were to operate. We preferred control panels with easy-to-press, clearly labeled buttons; lighter plastic jars to heavier glass ones; and jars that were easy to attach, detach, and pour from.

Our top-rated model was simple to operate and blended exceptionally well. It couldn’t make almond butter, but its overheat protection system automatically stopped its motor so it wouldn’t burn out while trying to. We still think the Breville and the Vitamix are superior, as they can tackle any project, but for simple blending tasks, our winner, the Black + Decker Performance FusionBlade Blender ($80.26), is an excellent choice.

Methodology

We tested seven blenders, priced from $60.68 to $99.99, against our winning midrange blender, the Breville Hemisphere Control ($199.95). To see how well they blended, we made batches of green smoothies, strawberry margaritas, and creamy tomato soup, and we crushed ice. We also combined a potent mixture of chipotles in adobo and garlic cloves in each machine to check for staining and odor retention, and we washed the jars and their lids 10 times in the dishwasher or by hand, depending on manufacturer instructions. A mayonnaise test showed us how well the blenders worked with a small-volume recipe in which the ingredients must be combined slowly at the correct rate to emulsify. As a final abuse test, we tried to make almond butter in each blender.

Blending and Ice Crushing: We made fresh kale, frozen pineapple, and orange juice smoothies; blended strawberry margaritas; pureed tomato soup; and crushed ice in each blender. The best blenders made completely smooth drinks and soups, incorporating minimal air, and fluffy, white, fully pulverized crushed ice.

Mayonnaise: By emulsifying eggs and oil into mayonnaise, we evaluated the blenders’ lower speeds and the holes in their lids that are used to add ingredients while the blender is running; the best models produced smooth, creamy mayonnaise on the first try.

Almond Butter: We tried to make almond butter in each blender; those that were able to grind the almonds to a smooth consistency rated highest.

Cleaning and Handling: We rated each blender on how easy its jar and lid were to attach and remove, how easy the jar was to pour from, and how easy it was to clean.

Controls and Operation: We rated each blender on how logical, intuitive, and easy to operate it was.

Noise Level: Noise is measured in decibels on a scale of zero to 140. We noted how loud the blenders were throughout testing and measured them with a decibel meter, noting a range of roughly 80 decibels (comparable to the dial tone of a telephone) to 100 decibels (comparable to a drill). Those that stayed under 95 decibels rated highest.

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The Results

Winner
Recommended

Design Trifecta 360 Knife Block

$33.31*

Design Trifecta 360 Knife Block

Admittedly expensive, this handsome block certainly seemed to live up to its billing as “the last knife block you ever have to buy.” The heaviest model in our testing, this block was ultrastable, and its durable bamboo exterior was a breeze to clean. Well-placed medium-strength magnets made it easy to attach all our knives, and a rotating base gave us quick access to them. One tiny quibble: The blade of our 12-inch slicing knife stuck out a little

Winner
Recommended

Lodge Classic Cast Iron Skillet, 12"

$33.31*

Lodge Classic Cast Iron Skillet, 12"

Our old winner arrived with the slickest preseasoned interior and only got better. Broad enough to cook two big steaks, it browned foods deeply, and its thorough seasoning ensured that our acidic pan sauce picked up no off-flavors. Though its handle is short, the pan has a helper handle that made lifting easy. It survived abuse testing without a scratch. An excellent pan, at an excellent price, that you’ll never have to replace.

Lodge Classic Cast Iron Skillet, 12"

$33.31*

Lodge Classic Cast Iron Skillet, 12"

Our old winner arrived with the slickest preseasoned interior and only got better. Broad enough to cook two big steaks, it browned foods deeply, and its thorough seasoning ensured that our acidic pan sauce picked up no off-flavors. Though its handle is short, the pan has a helper handle that made lifting easy. It survived abuse testing without a scratch. An excellent pan, at an excellent price, that you’ll never have to replace.

Winner
Recommended

Lodge Classic Cast Iron Skillet, 12"

$33.31*

Lodge Classic Cast Iron Skillet, 12"

Our old winner arrived with the slickest preseasoned interior and only got better. Broad enough to cook two big steaks, it browned foods deeply, and its thorough seasoning ensured that our acidic pan sauce picked up no off-flavors. Though its handle is short, the pan has a helper handle that made lifting easy. It survived abuse testing without a scratch. An excellent pan, at an excellent price, that you’ll never have to replace.

Lodge Classic Cast Iron Skillet, 12"

$33.31*

Lodge Classic Cast Iron Skillet, 12"

Our old winner arrived with the slickest preseasoned interior and only got better. Broad enough to cook two big steaks, it browned foods deeply, and its thorough seasoning ensured that our acidic pan sauce picked up no off-flavors. Though its handle is short, the pan has a helper handle that made lifting easy. It survived abuse testing without a scratch. An excellent pan, at an excellent price, that you’ll never have to replace.

Winner
Recommended

Lodge Classic Cast Iron Skillet, 12"

$33.31*

Lodge Classic Cast Iron Skillet, 12"

Our old winner arrived with the slickest preseasoned interior and only got better. Broad enough to cook two big steaks, it browned foods deeply, and its thorough seasoning ensured that our acidic pan sauce picked up no off-flavors. Though its handle is short, the pan has a helper handle that made lifting easy. It survived abuse testing without a scratch. An excellent pan, at an excellent price, that you’ll never have to replace.

Lodge Classic Cast Iron Skillet, 12"

$33.31*

Lodge Classic Cast Iron Skillet, 12"

Our old winner arrived with the slickest preseasoned interior and only got better. Broad enough to cook two big steaks, it browned foods deeply, and its thorough seasoning ensured that our acidic pan sauce picked up no off-flavors. Though its handle is short, the pan has a helper handle that made lifting easy. It survived abuse testing without a scratch. An excellent pan, at an excellent price, that you’ll never have to replace.

Winner
Recommended

Lodge Classic Cast Iron Skillet, 12"

$33.31*

Lodge Classic Cast Iron Skillet, 12"

Our old winner arrived with the slickest preseasoned interior and only got better. Broad enough to cook two big steaks, it browned foods deeply, and its thorough seasoning ensured that our acidic pan sauce picked up no off-flavors. Though its handle is short, the pan has a helper handle that made lifting easy. It survived abuse testing without a scratch. An excellent pan, at an excellent price, that you’ll never have to replace.

Lodge Classic Cast Iron Skillet, 12"

$33.31*

Lodge Classic Cast Iron Skillet, 12"

Our old winner arrived with the slickest preseasoned interior and only got better. Broad enough to cook two big steaks, it browned foods deeply, and its thorough seasoning ensured that our acidic pan sauce picked up no off-flavors. Though its handle is short, the pan has a helper handle that made lifting easy. It survived abuse testing without a scratch. An excellent pan, at an excellent price, that you’ll never have to replace.