In a traditional chef's apprenticeship, the first few years were spent learning and refining knife-handling techniques. That produced skilled kitchen wizards who could turn mountains of vegetables into shreds with aplomb, but it's not exactly cost-efficient. A better alternative is the mandoline, which mounts the blade in a frame so you just have to slide the vegetables over it. They're useful for slicing and julienning most vegetables, and can also be used to shred cabbage or lettuce.
Most mandolines are made of plastic and are approximately 4 inches wide, though professional and consumer models are occasionally available in wider versions. The blades are usually interchangeable, so you can switch between a straight blade, a rippled blade or a julienne blade as needed. Most also have a mechanism for changing the thickness of your cuts, from paper-thin to a quarter-inch or more. Each mandoline comes with a safety grip to hold the vegetables, maintaining a prudent distance between your fingers and the razor-sharp blades.
Preparing the Lettuce
Leaf lettuces don't work well on a mandoline because of their delicate structure. However, iceberg lettuce and other tight-heading varieties can be shredded effectively. Head lettuce is often too wide to fit the mandoline, so it's best to quarter the head. Place your lettuce on a cutting board and cut in half, through the core. Cut it in half again, making four wedges, and trim out the core from the stem end of each quarter. Now your lettuce is ready for shredding.
Shredding the Lettuce
Place the wedge of lettuce on the deck of your mandoline, with the stem end to the rear. Carefully place the safety grip over the lettuce, positioning it at the highest point. Most have fine steel pins to grip the lettuce. Set the mandoline to a thin setting and make a test cut. If needed, adjust the thickness slightly and make another test slice. Once you've got the correct thickness, continue slicing until your protective hand guard reaches the mandoline's deck. Remove the remnant of the lettuce, and begin again with the second wedge. Repeat, until you've shredded all the lettuce.
Never use your mandoline without its protective guard. The blades are razor-sharp, and it's all too easy to lose part of a fingertip. Clean the mandoline and its blades immediately after each use as it's difficult and dangerous to scrub food from the blades after it has dried on. It's safest to clean the mandoline with a brush, or to buy one that's dishwasher-safe. If your lettuce has a number of loose leaves that don't fit well into the mandoline, roll them into a tight, cigar-like cylinder. Shred them by cutting across the cylinder thinly with a sharp knife.