To help you sort through these questions, I’ve come up with some things to ask yourself when picking between some common pairings, especially when resources or shelf space are limited. They are blenders and food processors; hand mixers and stand mixers; and slow cookers and multicookers, i.e. Instant Pots. (If you want to know about cast-iron versus nonstick skillets, read up here!) You may want or need both items, or neither. Like I said, the decision is entirely yours.
Blender vs. food processor
On the surface, these two kitchen mainstays seem to have a lot in common. They break down or puree food. They both use a blade. Ask yourself:
Do I want to make frozen drinks? If you’re in it for the smoothies, frozen cocktails and milkshakes, a blender is the way to go. Manufacturers typically do not recommend breaking down ice in a food processor.
What if I want something to help with baking? While stand mixers get a lot of the attention, food processors are unsung heroes in baking. A food processor can make pie crusts and cookie dough. It can knead bread or pizza dough. It also makes a creamy, stable whipped cream.
Which one makes great soup? For simple pureed soups, either appliance will work well. Because of its faster speed, a blender will generally give you smoother results with fewer specks. A high-powered blender, such as the Vitamix, excels at turning even the toughest ingredients — fibrous vegetables, nuts, beans, etc. — silken in no time, with no further straining required. A food processor, though, can help you even more in the early stages of prep, because you can use the pulse function with the blade to chop or slice vegetables.
Which takes up less space? This is a bit of a wash. Unless you have a lot of space under your cabinets or tall shelves, you’re probably going to be storing both types of appliances in two pieces — the base and the jar/bowl.
Which costs less? It really depends. If I had to make a sweeping generalization, I’d say that blenders typically are less expensive than food processors, excepting the high-end models. If you don’t have the space or money to invest in full-size models of both, especially if you are a household of one or two, you could consider pairing a good blender with a mini food processor or a full-size food processor with an immersion (stick) blender.
Hand mixer vs. stand mixer
Despite their vastly different shapes and sizes, these baking tools can actually accomplish a lot of the same things — but not always and certainly not at the same price. Ask yourself:
Do I want something to make bread? With very few exceptions, you cannot knead bread dough with a hand mixer. They are just not powerful enough. That’s not to say you can’t knead bread dough if you don’t have a stand mixer — you can knead on the counter, in a food processor, in a bowl with periodic folds, or not at all (i.e. no-knead breads). But if you want a mixer that does it for you, stand is the way to go.
What can I use to make cakes and cookies? The good news is that a lot of your everyday baking can be done in either type of mixer. Cake and quick bread batters, including muffins and loaves, are no problem. You can cream butter and sugar in both, for cakes or cookies. If you’re doing a cookie dough that is particularly dense or loaded with add-ins (chips, nuts, etc.), you may need to switch to stirring by hand with a flexible spatula or wooden spoon toward the end to avoid overtaxing a hand mixer. I like to do a final stir by hand anyway, even with a stand mixer, to make sure all the ingredients from the bottom and sides of the bowl are well incorporated.
Do I have physical or mobility limitations? A hand mixer reduces the amount of manual work you have to do, but it still requires holding the appliance above the bowl and moving it around. That can be challenging if you have arthritis or other conditions, so if you really need a hands-off option, go with the stand mixer. Do keep in mind that a stand mixer is very heavy, so account for space on your counter if you don’t think you can easily relocate it every time you need it.
Which takes up less space? Hand mixer, hands down.
Which costs less? Again, hand mixer, by a long shot. If you’re hoping to score a stand mixer for less, start scouting for prices around the holiday season, particularly near Black Friday/Cyber Monday. The past few years, I’ve noticed very good sale prices on KitchenAid mixers at Target, and Costco often discounts them, too. Another option: Refurbished. You can buy refurbished KitchenAid mixers through the company itself or other retailers.
Slow cooker vs. multicooker (i.e. Instant Pot)
While electronic multicookers, particularly the Instant Pot, have gained a passionate following in recent years, pressure cookers and slow cookers have been around for generations. Both have improved over the years and now feature some, but not total, overlap in functions. Ask yourself:
Do I want to cook fast or slow? Pressure cooking, the most popular function of multicookers, speeds up cooking by creating a sealed environment in which water boils at 250 degrees instead of 212 degrees. This helps put dinner on the table in a flash, ideal for people who are short on time or planning. Slow cookers go the opposite direction, working at lower temperatures for long, no-rush recipes that can stretch overnight or from before to after work. If you prefer slow cooking, don’t assume you can just rely on that function on a multicooker. Most multicookers have one heating element at the bottom of the base, while some slow cookers also include a band around the sides. That, and the fact that multicookers have less surface area than a typical slow cooker, can lead to unevenly cooked food when using the slow-cook function in a multicooker. The Instant Pot, in particular, has a reputation for running hot on the slow-cook setting.
What types of dishes do I want to make? You can cook a lot of the same types of foods in slow cookers and multicookers — meat, beans, oatmeal, broth, soups and stews. The differences are how you get there and the ingredients you might use. Because of their shape, slow cookers can accommodate large, tough cuts of meat, braising them over many hours to tender perfection. A multicooker can also tenderize tougher meat, though it may require cutting it into smaller pieces to fit. Because of the sealed environment and shorter cook time, you generally need less liquid in pressure cooking, or else you risk soupy, bland dishes. Pressure cooking is great for cutting the cook time of ingredients such as firm vegetables, beans and grains, while it can wreak havoc on more delicate ones, such as seafood, quick or rolled oats and dairy. Decide what kinds of dishes you’re most likely to use your appliance for and let that help guide your choice.
How many functions do I need? Multicookers offer an array of possibilities. Beyond pressure cooking and slow cooking, you may get functions for yogurt, rice, steaming, sauteing and sous-vide. Some slow cookers have settings for steaming and making yogurt, but they are largely single-use appliances that let you choose a heat level and time. Sauteing is not a standard function either.
Which takes up less space? Slow cookers tend to have a larger footprint, with their elongated oval shape, while multicookers skew tall and narrow. Still, the difference is not enough to give a clear advantage of one over the other. Evaluate your cabinets and counter space, and decide where a slow cooker or multicooker might fit best.
Which costs less? As with size, there is not a clear winner here, meaning I would base your decision largely on your cooking style and what you plan to make. For less than $100, you can buy a well-performing model of either type of appliance, though the price of more souped-up options can creep toward $150 or more.