One of the best ways to judge if a home cook is a serious one is to check for a mandolin slicer in the kitchen. No other tool is as useful for making all the quick, clean cuts that make a finished dish look ready for its close-up.
Mandolin slicers are a fixture in restaurant and home kitchens alike for quickly slicing cucumbers for salad, shredding cabbage for slaw or potatoes for chips or au gratins. All but the simplest versions come with interchangeable blades that can create julienne slices, crinkle cuts, matchsticks and more.
The typical mandolin slicer has either an all-metal or a plastic frame with stainless steel blades. They are held at an angle; some come with fold-out legs that hold them upright and some with a container that collects the food. You'll find mandolines with straight, V-shaped or diagonal blades (the latter two tend to do best with softer, more fragile foods like tomatoes).
Most importantly, all mandolins come with a food holder or some sort of finger guard. Some are easier to use than others, but use them you should, because these blades are sharp—just ask any seasoned chef for a horror story or three. (If you really find using the food holder awkward, invest in a cut-resistant glove.)
We risked our fingertips to try out an array of slicers at various price points to choose the four with the best performance and design. To put the models to the test, we sliced a variety of foods, from delicate tomatoes to hard sweet potatoes. We sliced at various thicknesses and tried out the different slicing blades, and kept tabs on how comfortable and easy each one was to use.
OXO SteeL Chef's Mandolin Slicer, $100
Why We Like It: OXO has a number of different slicers, but this one, its priciest, is the most well designed of any we've tried, from OXO or any other brand. The slicer comes with two double-sided cutting blades: The primary blade has a straight edge and reverses to a finely serrated edge designed for softer foods, and the other blade can make either crinkle or ruffle cuts (you can actually use these to make waffle cuts by passing the food over the blade, rotating it a quarter turn, and passing it over again—it works!). These blades are easy to change—they slide in and out of a slot on the side of the body. A knob on the side not only adjust the thickness (from 1/16 to ⅜ of an inch, with about 18 increments in between) but also flips up the thick or thin julienne blades. The straight edge cut just about everything easily and cleanly, and most foods were also easy to julienne. The food holder is comfortable to grip, although when cutting fries, it leaves a fairly big chunk of food that the blades can't reach uncut.
The Drawbacks: Both white and sweet potatoes were nearly impossible to cut with the wide julienne blade. And though we liked the little sheath that fits the blade that's not being used, we wish both of them could fit in there so that the slicer could be stored more safely.
Swissmar Borner V-Prep Mandolin Slicer, $45
Why We Like It: Don't worry about cutting your finger while reaching into a drawer—the Swissmar Borner V-Prep Mandolin Slicer and all its accessory blades come neatly boxed in a plastic container. While in use, the slicer fits on top of the container base so that the food collects inside. A panel in this slicer flips over to change the thickness of the cuts, or can be replaced with two differently sized shredding blades to julienne. The V-shaped cutting blade worked great on even supersoft tomatoes, but cheese didn't slice cleanly. White potatoes were easy to slice and cut into french fries, but sweet potatoes got stuck in the blade unless we pushed down hard.
The Drawbacks: The fact that this slicer has only two thickness options (1.7 and 5 mm slices) could be limiting. And the food holder was significantly smaller than the blade, which meant that it was hard to use for large items like tomatoes.
Benriner Japanese Mandolin Slicer, $52
Why We Like It: This Japanese slicer can often be found for dirt cheap at Asian department stores or supermarkets, and for simple slicing tasks, it's just as effective as pricier models. It comes with three toothed blades for making various widths of julienne cuts that are slipped into a groove in front of the cutting blade; two bolts are tightened to hold them in place. Another bolt on the underside of the body controls the size of the cuts. (You will have to make a few test slices to get the proper thickness.) The thickest will be about ⅜ of an inch; the thinnest is virtually paper thin. The blade is set at an angle, which helps cut the food with very little effort; even sweet potatoes sliced smoothly. And the diagonal blade also worked well for softer foods, since so little force was required.
The Drawbacks: The food guard is the most ineffective of any of the mandolins we tried. And forget about making french fries with this guy.
Kyocera Adjustable Mandolin Slicer, $25
Why We Like It: Kyocera is known for its ceramic cutlery, so it's no surprise that it incorporated a ceramic blade into its mandolin—a smart move since ceramic is known for retaining its sharpness over a long time. This is a no-frills, easy-to-use slicer for someone who doesn't need the julienne cutters or crinkle-cut blades. The turn of a rod on the underside adjusts the thickness, but there are just four settings, from .5 mm to 3 mm (each setting is labeled, which is nice). We also liked how the base has a little notch, so you can fit it onto the side of a bowl to collect the slices.
The Drawbacks: Again, the food holder is fairly useless—the prongs are so short it's difficult for them to grip the food. And though the slicer worked well on firm foods, it didn't hold up as much on soft stuff like tomatoes, which sliced a little raggedly, particularly on thinner settings.

~Thanks to Jessica Harlan