The ultra-sharp kitchen slicer is notorious for both pro-level cutting abilities and excruciating injuries.

By David McCann
October 08, 2020
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Credit: 365mm / Stocksy / Adobe Stock

When I first heard the word "mandoline" in the context of cooking, I was deeply confused. Why would anyone need an ancient, lute-like musical instrument in a kitchen? I’m a big country music lover, and that was the only context in which I knew the mandolin. Family lore even states that my husband's father said he played one on the stage of the Grand Ole Opry. So, you’ll understand my surprise when I discovered the medieval torture/slicing device with an "e" on the end. (But only in the States because the rest of the world spells it the same way they spell that lute cousin.)

Many people (probably erroneously) believe the mandoline was developed by the fellow who invented the guillotine, which may explain the trepidation—or worse—with which most of us first approach this device. But I have to say, once you overcome that fear, learn to use a mandoline, and give it the healthy respect that is due a slicer with a razor-sharp blade, you’ll wonder how you ever lived without it. 

At its simplest, a mandoline is basically a piece of metal or plastic, with a groove large enough to fit the edge (long or short side) of a vegetable such as a potato. The groove also houses a fixed or removable blade. You run the vegetable through the groove across the blade, producing even slices. This is clearly something that can be done with a knife, but the remarkable thing about the mandoline is the perfection of its even slices and the speed with which those perfect slices can be achieved. But therein lies the danger. Running a potato rapidly across a very sharp blade can result in part of a finger being added to your pommes dauphinoise. However, mandolines come with a guard that both holds the potato and protects your fingers. I am a firm believer in using said guard.

If you’ve ever watched a TV chef show off with a mandoline, you’ll note that they often forgo the safety guard. I would advise against that unless you go slowly and concentrate on NOTHING ELSE whilst slicing. And even that doesn’t take into account the ringing phone that causes you to look away for a split second.There are also gloves designed for work with knives and blades that promise no blade can pierce through to your hand. Some are even made of Kevlar—yes, bulletproof vest Kevlar.

A very fancy French mandoline will cost you upwards of $100, but it will last forever, has a very steady base, and possesses many settings for both width of slices and style of cut—waffle and matchstick for example. They are, however, quite complicated to learn. There are confusing levers that change blades and the angle and direction of the base, for instance, but, once learned, they are without peer.

Today, most mandolines are simple, plastic Japanese models, such as the Benriner. These are  inexpensive, and very intuitive to use. Some have only one blade and can therefore perform only one function. Some have two to four interchangeable blades, increasing the variety of cuts possible.

Cleaning a mandoline is another area that can be fraught with danger—but only if you don’t pay attention. First, as with knives, (something I was taught in the '80s by my original kitchen mentor, Food & Wine’s Marcia Kiesel) never under any circumstances put a knife, or in this case a mandoline, in the sink. Nope, not even for a second. When it’s time to wash it, wash it. Do nothing else. Pay attention to that one task, and you will never, accidentally, cut yourself by reaching blind into a sink filled with soapy water. Make sure you know precisely the direction the cutting edge is facing, and using a good thick sponge, wipe in the other direction. Most of the time, unless slicing beets, a good hot rinse with a sprayer will get your mandoline clean. Fear is not necessary, but a healthy respect is.

I realize that some may be thinking, “Who needs 500 perfect potato slices? I’m not running a restaurant.” I would counter with the notions that beautiful food tastes better, and evenly sliced ingredients will cook at the same rate. I have no objection at all to a big sloppy bowl of pasta, or a burger with onions, lettuce, and tomato spilling gloriously out of the bun, I’m not a monster after all. But perfectly arranged slices of potato, apple, or celery in a tart or pie or shimmering pho broth make me happy. Beautiful, evenly-cooked food calls out to me, and bids me, “Eat!” And I don’t believe it ever hurts to treat your family, friends, and yourself to beauty—especially these days.

Read more from David McCann at thisoldchef.com.