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At least in terms of basic function, there is little difference between a blender and a smoothie maker. Both are kitchen appliances capable of pulverizing and crushing ingredients, and both can be used to make “smoothies” — a broad name for fruit-based juice drinks. In most cases, however, smoothie-specific machines can only be used to make beverages. They are often less expensive than blenders, but are not capable of doing as much. People who want a versatile appliance that can perform many different kitchen tasks are usually best served investing in a blender, while those who are really only interested in mixing drinks might be better off with a dedicated smoothie making machine.
The biggest difference is in what each appliance was designed to do. Blenders are usually multifunctional: many will crush ice, pulverize thick pieces of food, and puree or liquefy different substances. Cooks use them in a variety of recipes to do a range of things. They are helpful when making soups, for instance, but can just as easily whip up ingredients for frosting on baked goods.
Smoothie makers have a much more direct purpose and are typically designed to do little more than blend drinks. Their blades are often contoured specifically for fruit, and they often hold less than blenders when it comes to overall volume. Additionally, most simply have an “on” and “off” switch, which allows less control for things like crushing ice or pureeing liquid.
Blenders are usually the larger of the two appliances, and are typically made up of a pitcher and a base. The pitcher is where the foods or liquids to be blended go and, once blending is complete, is where they remain until poured.
Smoothie makers, on the other hand, often have much more involved designs. Some adopt the basic pitcher look, but often with modifications. It is not uncommon to find a spout on the side of the pitcher, for instance, which allows for easy dispensing once everything is mixed. A built-in stir stick might also be present, which allows cooks to scrape the pitcher’s sides and keep the ingredients mixing even while the machine is on.
A machine designed to make single drinks might also come with a detachable cup element. In this sort of set-up, the drink is made right in the cup that it will later be enjoyed in, saving the effort of pouring it from a pitcher and requiring less clean up. A few of the fancier models might even include a juicing element, so whole pieces of fruit can be added in that will then be juiced and blended into the final product.
Many people who have used both appliances note that dedicated smoothie makers often turn out more consistent results, at least where texture is concerned. Machines designed specifically for drink making are sometimes able to get a smoother, silkier end product. Fruits, like strawberries or blackberries, that have grainy seeds are often completely liquefied in this sort of a machine, whereas little chunks may be left behind if a blender is used. This doesn’t usually impact the drink's taste, but it can play a role in its overall quality.
How easily each appliance can be cleaned is largely variable since there are very many models and styles available. As a general rule, though, the fewer components something has, the easier it will be to get it clean. Smoothie makers are often much more complex, particularly when they come with things like spouts or juicing compartments. It is very important for owners to spend the time to get each part clean to prevent bacterial growth or machine clogging. Blenders are usually easier to maintain, if only because they have fewer pieces, but again, much depends on design — very high-end blenders with a lot of components may be harder to sanitize than a lower end, simple smoothie maker.
For most people, the choice ultimately comes down to convenience. Those with limited kitchen space might elect to buy a blender, reasoning that they can use it to make smoothies as well as other things without having to worry about where to store yet another bulky appliance. The same is true for someone who may only occasionally want to blend up fruit drinks. On the other hand, a person who starts each morning with a smoothie might find a dedicated machine more helpful. Some cooks also want to keep their blenders reserved for more intensive projects, particularly those involving savory or spicy ingredients. Using a separate appliance for fruit drinks can help prevent flavor-crossing.