Is a manual food processor a good alternative to an electric one?
Manual food processors and choppers are meant to make kitchen prep easier by dicing, mincing, grinding, and blending small amounts of raw or cooked ingredients without electricity. They’re compact and therefore portable and easy to store. They resemble salad spinners: You either turn a crank or pull a cord to rotate a blade positioned inside the processor’s workbowl. The more you turn or pull, the finer the chop.
We knew from the outset that these gadgets could never replace our favorite full-size food processor, the Cuisinart Custom 14 Cup Food Processor, as they can perform only a limited set of tasks. Like small food processors, they lack the size and the power to handle sticky doughs, and they won’t entirely eliminate the need for a knife—you’ll still need to cut food into pieces small enough to fit inside the workbowl. And unlike most electric food processors, these manual food processors don’t have feed tubes, so you can’t use them to make mayonnaise or other sauces that call for introducing liquids gradually.
Still, they are inexpensive; the products in our lineup ranged in price from just over $16.00 to just under $40.00. At that price, we thought, a manual food processor might be a worthwhile tool for small tasks such as chopping, mincing, and pureeing when we don’t want to pull out the big guns. So we bought seven widely available manual food processors and choppers and used them to chop, dice, and mince onions, parsley, and carrots. We also used them to make pesto, salsa, and guacamole. Two models had cranks and five had pull cords; workbowl capacities ranged from 2 to 6 cups.
Right from the start, we realized that workbowl size was an issue. In small models with capacities of just 2 to 3 cups, we couldn’t chop a whole medium onion in one go; we had to process it in two or three batches. And while all the machines could technically fit a full batch of every recipe we tried, we had to squeeze the food into the smaller models; guacamole or salsa ingredients sitting at the top of the crowded bowl weren’t incorporated into the food churning below.
Unfortunately, even basic tasks were often beyond the manual food processors’ capabilities. In general, the bigger the cut we were going for, the less consistently sized the pieces were, regardless of whether the models worked by crank or pull cord. Across the board, the models chopped onions and carrots into irregular, erratically sized pieces. Part of this had to do with the position and size of the blades. As we’d seen in previous food processor testings, models with relatively large gaps between the ends of the blades and the walls of the bowl didn’t chop efficiently, allowing some of the food to whiz around the edges, out of the blade’s reach. Similarly, models with large gaps between the lowest blade and the bottom of the bowl tended to trap chunks of food, preventing them from getting cut. We preferred models with less than 5 millimeters of clearance between the blades and the sides and bottom of the bowl. Smaller gaps made it more likely that all the food made contact with the blades.
The manual processors were somewhat more successful when it came to mincing, though with a caveat: Their blades are sharp, but because they’re rotated by hand, they can’t cut through food with as much speed or power as the blades of a conventional food processor and instead mash and crush the food inside the bowl. As a result, we typically ended up with bruised, sodden minced parsley and onions that had been pulverized into a pungent slurry.
Saving Money but Not Always Time or Effort
On the bright side, all that mashing and crushing led us to a discovery: Several of the manual machines were actually decent at mixing and blending. But this success came at the expense of time and effort. Making pesto proved to be one of the most revealing tests. It took most of the manual processors more than 3 minutes to transform basil, pine nuts, garlic cloves, and Parmesan into passable pesto. The best manual food processor performed this task the fastest, taking a not-too-shabby 96 seconds to make good, smooth pesto, though its pull cord jammed repeatedly during the process. By contrast, our trusty full-size Cuisinart processor took just 32 seconds to make an even more finely textured pesto.
Better yet, the full-size Cuisinart food processor didn’t require an arm workout the way most of the manual food processors did. After pulling the cord of one manual model for 5.5 minutes, our triceps were aching and the pesto was still not fully processed. One style of manual processor wasn’t easier to use than the other—it was just as tiring to rotate a crank as it was to pull a cord when we had to do it for more than 3 minutes.
Manual food processors weren’t quite as slow or as laborious when it came to making salsa and guacamole. Each task took between 30 and 40 seconds, only slightly longer than the conventional food processor (about 20 seconds), but the textures of the salsas and guacamoles produced in the manual processors were more uneven than those of the ones made in the electric processor. Although most tasters didn’t mind eating these more “rustic,” irregularly textured dips, some objected to batches that contained big, harsh-tasting chunks of onion and chile.
Because their blades are contained inside the lidded bowl, manual food processors seem at first glance to provide a safer alternative to using a knife and cutting board. In fact, the opposite is often true. Just as with a conventional food processor, the blade attachment for each manual food processor must be mounted on a post in the middle of the workbowl. But in most of the manual models, that post was too short to truly stabilize the attachment. Any time we added food to the bowl, the blade attachment was knocked out of position, forcing us to reach into the food and recenter the blade attachment in order for it to engage with the turning mechanism—an unnerving, dangerous maneuver.
Make no mistake: The blades on these products are very sharp and must be handled with extreme caution. Hand-washing the blades also proved to be a risky business; the blades on one model bit through a sponge and into a user’s fingers, drawing blood. The blades are also small and almost always spaced in such a way that they are difficult to safely clean.
If You Must Get a Manual Food Processor, Try the Cuisinart Manual Mini Food Processor
If you want to chop an onion or carrot, we think you’ll be better off just using a knife. You will not only get cleaner, more consistently shaped pieces than with a manual food processor but also have fewer parts to wash, and your fingers will be in less danger. If you’re looking for a compact, relatively inexpensive machine that can handle more complex prep work and make good sauces and purees, we highly recommend our favorite small electric food processor, the Cuisinart Elite Collection 4-Cup Chopper/Grinder. It minces and chops beautifully; produces perfectly smooth dips, marinades, and dressings; and even makes mayonnaise—all in less time (and with less effort) than it would take with one of the manual gadgets.
If you really want to try one of these manual food processors, the best model we tested was the Cuisinart Manual Mini Food Processor, and we can only recommend it with reservations. It’s very small and somewhat finicky to use, and it can’t chop or dice well. But it minced onions and parsley uniformly and with slightly less bruising than the other models we tested and made good pesto in the shortest amount of time.