A stand mixer may be the workhorse of my kitchen, but the food processor could be its unsung hero. Though useless for aeration, perhaps the most common technique for making cakes and cookies (think creaming butter and sugar until it’s fluffy and light, or foaming eggs and sugar), a food processor excels at an entirely different range of kitchen chores that make it just as vital to my work.
Thanks to its powerful motor and blade, a food processor is a remarkable tool for grinding chunky ingredients into a fine powder, giving stiff doughs a workout in record time, working cold fat into flour, and grinding toasted nuts into creamy butter. Not to mention its versatility at chopping and puréeing, or all the various shredding and slicing functions made possible by its attachments.
Because some of those chores can be done with other tools, I don’t want to focus on all the pastry projects a food processor can technically do; I want to focus on the jobs it does best. These are the kinds of chores that are accomplished faster, more easily, and more efficiently with a food processor, regardless of brand. I’m alarmingly opinionated about specific brands and models when it comes to other pieces of equipment (particularly stand mixers and ice cream makers), but in the realm of pastry I’ve found most any food processor will get the job done. I have a Breville Sous Chef at home, but enjoy using the Magimix and Cuisinart models we have in the Serious Eats kitchen, too. So if you happen to be in the market, check out our guide to the best food processors, and know that, for pastry projects, it’s hard to go wrong.
Limiting Gluten Development
Quick breads, like biscuits, muffins, and scones, are traditionally made by combining the butter and flour up front. It’s a common approach to making shortbread and other types of tender, crumbly cookies as well. This method coats the flour in fat, making it more difficult for gluten to form when the liquid ingredients are added later on.
Historically, it’s a lengthy process that’s done by hand or with a pastry knife, which allows the butter to warm over time. This can often make doughs sticky and difficult to handle—hence why so many recipes include a step for chilling the dough before it’s rolled and cut. Put a food processor on the case, though, and these chores can be done with cold butter in a few seconds flat, keeping the finished dough cool and easy to handle.
It’s my preferred approach for making delicate lemon scones and tender blueberry skillet cake, as well as any cookie or cracker meant to have a crumbly, shortbread-like consistency. That includes lemon meltaways, Mexican wedding cookies, Carr’s-style whole wheat crackers, and even digestive biscuits.
By the same token, a food processor can also be used to limit gluten development in certain types of tender pastry crusts, such as the foundation for my silky lemon bars or Kenji’s super-easy pie dough.
Promoting Gluten Development
Not all types of dough do well in a food processor, but it’s a powerful tool for those that require more structure than the average home baker has the skill to develop by hand. Think crusty dinner rolls and homemade bagels, as well as chewy pizza crust à la Kenji’s famous Sicilian-style pizza (a weekly endeavor at my house).
I also use my food processor to provide structure in crackers that need a crisp but sturdy texture, like homemade Wheat Thins or even beautifully blistered cannoli shells (yup, they’re a type of cracker!).
A food processor is essential for working with freeze-dried fruit, as it quickly reduces the crispy pieces to a fine powder for making bright-pink strawberry layer cake, fruit-infused whipped cream, and no-bake blueberry cheesecake.
Plus, no other tool can pulverize dark chocolate finely enough for homemade brownie mix, a recipe that also takes advantage of the “limiting gluten development” feature by subsequently processing coconut oil into the mixture.
That same grinding function is fantastic for preparing homemade nut butters, whether they’re spread over toast or creamed into soft and chewy hazelnut cookies.
Not only can they whip up run-of-the-mill fruit purées (which, admittedly, can be conquered with an immersion blender), food processors are powerful enough to purée dried fruit—the secret to my homemade Fig Newtons—and make short work of fibrous winter squash in bulk, for a silky-smooth pumpkin pie.
Perhaps dessert alone couldn’t make the case for owning a food processor to anyone but a pastry chef, but, combined with its utility in savory applications, it’s a tool that’s worth the investment for serious home cooks. It eliminates the need to chill so many types of cracker and cookie doughs, and it’s opened up a whole new world of dessert based on freeze-dried fruit, expanding my repertoire for both cakes and whipped cream. Plus, I can’t imagine trying to make homemade cannoli or bagels without it.
For me, that’s more than justified its footprint on the limited real estate of my kitchen counter. Well, that and my weekly pizza habit.