Turning out consistently thin, even slices of fruit or vegetables with a knife poses a challenge. Professionals invest years of effort and repetition in learning to do it well, and home cooks seldom handle the volume of produce needed to develop those world-class skills. You can sidestep this conundrum with a mandoline slicer. It consists of a blade mounted firmly into a flat platform, where it provides consistent slices as you pass carrots, potatoes, peppers and similar produce across the cutting surface.
Mandolines come in several varieties, from lightweight handheld versions to the industrial-strength stainless steel models used in commercial kitchens. The simplest versions have a single blade fixed at a specific cutting thickness, but that's rare. Most offer interchangeable or adjustable blades, so a single mandoline can turn out slices or julienne in different thicknesses. The blades of some cross the cutting platform at a right angle, while others are arranged at a diagonal or even in a V-shape. Any blade works well if it's sharp, but angled or V-shaped blades are better at cutting soft, ripe produce. Mandolines almost invariably include a safety hand guard, designed to grip the produce and keep your hands away from the sharp blade.
Attaining a Perfect Slice
Start by washing or peeling the produce as you normally would. Take a thin cut from the end or side of round vegetables to provide a flat surface, so the slices are usable right from the start. Some handguards contain pins that you'll insert into the vegetable to hold it in place, while others have a hopper you'll drop the vegetable into. Brace the mandoline firmly on the work surface, and slide the handguard and vegetable across its blade with a smooth stroke and gentle downward pressure. A perfect slice will drop from the blade to the cutting board. Some cooks prefer to slice away from their body, while others prefer a side-to-side motion; either is appropriate.
You'll usually find a small stump of the fruit or vegetable left in the handguard when you're done. Those can be cut manually or set aside for use in other dishes. If the mandoline is even slightly flexible, take care to steadily exert the same level of downward pressure. Otherwise, the weight of your hand can distort the cutting platform, making some cuts thicker than others. To switch from slicing to julienne, either replace the blade or -- on some models -- turn a dial on the side to retract the flat blade and raise the julienne blade. Most mandolines provide at least 1/8-inch and 1/4-inch julienne options, and some have more.
Cautions, Care and Cleaning
Despite its intimidating appearance, a mandoline is much safer than a knife, if it's used correctly. Some handguards are clumsy, and it's tempting to hold the vegetable in your bare hands rather than fiddle with the protective cover. If you do, there's a high likelihood you'll cut yourself badly. If you absolutely can't get used to the handguard, buy one of the lightweight chain-mail gloves that butchers use to protect their hands while cutting. Rinse any juice and debris from the mandoline immediately, before it can dry and stick on. The blades must be removed from some models for cleaning, which requires great care. Hand-wash them and place them on a clean towel to air-dry, because -- again -- if you try to dry them by hand, you're likely to cut yourself.