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Credit: Photos courtesy of Williams Sonoma, Amazon.

One of my favorite dishes to make when I first started learning to cook (which is to say, when I first had my own apartment) was potatoes au gratin. It's a pure comfort dish—I mean, how can you go wrong with baking sliced potato coins covered in milk, cheese, and garlic? I remember my grandmother making the dish on more than one occasion, and it's something I ordered whenever I could at restaurants. And yet it's something that just didn't quite turn out very good whenever I made it.

One of the reasons? A simple-sounding instruction I could never manage to get right: Cutting the potatoes into even slices. Invariably some would turn out thin, and some extra thick, and the au-gratin wouldn't quite cook evenly. I mean, it was edible. But it wasn't great.

Of course, I didn't spend six months at cooking school learning to make perfectly even cuts. So I ordered it at upscale restaurants and resigned myself to being a home cook who made imperfect gratins. And making imperfect slices in most other dishes, too.

But then I discovered the mandoline, and it changed my life. It's a brilliant little tool—basically a sharp knife set into an adjustable board, allowing you to make perfectly even slices of almost any fruit or vegetable every time. There are bone-simple versions, and amazingly complicated versions that will also julienne, cut waffle fries, and even cube foods.

Credit: Photo: Tilson PR

What Is a Mandoline Slicer and How Do I Use It?

Uniform slices of food in a recipe can make a huge difference. It can elevate a good dish to a great one, or even a sublime one. Food cooks more evenly, it looks more professional, and it just feels more competently made—which means it tastes better. For a meal like this roasted carrot and orecchiette it's vital: The carrots need to be exactly 1/8 inch thick, so that when they roast they can curl up properly, mimicking the cupped shape of the pasta.

And a mandoline makes achieving that uniformity—something that a professional chef spends months, or even years learning how to do—easy.

Credit: Photo courtesy of Amazon.

So why doesn't everyone have one? They have a reputation for being dangerous. You're moving your hand quickly over a surface with a very sharp blade. It's easy to cut yourself, and those cuts can be deep.

But that often comes from not using the thing properly to begin with—and not taking it seriously as a tool. They come with guards, but many people don't use them. And so often people will use one for a short while until they nick themselves (or get a slice that requires a visit to the emergency room) and that's it—the contraption is relegated to a back drawer, where it gathers dust until it's finally discarded.

If you learn to use it correctly, however, they're no more dangerous than a kitchen knife—and in many ways, safer. You can wear a cut-resistant glove, always (always) use the guards, and be slow and careful, especially at first, while you're learning it. It'll quickly become one of the most-used tools you own.

What Is the Best Mandoline Slicer to Buy?

After researching a couple dozen different brands and types, we brought in seven of the most popular and interesting-looking models and found our favorites. Here are three we feel we can recommend:

The Benchmark: Benriner

Credit: Photo: Amazon.

This classic mandoline is the one by which all the others are judged. It's the one you're likely to find in the back kitchen of most restaurants. To be honest, most other mandolines didn't measure up.

Don't let the inexpensive price tag make you think it's poorly made—this is probably the mandoline you should get, and if you do, you'll get years and years of use out of it.

Part of what makes it so sturdy and useful is its simplicity. Many mandolines have complicated mechanisms for determining pre-set slice sizes. Here, you set the size of the slice you want with the twist of a screw, meaning you have almost endless variation, from 1/4 inch chunks to almost paper-thin sheets. It comes with insertable vertical slicers that will enable you to julienne as well. But overall, it's simple, versatile, really easy to clean and keep sharp.

The Top of the Line: Michel Bras

Credit: Photo: Williams Sonoma.

If money is no object, this is the mandoline for you. While we looked at many fancy and complicated-looking mandolines, the Michel Bras gets it right by more or less keeping all the advantages of the Benriner: It uses an adjustable screw mechanism for the widest variety (and most precise adjustments) of slice thickness. And it's super easy to set up and clean.

This has the added advantage of a nice sturdy set of legs to stand on, and interchangeable blades—so you can remove and clean/sharpen the straight blade, or swap in a blade for making wavy cuts and crinkle cuts.

It was also a real pleasure to use—which, at what it costs, it should be.

The Tricked-Out Machine: PL8 Professional Cubing Mandoline

Credit: Photo courtesy of Amazon.

Most of the other mandolines we tested involved integrated or adjustable blades and slicers of varying complexity. For the most part, these tended to be either limiting (five or 10 settings, without a lot of precision) or overly complicated (read: hard to clean, and probably easy to break).

But there was one machine with a nifty feature that could come in handy. In addition to all the slicing and julienning features, this will allow you to make largish or smallish cubes as well—perfect if you're dicing up sweet potatoes for a hash, for instance. It does this by giving the food guard the ability to turn 90 degrees and stop, and letting you take two passes on a set of vertical slicers before cutting the food horizontally.

It works relatively well, and it's a neat trick that we didn't see in other mandolines. But not so fast— the vertical blade mechanism, which isn't removable, does seem like it would be hard to clean. Nothing is perfect, after all.