While you can do pretty much any cutting task with just three or four knives, consistently thin slices require some serious knife skills — or a sweet little gadget from hell called a mandoline.
I recently found a simplified mandoline that has some great advantages. But first, why is thin slicing so critical and what elevates the mandoline from the gadget category to almost a must-have? And how can it be both a must-have and a gadget from hell?
Thin, Thin, Thinner
Ultra-thin slices make potato chips crispy. Fibrous vegetables like fennel become tender and juicy, bursting with flavor. Finely sliced carrots become like noodles. Strong ingredients like parmesan, chocolate, and truffles meld with the dish and melt on the tongue when shaved paper thin.
When slicing something really, really thin, consistency is key. While a variation of a millimeter or two makes little difference when you're cutting, say, 1/4-inch (6 mm) slices, a variation of even a fraction of a millimeter in paper-thin slices means some pieces will take twice as long to cook or a desired texture will be lost.
Enter the mandoline. We talked about them before, in the making of a celery-fennel salad. A very sharp blade is mounted so its edge barley protrudes above a platform. When food slides across the platform, a consistently thin slice is taken with each stroke. It's precise and very fast.
Fear of Slicing
But there are liabilities. First, is safety. The blade is very, very, very sharp and fingers fly past the blade, very close and very fast. The finger guards are hard to use and are often ineffective. A foodie friend told me about a time he demonstrated the mandoline for his daughters. While he stressed how careful one must be, his attention strayed and the rest of the story includes the words, "chunk of thumb." (His daughters have never touched the mandoline). I have a similar story, also involving "chunk of thumb." I'll tell you that mandoline cut is painful and takes a long time to heal.
Gadget from hell.
There is a great remedy: The cut-resistant glove. Made of Kevlar, a super-tough fiber, these gloves withstand nasty blades. They cost about $15. I am still very careful with the mandoline but the glove is a great insurance policy.
A Simplified Mandoline
Mandolines can be costly (some cost as little as $20 but many cost several hundred dollars). Some are complex, finicky, with loose parts. They can be large and hard to store. And frankly, many of the very expensive models don't work that well, according to tests in several of the cooking magazines.
I had a cheap, plastic mandoline. It had some flaws but worked reasonably well. Recently, I threw it out when I discovered the Kyocera CSN-202-RD Adjustable Mandoline Slicer. It's just about perfect.
It's small and stores flat (hint: A couple of rubber bands hold the finger guard to the platform and protect it in the drawer). It's easy to use — turn a bar on the underside to set the depth, put your glove on, and slice away.
The blade is ceramic, which means it never needs sharpening, won't corrode, and cuts very smoothly. I normally don't like ceramic knives because the ceramic is too fragile but in this case, the blade is protected from chipping.
And it costs about $22.
The finger guard is not great but serviceable and if you use your cut-resistant glove, you don't need to use it (but don't tell anyone I said that).
If you're looking for something to do with your new mandoline, the celery-fennel salad is a great choice.