Mention immersion blenders to some chefs and responses are nothing short of exuberant. “If I could keep only one tool in my kitchen, it would be an immersion blender,” says Colin Turner, chef-owner of Tin Fish, a two-unit casual-dining seafood concept based in Tinley Park, Ill. “You can do so much with it.”
Also known as stick or hand blenders, these indispensable kitchen utensils allow mobility that traditional stationary blenders often cannot. Pureeing gallons of tomatoes into silken soups while they continue to cook is, many chefs say, infinitely easier than conventional methods that require transferring small batches to a countertop model and then back to the pot.
“We make large quantities of soup and immersion blenders work great because of the volume,” Turner explains. “The amount of time and money we save is invaluable.” As with many tools, saving precious minutes and dollars turns them into an important asset. Chefs who use such mixers–which range from 1 to 4 feet in length–use them to varying degrees, whether to produce final products or set the stage for steps to follow.
IN THE AIR
At Chicago’s Marche, there are few items on the menu that aren’t touched by Paul Wildermuth’s immersion blender. “It’s so convenient to use,” he says of the blender’s popularity in his kitchen. “Rather than busting out the vertical machine, we just stand the stick blender in the pot and turn it on.”
Wildermuth, who serves as executive chef for the French-American inspired Marche, says that although he uses a 3-foot-long blender to do everything from create Caesar dressing to making cream of cauliflower soup with white truffle-scented fondue, he’s most passionate about his compact model’s ability to aerate sauces before serving. “We pour an aerated sauce over a piece of fish and it’s as though the guest is eating something light as air.”
Because he favors contemporary sauces with a more buoyant consistency, Wildermuth says his smaller immersion blender gives him an opportunity to stay current with cooking trends. “We’re still making a rich, flavorful sauce but without the heavy feel,” he says.
Arnold Zavalza does not like to be confined to any one area of his kitchen. As executive chef of dining services at California State Polytechnic University, Pomona, he has little time to be tied to a stove blending batch after massive batch of soup.
“Chefs are like scientists,” Zavalza says. “We’re always blending something, and a piece of equipment that makes our lives easier allows us to try new items and work with new ingredients. The blenders also open the door to a lot more creativity in other areas of the kitchen.”
Zavalza serves more than 20,000 students and says that ease in production dictates almost constant use of his large immersion blender. “I don’t have to spend time to pull product out of the soup pot, transfer it to the blender, taste it, and then start the cooking process all over again,” he explains. “I blend while the food continues to cook.”
A fan of large-scale immersion blenders for 15 years, Zavalza says he recently purchased a specialized version that is used solely for omelets at the school’s breakfast bar.
Immersion blenders are not exactly the same thing to all operators, a truth that is evident at Abacus restaurant.
“Immersion blenders are great for pureeing large amounts of soup or sauce in a pot,” says Kent Rathbun, executive chef and co-owner of the Dallas fine-dining spot. “But you have to know what you want your final product to look like and apply the blender where it works the best.”
Like Wildermuth, Rathbun uses a handheld immersion blender to finish off preparations, primarily to create froths on a dish-by-dish basis. “When you want to create that bubbly texture in a sauce, immersion blenders are awesome,” he explains. “But if you’re creating a sauce using only an immersion blender, it can translate into a loss of color and flavor because certain elements won’t be blended into the soup the way they’re supposed to.”
Pointing to his signature lobster-and-scallion shooters with red chile and coconut sake, Rathbun says that fibrous ingredients such as lemongrass, ginger and garlic, are first blended and then placed through a chinois. The immersion blender is used to create a puree during the thickening stage.
“The stick blender is used as a final step after you have a nice texture to the soup,” he says. Though Rathbun favors a vertical blender and chinois for silky-smooth soups and sauces, he says immersion blenders allow him to create rustic presentations traditional mixers do not.
“If there are ingredients I want guests to recognize, I don’t put the soup or sauce through a chinois,” he says. “When I make bean soup, I take a portion out to make sure you can still see some whole beans but then use an immersion blender on the rest.”
According to Tin Fish’s Turner, the motor in one of his immersion blenders is big enough to “propel a bass boat,” but that’s not what earns his affection. “I own my restaurant,” he explains. “Time is money, and whenever I find a way to save money I’m going to do it.”
The immersion blender frees up not only prep time but also labor spent on clean-up, including dishwashing chemicals. “A dishwasher has to clean those extra bowls that are used,” he explains. “I look at all of the money we save on water and soap because at the end of the year those pennies add up.”
Though immersion blenders may be a popular alternative, in many cases they’re no substitute for a traditional vertical mixer. “The truth is that in Chinese cuisine a lot of ingredients come out of jars, cans and bottles,” explains Paul Wildermuth, who in addition to serving as executive chef for Marche also helms the kitchen at Chicago’s Opera, which features modern Chinese cuisine. “it’s our job to use those products but enhance the flavors.”
At Opera, Wildermuth takes prepared hoisin and adds such items as orange juice and freshly ground spices. Putting his stamp on ready-made products often includes toasted dry chiles mixed to a smooth consistency. “An immersion blender works great for a lot of things, but it can’t grind the spices we need the way a regular blender can,” he says.
25% Percent of foodservice operators who say they intend to purchase mixers in 2006: (Foodservice Equipment & Supplies 2006 Operator Industry Forecast)