September 2005
SPECIAL REPORT: Making The Cut

Powered vegetable prep machines make light duty of slicing and dicing fruits, veggies and more. Here’s what it takes to make the cut, plus stats on eight leading models

No doubt about it: Prep work—be it slicing, dicing, chopping, grating or shredding—is time-consuming and labor intensive. In this day of prepackaged everything, including pre-cut produce and shredded cheeses, why would anyone want to prep a high volume of anything onsite every day?

The answer is easy: consistency, quality control, and yes, cost savings.

“We make everything fresh,” says Mike Akers, general manager of Uncle Julio's Hacienda, Chicago. “Prepping our own products gives us much better quality than pre-cut produce. We get much greater consistency.”

Part of the Dallas-based Uncle Julio's chain, the Chicago restaurant daily slices lettuce, poblano peppers and other veggies; dices tomatoes and onions for salsa; juliennes jicama and carrots for salads; shreds cheese; and more. Akers estimates employees prep between 20 and 40 gallons of produce a day depending on store traffic.

How do they do it? With a vegetable prep machine. Sometimes called vegetable cutters or powered vegetable choppers, these handy countertop units make short work of a variety of tasks with the quality and consistency you need.

At the Wailea Golf Club in Maui, Hawaii, time savings is the big factor. Guido Ulman, executive chef, makes a dish with diced tomato, onion and smoked salmon, and cutting ingredients by hand, he says, takes an hour. With a machine, it takes five minutes. He can choose the quality of the ingredients he wants and customize how they're cut with the machine.“We get the perfect cut,” Ulman says, “and you can't tell if it's hand-cut or cut by machine.”

What's In A Name?
There are two types of vegetable cutting machines out there: the vertical cutter-mixer, which is often misleadingly referred to as a food processor, and the vegetable prep machine. It's important to know the difference.

Vertical cutter-mixers cut and mix ingredients in a bowl using a standard S-shaped blade. Other discs can be used to grate, shred or dice ingredients into the bowl as well. These machines, however, are primarily designed to prepare items such as sauces, dough, batter or small batches of vegetables, cheese, or bread crumbs in the bowl. Units range in size from 2.5 qts to 60 qts. Several manufacturers make vertical cutter-mixers with either an add-on or permanent continuous-feed chute, giving you the option of batch or high-volume prep.

In contrast, true vegetable prep machines are designed to slice, dice, grate, shred, julienne and otherwise cut up large volumes of product quickly, easily and consistently. They range in size from small countertop units to large floor-standing models. Our focus in this story is on the industry workhorses most commonly used in multiunit ops, units in the 1/2- to 1-hp range.

Design And Construction
While all vegetable prep machines use the same basic technology, their design and construction vary. That means cost varies, too. List prices for countertop machines range from around $1,200 for 1/3- or 1/2-hp units to as much as $8,500 for larger 11/2-hp models. And those prices often don't include extra cutting discs or blades.

It pays to do your homework, and to ask around about others' experience with particular models. It also pays to see a demo of the machines you're interested in, so you can see the actual cuts they produce in addition to machine features.

Construction varies, too. Some units are all-metal, while others offer plastic motor housings, hopper heads, feed chutes and pushers. Most common are machines made of polished cast aluminum, which makes them sturdy and relatively lightweight. Some offer motor housings and other parts in stainless steel. Stainless, of course, is more expensive.

Cutting disc hubs and posts are usually constructed of cast aluminum. The cutting discs or blades themselves are high-quality stainless steel. Some discs have a special coating that allows them to be run through dish machines without discoloring. A few specialty discs also may be made with a plastic hub and post. These, too, can be washed in a dish machine.

Prep machines come in all shapes and sizes. As the name implies, vertical cutter-mixers with continuous feed stand upright. Some of the vegetable prep machines do, too. Several manufacturers, however, now make machines that are more ergonomic. Some are set at an angle (as much as 50°) to make it easier for you to see how you're loading product into them.

No matter what the angle, two things you want to keep in mind are height and footprint. A really tall machine on top of a 32-inch countertop may have some vertically challenged employees standing on plastic milk crates to use it. Angled machines make this somewhat less of a problem. Workspace in your kitchen is at a premium, so the smaller the unit's footprint, the more room you have for other tools.

Feed hoppers also take several shapes. A full-size hopper opening is exactly that, a full circle exposing the entire cutting disc. It allows you to load more product at one time, but also makes it more difficult to control the consistency of how the product is cut. Full-size feed hoppers are best for round veggies such as tomatoes and potatoes.

Most prep machines come with a half-moon or kidney-shaped feed hopper. This provides more control over how product is fed to the blade (and thus the consistency of the cut), yet still offers plenty of capacity. Many machines also offer an additional round or tube feed hopper, which is great for carrots, celery, zucchini and other long, thin products.

Most feed hopper heads are single units that can be removed for easy cleaning. The pusher plate that guides product down the feed chute to the blade also is removable for cleaning.

Also check to make sure the size of the discharge chute is in good proportion to the size of the feed hopper. You don't want employees to have to stop often to clear clogs in the discharge chute. One manufacturer has built a wiper blade into the discharge chutes on its machines to keep the chute clear.

More Power, Scotty
Manufacturers are pretty good about matching the right size motor with the machine. More horsepower is not necessarily better. If you're cutting mostly soft vegetables—say, slicing tomatoes and cucumbers—you don't need a lot of horses to get the job done. Hard vegetables like carrots and potatoes or cheese, however, may require a little more power, especially if you prep high volume.

Just as important as horsepower is torque. A high starting torque machine will cut through hard veggies with less horsepower. If you prep a lot of hard veggies or slice, shred or grate cheese, you'll want a machine with good torque and more horses so it doesn't overheat. Especially when slicing or shredding cheese, the last thing you want is a hot machine.

Pick a machine based on its capacity—that is, how many pounds-per-hour it can slice or dice—and you likely won't go wrong. When making comparisons, though, ask manufacturers what sorts of foods their numbers are based on. The same machine, for example, may be able to slice 800 lbs. of carrots per hour, but dice 1,500 lbs. of tomatoes. If you're making a lot of Bolognese sauce or salsa and not cutting up many carrots, this may be the right machine for you.

Drive is another story. Most machines come with gear or belt drives, and a few offer direct drive. Direct drive is less common because this style puts a lot of blade stress directly on the motor. Since the motor must sit directly beneath the cutting plates, a failed seal can allow moisture into the motor.

In contrast, most gear-driven units are permanently lubricated and sealed, offering trouble-free operation. They use a planetary gear box to increase torque and slow the high motor rpms.

Belt drives have improved dramatically as materials and belt designs have advanced. The downside to belt drive is that belts can heat up, getting a little loose and giving you inconsistent rpms. They also have to be adjusted and replaced occasionally. One manufacturer has an external tension adjustment screw that lets you tighten (or loosen) belts yourself so you don't have to waste a service call.

Making The Cut
Vertical cutter-mixers typically run at about 1,800 rpm because the workhorse “S” blade they use is designed to cut and mix at the same time. By using different cutting discs and a continuous-feed chute, you can also slice, dice and more in high volume.

Vegetable prep machines go a step further, slowing the speed of the cutting disc to about 360 to 400 rpm so the blade or cutting surface more closely approximates the drawing action of a knife or grater, instead of simply hitting the product dead-on with a chopping motion. This prevents cell damage, giving cut produce longer life.

Another reason prep machines (as opposed to the more multi-purpose cutter-mixers) run at slower speeds is to help ensure greater consistency of each cut. Each time the cutting plate revolves, the product being cut has to drop down on the plate surface before the blade arrives to make another cut. With two-step discs for dicing, where product is first sliced, then pushed through a cutting grid, it's even more important that the product have time to settle on the cutting plate before the blade rotates.

Some employees have the tendency to just push harder on the pushing plate, thinking that will make the cuts more consistent and the job go faster. All it does, however, is mash the product, bruising and damaging the cell structure.

Cutting discs are designed for all types of tasks. As mentioned earlier, the basic types slice, dice, shred/grate and julienne. Specialty discs produce unusual shapes or styles such as waffle cuts and wavy slices. The more discs a manufacturer has available for a particular model, the more choices of type and size of cut you have.

Dicing plates, for example, produce anywhere from a 1/4 x 1/4 to a 1/2 x 7/8 dice. Slicers designed for julienne cuts can produce them in sizes from 3/32 to 3/8. Shredder/grater discs cut from 1/32 up to about 1/4. There are even discs that produce brunoise (tiny diamond) and gaufrette (waffle) cuts.

Always remember to order discs a size larger than the actual size of dice or shred you want when it comes to soft vegetables like tomatoes. Since they're mostly water, they'll shrink a little when they're cut.

Slicing discs will produce cuts of 1/16 and up. The best slicing discs have curved blades that more accurately replicate the drawing motion of a chef's knife. Slicing blades also can be permanent or removable. Removable blades can be resharpened or replaced. Plates with permanent blades must be replaced in their entirety when dull. Removable blades are usually attached to plates with screws. Look for plates that have stainless bushings to hold those screws. They're less likely to come loose during operation. Plan on changing your blades every six to 18 months, depending on much you use them.

Clean And Safe
Prep machines are pretty easy to keep clean. Most are made with seamless housings that simply have to be wiped down. As mentioned earlier, look for models with feed hoppers that are easy to remove for cleaning. Be careful, though, as some have to be washed by hand, while others can be run through a dish machine.

Blades are not only delicate, but dangerous, too. Make sure employees always handle cutting plates with both hands. The best way to clean them by hand is with a brush (which many makers provide). Only a few makers offer coated cutting plates that can be run through a dish machine. Also, it's a good idea to invest in a rack for cutting plates to protect both the plates and employees.

Almost all machines come with two safety interlocks—usually magnetic micro switches—one on the pusher plate and the other on the hopper head. If either is out of place, the machine automatically turns off. Because of the pusher plate interlock, you may want to check the length of the feed hopper before you buy. The machine won't run if the tube feed chute is too short for long, thin veggies, which means employees will have to take extra time to cut them shorter to fit.

Many units also have a thermal overload switch that shuts the machine down if the motor gets too hot. Regardless of these safety features, make sure everyone on staff is properly trained.