FER REPORT: Prep School

Any prep employee tasked with hand-cutting 100 lb. of carrots or a couple of boxes of Russets into skin-on French fries knows the value of a food processor. These miracle machines do it all today, from mixing a batch of paté brisée or aoli to grating cheese and wedging potatoes.

But despite the amazing versatility of most food prep machines, the plain fact is that some are better at certain tasks than others. Knowing which machines do what will help you spec the right equipment for your operations.

A Rose By Any Other Name…

You’ll hear the scores of prep machines out there referred to by a number of names. Food processor, vegetable cutter, combination cutter/bowl unit, Buffalo chopper and vertical cutter-mixer are a few. When it gets right down to it, there are two basic types of prep machines: the vertical cutter-mixer (smaller sizes of which are often referred to as “food processors” or “bowl cutter-mixers”) and the vegetable prep machine.

Food processors cut and mix ingredients in a bowl using a standard S-shaped blade. These units also accommodate slicing discs that can grate, shred or dice ingredients. However, these machines primarily are designed to prepare items, such as sauces, doughs, batters or small batches of vegetables, cheese or breadcrumbs, in the bowl. Units range in size from 2ó-60 qt.

Several manufacturers make food processors with either an add-on or permanent continuous-feed chute, giving you the option of batch or high-volume prep. You’ll often hear these models referred to as combination cutter/bowl units.

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. 

Here’s the key difference between the two: food processors typically run from about 1,800-3,000 rpm because the workhorse “S” blade they use is designed to cut and mix at the same time; vegetable prep machines slow the speed of the cutting disc to anywhere from 360-485 rpm so the blade or cutting surface more closely approximates the drawing action of a knife or grater. The intended benefits are a cleaner, more consistent cut and less bruising of fresh produce.

The slower speed also enables vegetable prep machines to make more fine and complicated cuts. Each time the cutting plate revolves, the product being cut has to drop a bit to the plate surface before the blade arrives to make another cut. When you use two-step discs, where the machine first slices the food and then pushes it through a cutting grid (for a dice, julienne or waffle cut) for example, it’s even more important that the product has time to settle on the cutting plate before the blade rotates.

Equipment Types

To help you make sense of all of the models out there, following are the typical categories of food prep machines, what they do (and do best), capacities and prices you’re likely to pay.

Food processor. As mentioned previously, a food processor is a small, countertop cutter-mixer. Ingredients are either cut/mixed with an S-shaped blade in the bottom of the unit’s bowl or sliced/grated into the bowl by a cutting disc.

Use food processors to emulsify dressings and sauces, blend compound butters, dips, patés and mousses, make breadcrumbs or pastry dough, grate cheese or shred or slice vegetables. Because capacities range from about 2½-8 qt., they make relatively small batches, but do so very quickly. Motors typically range from 1-3 hp and are matched appropriately to the size of the machine.

Most models come with a variety of cutting discs in addition to stainless and plastic S-shaped blades. Look for discs with blades that can be replaced or removed for sharpening. The best ones have stainless bushings that hold the screws, keeping the blades in place.

Prices range from a few hundred dollars to $1,000 or more.

Vegetable prep machine. Instead of adding ingredients into a bowl, a vegetable prep machine has a hopper on top where you feed product into the cutting blade. Cut product ejects from a chute into your choice of container.

As the name implies, these units are designed to process large amounts of vegetables in a short amount of time. Hoppers on larger machines can be round, letting you cut or shred whole cabbages or heads of lettuce. Other options include half-moon, kidney-shape and more narrow tubes (for carrots, cucumbers, leeks, etc.) mounted vertically or on a bias depending on what you’re cutting and how you want the finished product to look.

Standard cutting discs let you slice, dice, shred, grate and julienne, and specialty discs can give you gaufrette (waffle) cuts, brunoise (diamond) cuts, wavy slices and French fries. All are available in several sizes from 1/16 in. and larger so you get the cut you want.

Manufacturers typically indicate capacity in either pounds per hour or pounds per minute or in settings per meal. They’ll often indicate a maximum capacity, too, beyond which the motor may overheat and automatically shut off. Smaller countertop versions with 1/3- or ½-hp motors can cut up to about 11 lb./min. and are limited to about 150 lb./hr. They are well suited to operations serving 50-150 people per meal. Larger machines with 3-hp floor models can cut up to 90 lb./min. with auto-feed hoppers capable of prepping food for 400-600 meals at a time.

Prices on these machines range from about $800 for a small countertop model to $12,000 or more for a large floor model. 

Combination vegetable cutter/bowl unit. The Swiss Army knife of food prep machines, these countertop units combine the versatility of a food processor with the speed of a vegetable cutter. In most cases, units are designed so that the food-processor bowl can be swapped out for the vegetable cutting head with hopper and chute.

Most models are comparable in size to the food processors and countertop vegetable prep machines noted above, with similar capacities. If you need a single machine that can perform tasks as varied as emulsifying a dressing or sauce and cutting a fairly high volume of vegetables, these combo models will serve you well.

Remember, though, just because a Swiss Army knife may have a saw blade and a Phillips head screwdriver attachment doesn’t mean they work as well as an individual saw blade or screwdriver. So, if you need 100 lb. of coleslaw in your operation every day, you might be better off with a food processor or floor mixer to make your dressing and a vegetable prep machine to shred the cabbage.

Prices range from about $1,000-$5,000 or more depending on the size of the machine.

Buffalo chopper. Also known as a bowl cutter, a Buffalo chopper most often is used to make breadcrumbs or chop foods into small particles for salads and spreads or chop and mix meat. It differs from other bowl-type food processors in a couple of ways. First, the shape of its stainless bowl is shallower than the vertically straight-sided polycarbonate or stainless bowls on a food processor. It resembles a traditional “bowl.” The cutting blade is inside the bowl cover (which is hump-shaped and some say is how the device got its name) that covers half the bowl. And unlike other food processors, the bowl rotates at about 20 rpm, carrying the food into the spinning cutting blades, which typically run at about 1,400 rpm. 

Applications for this unit are a little more limited, so it makes sense to get a bowl cutter when you have a job that can be dedicated to the machine, such as making sausage, or cutting and mixing a special house dip or dressing, such as smoked salmon dip or parmesan artichoke dip. But different attachments let you slice, shred or chop, so this could be the only prep machine you need depending on your menu.

Bowls are usually 14-, 16- or 18-in. in diameter, and machines are powered by ½- or 1-hp motors. Prices range from about $3,000-$8,000 depending on size and options.

Vertical cutter-mixer. Vertical cutter-mixer is another name for what we commonly think of as a food processor, but on a volume scale. Here, we’re talking about bench-mounted and floor models, which range in size from about 12 qt. to more than 60 qt. These bad boys can do everything a combination cutter/bowl unit can do in batches 10 times the size.

Grind meat, mix dough, emulsify dressings, make paté…you name it, they can do it. With motors ranging from about 3 hp for an 8- or 10-qt. model to 16 hp for a 60-qt. model, these are powerful, versatile machines. Many have two speeds and a range of options, such as timers and electronic controls, for even more versatility. Prices range from about $5,000-$22,000.


The Manual On Manuals

Food prep machines can sport a lot of horsepower from small 1/3-hp models up to 16-hp vertical cutter-mixers. But there are many situations where it makes sense to swap horsepower for manpower and buy manual models.

First, powered food processors and vegetable cutters are designed as multi-purpose tools. But sometimes the saw blade on a Swiss Army knife may not be as effective as a good crosscut saw. Manufacturers typically design manual food prep machines to handle one task extremely well.

For example, cutting soft produce, such as tomatoes, requires different blades and action than, say, dicing root vegetables. If the only produce you prep, for example, are ¼-in. tomato slices for hamburgers, then a manual tomato slicer may be just the ticket.

Many other manual food prep models are designed for specific tasks, as well. For example, the Univex melon peeler can peel half of a melon in seconds with little waste. Quantity plays into equipment choice as well. If you are not processing large volumes of produce, a simple mandolin works fine.

Manual equipment, like its powered counterparts, is easy to clean. In most cases, without much disassembly, you can wash these devices in a pot sink or even run them through the dishwasher.

Finally, price may factor in your decision. Most of this equipment costs only a few hundred dollars vs. a few thousand for similarly powered equipment. The payback on a flowering onion cutter, for example, can be as little as the profit on one case of onions. Not a bad return for a little elbow grease.

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Publisher’s Note: A Site to See

How FER's exciting new website is making equipment information easier to find and use.