Category Archives: Book and Product Reviews

Occasional reviews of products we love–and occasionally abhor–that find their way into our home.

Vacuum Sealer: Cooks Illustrated vs Amazon

While Consumer Reports hasn’t weighed in on which is the best vacuum sealer (yet), Cook’s Illustrated and the reviewer community at Amazon are singing together nicely on the subject.

We ended up buying a vacuum sealer somewhere in the middle of the melody line: the FoodSaver V3840.

Vacuum sealer cartoon by Rick Jamison

Have I mentioned that we recently moved to a new home that has both a Costco within a 10-minute drive AND a fish dock where local fishermen bring their catch almost daily? And that Rick has an extreme obsession a hearty enthusiasm for bargains, fresh food acquired as close to the source as possible, and provisioning our larder?

This new situation had us running both out of freezer space and into the risk of losing frozen fish due to freezer burn and/or expired “use by” dates. It was clearly time to either:

a) Buy a chest freezer (no room)

b) Stay out of Costco (ha!)

c) Eat fish every meal for the next six weeks straight (nope, no can do), or

d) Buy a vacuum sealer


Time to tune in to the home vacuum sealer rating game.

Weston Professional Advantage Vacuum Sealer

In the recent Cook’s Country—sister magazine of Cook’s Illustrated—review of vacuum sealers, the Weston Professional Advantage Vacuum Sealer (above) came out on top. While it doesn’t seem to have much traction at Amazon with only 3 ratings (4.7 out of 5) and 2 reviews, I suspect the just under $200 price tag is the driver there. Between Cook’s and the two reviewers on Amazon, though, this model gets a lotta love.

The Amazon reviewers were light on specifics in the midst of their gushing: “This is the best vacuum sealer and I have had others…” and “I love this after I learned how to use it. It’s working wonders. Love it.”

Cook’s was more specific:

“This compact, powerful heat-sealing model kept food fresh for three months and counting. Its intuitive interface has a responsive pulse mode and bright blue lights that indicate its progress. It works with a wide variety of bags, canisters, and rolls that were the cheapest of any sealer in our lineup.”

And thank you Cook’s for that last tidbit, because here we pause for a brief and entirely relevant tangent: you need to have vacuum sealer bags or customizable plastic rolls-waiting-to-be-turned-into-vacuum-sealer-bags for any of these models to work.

And while Weston (and Cook’s) claim that this model will work with a variety of bag brands (as long as they’re textured or embossed bags that are intended for use with vacuum sealers), several of the reviewers on Amazon vigorously claimed otherwise, specifically mentioning that Food Saver bags don’t work with the Weston. However, based on a cost comparison of  current “list prices” on Amazon*, this shouldn’t be a problem since the Weston bags are less expensive anyway.

Cost Comparison: 11″ Vacuum Sealer Rolls

Cost / Foot


(3) 16′ Rolls



(3) 18′ Rolls



(2) 9′ Rolls



(2) 50′ Rolls


* Cost = Discounted prices @ as of 10/5/2014

A few tips on getting the most from your bags:

  • Cut the bags several inches longer than you need. Once you open them, you can then wash them out and re-use them.
  • Avoid the generic brands: the reviewers say they have a seriously low success rate at sealing, meaning you end up spending as much or more anyway with added work for your trouble.
  • For models without a “moist” setting, freeze wet foods before sealing to avoid getting moisture in the sealing zone. Moisture will prevent a solid seal.
  • While I’m not certain about the other brands, the FoodSaver brand bags are BPA free, microwavable, and because they’re suitable for simmering, perfect for the increasingly popular “sous vide” style of cooking. (UPDATED SEPT. 2015: Find out what sous vide machine Cook’s Illustrated now recommends, and which one we bought.)

Close behind the Weston Professional Advantage Vacuum Sealer is the Waring Pro Pistol Vac Professional Vacuum Sealer System, which Cook’s Country rates as their “Recommended – Best Buy.”


Waring Pro Pistol Vac Professional Vacuum Sealer System

Okay, so maybe it’s just me, but this looks so much like my blow dryer that it made me nervous: what if I got them mixed up?

Plus, the idea of me using a “handheld” powered vacuum in the same vicinity as a piece of slippery fresh fish conjured to mind the probability of a Chevy Chase-like kitchen scene that Rick would rather not have to clean up. I have no clue how you would use such a thing.

In fact, I had no clue how to use a non-handheld model either, until we got one and I found out how easy it is.

In the middle of the pack, Cook’s Country recommends three vacuum sealers “With Reservations”: the FoodSaver 2-in-1 Vacuum Sealer System, the FoodSaver Vacuum Sealing System*, and the Seal-A-Meal Vacuum Food Sealer.

Of the five models that Cook’s recommends, we actually didn’t buy any of them but went with a ringer instead.


FoodSaver V3840

As you can tell from the video, in the end we bought a FoodSaver V3840. Serendipitously, it features everything that Cook’s liked about the other two FoodSaver models and avoided the bulk of the one and concern about durability of the other:

foodsaver vacuum

  • It automatically grabs, vacuums, and seals the bags.
  • It has a roll storage compartment with a built-in plastic slicer that tidily cuts bags to size.

foodsaver vacuum

  • It has both a normal and “gentle” vacuum setting, plus a manual override option that allows you to stop the vacuuming operation before it crushes more delicate or compressible items such as bread or shredded mozzarella cheese. (Pop quiz: What is your first clue that we have moved to Canada?)

foodsaver vacuum

  • It also has a marinade option. We haven’t tried that yet but friends claim it is a thing of beauty when you want to speed marinate chicken or beef.
  • It has a robust, durable housing, yet the trim vertical profile made it easy to find a spot for it in our cupboard.

foodsaver vacuum (and this was, in truth, the deciding factor for us), it was on a killer sale at our local hardware store. While we knew we wanted a vacuum sealer, we sort of impulse purchased this one based on a “Look! There’s one on sale!” basis before doing our homework. Having said that, we’re very happy with our FoodSaver V3840.

BTW, if you happen to find Seal-A-Meal bags or rolls for less than the FoodSaver bags, we tried them (also on sale locally) and they worked fine.

As for the Seal-A-Meal vacuum food sealer itself, the Cook’s Country “Recommended with hesitation” review said, “It has no manual pulse mode, so it crunched pretzels and cereal into crumbs. That said, it kept frozen food ice-free just as long as models that cost four times its price, three months and counting.”

Seal-A-Meal Vacuum Food Sealer

And cost is indeed a factor here: at around $30, the Seal-A-Meal vacuum food sealer is the #1 Best Seller on Amazon.  Also, it is reported to work well with the less-expensive (at least on Amazon) FoodSaver rolls.

Ultimately, to answer the question “What is the best vacuum sealer?” the real-world answer should consider the combination of “best vacuum sealer reviews” with “best vacuum sealer bag price.” Here’s why:

Back in the pre-online banking era when people used to write paper checks, Rick had an interesting conversation with Intuit founder Scott Cook. Rick wanted to understand how Intuit was able to sell Quicken software for almost no money without upsetting shareholders. The insight he received was that Quicken customers would inevitably become buyers of Quicken checks and other paper products—consumables with high profit margins. There you have it: a high-tech redirect to a lucrative low-tech profit center.

Translated to the world of vacuum sealers, the best vacuum sealer is the one that performs well for your needs—and isn’t too expensive to feed with bags.

*On a completely corporate-facing note, Foodsaver is owned by a publicly-traded company, Jarden (NYSE: JAH) that acquired the Foodsaver brand in 2002 when it bought Tilia International, maker of the Tilia Vacuum Sealer. Jarden is a 33,000-employee, $7.7 billion company that also owns Kerr, Ball, and Bernardin of canning jar fame as well as Bicycle and Hoyle playing cards, First Alert smoke detectors, and Yankee Candle. Oh, and also Mr. Coffee, Oster, Sunbeam, Crock-Pot, Coleman, K2, Aerobed, Rawlings, and Marmot.

These people know a thing or two about food preservation and preparation, and survival equipment, including that ingenious wireless entertainment system known as “a deck of playing cards.”

And now you know.

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Bathroom Scales: Consumer Reports vs Good Housekeeping vs Amazon

I don’t normally start with the punchline, but since this is a longish post and I know some of you have been wading through a TON of reviews trying to sort out the confusing, overwhelming, and often contradictory world of which is the best buy on digital bathroom scales, I’m going to cut to the chase:

EatSmart Precision Digital Bathroom Scale

Just so we’re clear from the outset: the scales weren’t for me. They were for my jeans.

4.6 stars on Amazon with OVER 14 THOUSAND reviews. Good Housekeeping rates it a “B+.” Fair enough.

(Consumer Reports didn’t comment, but for reasons that I make clear downstream, we didn’t let this override our decision.)

It’s pretty, and at around $25, it’s inexpensive.

It comes with some cool features.

It’s super easy to set up and use.

We didn’t want anything fancy. We didn’t want weight scales that measure body fat (don’t trust the results), and we don’t care if our bathroom scale can WiFi to our computer, toaster, or some guy driving down the road in front of our house.

In fact, once we step off, we’d rather our scale just keeps everything it knows to itself, thank you very much.

This bathroom scale comes with batteries, a user-friendly manual, and possibly the most ingeniously designed body tape measure I’ve ever seen. It actually makes it easy to measure your waist.

In all our research, the EatSmart Precision Digital Bathroom Scale emerged at the top of the heap. It has worked well for us. And it’s apparently incredibly very well regarded by people who care about their bathroom scales.*

We could call it a day right here.

However, in case you’re interested in the “how we got there” backstory, some tips we discovered along the way about how to get the most out of your scale no matter which one you end up standing on, and what Consumer Reports, Good Housekeeping, and Amazon had to say about their top ranked options, read on.

About five months after our FitBit One fitness trackers jumped off our belts somewhere in the fields around our house, our FitBit Aria scale died, thus ending a short foray into one of the most popular fitness tracker eco-systems.

The autopsy revealed an advanced case of battery corrosion that had extended to the battery case, but in truth the scale had stopped working about four fresh battery changes earlier.

Before we went through the whole process of trying to figure out what is now the best bathroom scale to consider, I did a little research to see if we had a shot at getting a replacement. In response to the Google search term, “FitBit Aria battery corrosion,” this was what I found in the #1 ranked url:

It’s from a presentation that appears to have been created for internal FitBit Help Desk staff, and if you’d like a short but VERY informative preview of the kind of customer service you might expect from FitBit in response to complaints about their Aria bathroom scale, take a look.

Apparently FitBit considers battery corrosion to have been caused by “external damage,” which translates in the customer service universe to: “We didn’t do it, you did. No replacement for you.”

We didn’t even bother calling.

For now, we’ve decided that while in theory we’re huge fans of “smart everything,” until the FitBits of the world get the quality of their technology ducks in a row, we’re not biting. Just tell me what I weigh, and I’ll upload it to myself. Or not.

It was time to check in with Consumer Reports, Good Housekeeping, and the Amazon world of best sellers and reviewers to see how they all weighed in (sorry) on the subject of what model won the “best bathroom scale” award.

Consumer Reports’ Top Rated Bathroom Scales… and a Mystery

Taylor 7506 Digital Scale

Based on the variables of accuracy and consistency, Consumer Reports rated the Taylor 7506 Digital Scale  as their top pick.

Ironically, their own user reviews only gave it a 1.3 stars out of 5 in over 30 reviews, with only 13% saying they would recommend to a friend. The complaints ranging from wildly swinging weights (+/- 9 lbs. by just stepping off and on) to early product deaths.

I hopped over to Amazon for a second opinion, and got over 1100 of them that averaged in at an underwhelming 3.8 stars out of 5.

Question: How could Consumer Reports give it such a high rating yet users seemed so disappointed in it?

There were so many questions in the Amazon listing around how to calibrate the unit that my curiosity got the better of me and I decided to look for myself.

The information wasn’t difficult to find (the scale is calibrated at the factory), but it did lead to deeper digging and reflection into what generally gives people grief about their scales—aside from their own weight, of course—and here’s what I’ve concluded:

  • People (meaning, “people like me”) often don’t bother to read the manual for new purchases they think they already “should” know how to use
  • A “digital” anything by default has delicate, temperature- and humidity-sensitive technology involved and must be treated with care
  • It doesn’t seem to occur to folk that their own usage methodology might have something to do with both the accuracy and consistency of results


Tips for Better Accuracy and Product Life

So before any further discussion on the recommended models, here are a few tips for getting better performance and longevity out of your bathroom scale, no matter which one you decide to purchase:

  1. Read the manual. Seriously. I know you’ve probably been using a scale since you were old enough to care about what size jeans you wear, but the new ones (especially the “smart” ones) all contain new technology and they all work a bit differently.
  2. Put the scale on the hardest surface you have available to you. Hard is good.
  3. Dry is also good, and since most of us keep our scales in the bathroom where there is also conveniently a shower, sink, and toilet, there is a LOT of humidity challenge for your scale to deal with. This is especially true if your bathroom is small and you like long, hot showers. Consider draping a towel over your scale before you step into the shower, and leave it there until the steam clears up.
  4. If you need to move your scale, lift it and then set it down carefully to avoid damaging the pressure sensitive feet. Make sure to recalibrate (or “reinitialize”) after every move. Avoid storing your scale upright.
  5. Scales don’t like super cold surfaces on their bare tootsies any more than you do. If the temperature gets below 50 degrees F, it may get cranky and pout.
  6. If you want accurate bathroom scales, be consistent in how and where you stand. Stand up straight and just drop your head, glancing down with your eyes (this is why the size and brightness of the readout is important), and put your feet in the same spot for each weigh-in. The pressure sensors are located in the feet on either side of the readout—the back two are just there for support—so if you lean forward, you’ll weigh more. Lean back, and voila! Last night’s chocolate souffle disappears in a blink.
  7. Many scales seem to have a memory: they remember one reading and it won’t change unless the weight changes by more than 1 or 2 lbs., and sometimes within a certain window of time. If you limit yourself to a once-a-day weigh-in (which is the most recommended by weight management experts anyway) and recalibrate/initialize every time you (carefully) move it, you stand less of a chance with inaccuracy issues.

Of the almost 50 scales Good Housekeeping reviewed, they had no mention of the Taylor 7506, or any other Taylor scale, for that matter.


Other Top Rated Bathroom Scales

Tanita HS 302 Solar Powered Digital Scale

If you’re environmentally concerned about batteries messing up our landfills and want great accuracy, you might want to go with Consumer Reports’ second highest recommendation, the Tanita HS 302.

While there were no user reviews on Consumer Reports, a check with the Amazon reviewer community revealed a so-so rating of 3.6 out of 55 reviewers. Apparently, while the accuracy of the scale was a joy to many, the solar power was problematic for some of the reviewers. I suspect, once again, that some of those issues might be user-induced.

According to the product manual, you will need to “Place your solar scale onto a flat, hard surface, while being exposed directly to room or natural light.” A few of the “5 star/love it!” crowd on Amazon mentioned that if the unit was exposed to the bathroom light, it powered up nicely. However, if they cast a shadow on the solar panel by stepping in front of the light source as they hop on the scale, it flakes out. They simply reposition the scale so it stays exposed to the light, and everyone is happy.

Did I mention you should read the manual and think about how you’re using your scale?

Tanita HD 384

Good Housekeeping didn’t review the Tanita HS 302 either, but the Tanita HD 384 scored in their top picks with an “A” rating. It also scored a straight 5 star rating on Amazon, albeit with only 4 reviewers. Still, given the time of day and situation in which I normally weigh myself (o’ dark thirty after a pee, starkers, and barely able to focus), I’m not sure having my weight available every time in pounds, kilograms, and stones would be a plus.

Tanita HD 357

Consumer Reports didn’t mention either the Tanita HS 302 OR the Tanita HD 384, but they DID score the Tanita HD 357 in their top 5.

Unfortunately, the two reviewers on the Consumer’s site vigorously disagreed with their assessment, scoring a ONE OUT OF FIVE STARS average. And in yet another twist of the plot, the Amazon community kinda likes this puppy to the tune of 4.3 stars out of 25 reviewers.

I did say this was going to be complicated, right?

That’s why, in the end, we decided to play “pin the tale on the bathroom scale” and go with the crowd on this one.

EatSmart Precision Digital Bathroom Scale

As I said upstream, so far, so great. No complaints, and we’re on the “5 thumbs up” side of the Amazon reviewer ledger.  In fact, on the gentle request of the unpushy little note that the EatSmart people included in the packaging, I think I’ll head over to Amazon next and leave the 14,283rd review, just to show support for a Smart small business and in solidarity with our fellow scale hoppers.


Good health to you all!

Coffee Grinders: Cooks Illustrated, Consumer Reports, Amazon Reviews

Our beloved Krups coffee grinder had died, and the sound of the beans smashing at light speed against the plastic prep bowl in our mini food processor would wake the dead, or at least our house guests on a different floor. Thus we found ourselves in the market for a new coffee grinder. Here’s the summary of my digging into what Cooks Illustrated, Consumer Reports product reviews, the Amazon reviewer community, and a handful of other online gurus had to say about the blessed bean and how best to grind ‘er.

Coffee grinders-5

(Generally Agreed Upon) Key Factors In Grinding Coffee Beans

  1. The time between grinding and consumption:
    Less exposure to oxygen = less degradation of flavor = good coffee
  2. The uniformity of the grind: 
    Even grind = better extraction = “Ahh… that’s lovely!” coffee.
  3. The heat created during grinding:
    Slower grinding = lower temperature increase =
    “Don’t speak. Just… don’t speak…” coffee
  4. A clean grinding mechanism:
    Leftover grinds in the machine =
    oxygenated, degrading coffee grounds in your next pot =
    “Fuggedaboudit. I’m going to Starbucks.”

Ergo, (Generally Agreed Upon) Key Factors in Evaluating Coffee Grinders

  1. Using even a cheap half-decent grinder at home just before you make your coffee trumps using the big ol’ supermarket monster grinder at the Piggly Wiggly the day before.
  2. The three different grinder mechanisms commonly available affect the uniformity of the grind. Burr grinders generally work better than blade grinders at creating an even grind and minimizing coffee “dust” that can clog a filter and create sludge in the bottom of your cup. Additionally, conical burr grinders do a better job than flat burr grinders as they usually operate at a lower speed, meaning they’re quiet and create less static (static = mess). Finally, no matter what kind of grinder you use, you should match the coarseness of the grind to the brewing method. (Note: as we depend on our grinder for everything from our French press (very coarse grind) to our espresso machine (very fine grind), we were looking for a well-rounded grinder that could handle both ends of the spectrum.)
  3. Heat creation: good quality burr grinders are reputed to create less heat during the grinding process than the blade jobbers.
  4. Ease of cleaning counts as the race against the clock is already lost if you wake up to yesterday’s leftovers in your grinder. And in my world, the easier something is to clean, the more likely it is that it will become the habit it should be.

Three Additional (Universally Agreed Upon) Key Factors in Evaluating Coffee Grinders

  1. Cost: Spending less money to achieve similar results is better.
  2. Reliability: A grinder that’s in a shipping container on its way back to the manufacturer for repair won’t make very good coffee, no matter how much you paid for it in the first place.
  3. Noise: It should be the aroma of the elixir, not the supersonic squeal of the grinder, that coaxes your beloved from their slumber.

With that background in mind, we visited our usual suspects–Cook’s and Consumer Reports–for their recommendations, only to learn that they were surprisingly tough to come by.

An online search of Cook’s Illustrated produced only one disappointing review on coffee grinders dating back to 2001 (the date is obviously problematic) and even that only reviewed grinders under $50.

Their highest recommendation back then is still available, the Capresso 501 Cool Grind blade grinder, above. A newer model is now available, except that now it’s called Capresso 501 Cool Grind Coffee/Spice Grinder.

Given the conventional wisdom that uniformity is a top consideration, why would their top recommendation be a blade grinder? In their article, Cook’s claims that their tests didn’t reveal a huge difference in temperature between the blade models and the few low-end burr grinders they tested, and that by giving a blade grinder a good shake as it’s grinding, the uniformity issue of the grind can be resolved, so maybe an inexpensive blade grinder is indeed an okay option for an average coffee drinker.

And at around $20, the Capresso 501 certainly qualifies as a winner in the price category, but with only a 3.7 star rating and 12 reviewers on, it’s an underwhelming consideration.

Ironically, it was Cook’s next highest recommendation from 2001 that has emerged as the WILDLY popular #1 Best Seller in “coffee grinders,” on Amazon, the Krups F20342 blade grinder (above).  Also available at around $20, the Krups has (at the time of writing) a whopping 4.4 star rating with 2836 reviews! (I also accidentally found myself looking at the #1 Best Seller cheap meat grinder that’s also a pasta maker, but that’s a different story for another day.)

So if you just want a decent, reasonably reliable home grinder, according to a 13-year old review by Cooks Illustrated and around 3000 informed consumers, you get a lot of bang for your buzz with the Krups. Just be sure to pick it up and make like a martini master to even out the grind, and you’ll be 4.4 / 5.0 the way to a great cup of coffee.

Incidentally, Consumer Reports’ more recent review talks about exactly one model that grinds coffee, and it isn’t even an actual stand-alone coffee grinder. What part of the brave new world vision of “a Starbucks on every corner” have these people missed?

Krups Grind and Brew Coffee Machine

It’s a kinda pretty coffee machine that both grinds and brews with a conical burr grinder, and while you’d expect a decent machine based on both the brand name and type of grinder, it scores somewhere in the “blech” range by both Consumer Reports and the reviewers at Amazon. (No mention of this particular machine anywhere I could find by Cooks Illustrated.)
The biggest beef at Amazon about the Krups was, hands down, around reliability, and at roughly $150, I’d keep shopping, which we did.

Given the disappointing results of our Cooks and Consumer Reports recommendations and the wee epiphany that perhaps current users of coffee grinders might have insight into something Cook’s Illustrated and Consumer Report’s have lost interest in, we decided to try a new approach to find the best conical burr grinder out there: the Amazon reviewer community.

Yup. We crowd-reviewed our way into our new grinder.


And that’s how we landed on the the Capresso 560 conical burr grinder (above). At the time of this writing, at 2,114 customer reviews and a 4.1 star rating on, the Capresso had–by far–the strongest track record of any product that was returned with the search term “conical burr grinder.”
Coffee grinders-1
So far, we’re 98% loving it.
At about $100, it’s less expensive than the Baratza Encore, although the Barazta is also a well recommended unit that’s mentioned in several online guru discussions and was a strong runner-up consideration for us.

Coffee grinders-6It’s compact, solid with no flimsy-feeling parts, and runs virtually static free. I just tap it lightly after grinding (an old habit that was reinforced in my research), and the grinds transfer smoothly from the grinds holder to the French press with zero airborne grindlets cluttering the counter.

Coffee grinders-4It produces a beautiful even grind…

Coffee grinders-3… and it’s easy to take out the upper burr to clean. You just whip the little brush around the upper burr to loosen any clinging remnants, hold the base upside down over the sink and tap gently to dump any grounds around the bottom burr, and you’re done.

The unit has a wide range of grinding options, although so far, we’ve only tried the coarse grind for use with our French press, which incidentally is the top methodology recommendation by Cooks Illustrated on how to make good coffee.

Once we’ve fired up the espresso machine, I’ll weigh in on the remaining 2% of “loving it,” and I’ll be sure to check in in about 6 months to let you know if we 4.1 / 5.0 agree with the other 2,114.

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Toasters: Cooks Illustrated vs. Consumer Reports (vs. The Queen)

(Nov. 2017) UPDATED:

We are still LOVING our Magimix. It’s proven to be completely reliable, easy to clean, and since one of the best features is the “toast from frozen” function, we thought you might be interested in this recent article on The Secret to Good Toast. BTW, this Hamilton Beach is now the top seller on Amazon.

Here’s to toast!

How strongly do people feel about a good piece of toast?

Best Toaster: Cooks Illustrated v. Consumer Reports |

When my mom’s old toaster started to misbehave, this normally very easily pleased woman declared she wanted to replace it with the best toaster money could buy. She wanted same model as that used by the Queen of England, Herself. (For the royalty junkies among you, this is rumored to be the Dualit 2-Slice Toaster.)

Local shopping access ruled the day (my folks are not big Amazon users), and she ended up with a KRUPS 2-Slice Toaster instead, but the point of my story is this: if bread is the staff of life, buying the right toaster to carmelize your daily dose is a non-trivial affair.

That’s why, when our own toaster unceremoniously gave up the ghost, we consulted not one but two culinary oracles for their excellent toaster reviews: Cook’s Illustrated and Consumer Reports. Both provided excellent information, and for our search for the best toaster, the cross-referencing of both perspectives proved to be most enlightening.


Mmmmm…. toast. (I’m just showing you this to keep you emotionally focused on the subject at hand. There is some actual information and helpful links coming, and I don’t want you to drift on me.) Beyond the usual considerations of price, reliability, ease of use, versatility, etc., there is apparently a LOT that goes into consistently producing an evenly browned hunk o’ bread, and most of it has to do with the heating elements: what they’re made of, how many there are, and where they’re placed. Nichrome wires are commonly used, and according to Cook’s, using more of them, evenly spaced, is a key success factor. The other heating element material sometimes used is quartz, and that turned out to be what is used in their top recommendation (and our new toaster!), the Magimix Colored Vision Toaster.


I’m just glad that the Cook’s top pick didn’t use platinum for its heating elements, ’cause given what we were willing to pay for a really good toaster, I’m pretty sure we’d have coughed up whatever they asked. Apparently I have inherited the “good toast is not an extravagance: it’s a British Commonwealth birthright” gene.


Consumer Reports also included the Magimix toaster in their top three, right behind their top choice, the Calphalon 2 Slot Stainless Steel Toaster, and their second choice, the Cuisinart CPT-420 Touch to Toast Leverless 2-Slice Toaster

In fourth place but ranked as their “Best Buy,” Consumer Reports toasters listed the Hamilton Beach 2-Slice Toaster.

At around $25, this really is a good buy, and as of this writing, it’s the #1 best seller toaster on Amazon. However, for our toaster money–and admittedly, the Magimix commands a fair whack of it–we wanted the Rolls Royce. For something that lives 24/7 on our countertop, we wanted a FINE looking piece of industrial design that would last at least until the 2034 Cook’s and Consumer’s recommendations come out. Plus, I’m a sucker for anything red in my kitchen.


It’s easy to decode the five simple option buttons (even after you’ve gone through an international move and lost track of the manual): you can choose how dark you want your toast, toast bread or bagels, reheat previously toasted toast, toast frozen bread, or stop toasting if you see your toast is, um, toast. I’d like to raise a toast to the English language: Prost! (It rhymes with “toast.”)


And speaking of Anglo-ish things, want to know what came in as Cook Illustrated’s second place toaster recommendation, “… with reservations?”

The Dualit 2-Slice Toaster. Ha! Sorry, Ma’am.

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Food Processor vs Blender

For years we’ve noodled on this question: If we have a great blender and an excellent set of knives (which we do), do we really need a food processor? And if so, which ones do Cooks Illustrated, Consumer Reports, and the gang at suggest we make room for in our kitchen?

godzillaTo get to the bottom of the question of food processor vs blender, we once again turned to our go-to source for all things kitchenly, Cooks Illustrated. I figured if Cook’s reviewed each type of machine separately, their test criteria would reveal good clues about which machine was best for what task.

I love being right.

Food Processors: Think “Prep, Pizza, Pastry, and… Pink?”

In a review updated just this month, Cook’s tested food processors for their ability to zip through three essential kitchen tasks: functions it might take you half a day to do with a knife, mixing dough, and emulsifying small quantities of liquidy stuff, and that’s a pretty good tip-off for what you should expect a food processor to do for you.

Specifically, in addition to being easy to clean, the machines were tested for:

  • Grating and slicing without squished or wasted food
  • Chopping celery, carrots and onions, and mincing herbs
  • Grinding nuts into uniform pieces
  • Cutting cold butter neatly into flour for pies (and anything else you might need to cut cold butter into, which turns out to be quite a lot)
  • Mixing pizza dough
  • Emulsifying the ingredients for a classic mayo

In their 2010 equipment review on food processors, Cook’s had rated the KitchenAid KFP750 as “still the one to beat” but this recent update lists it as now discontinued and thus out of their running.

Just out of curiosity, I checked on Amazon and there is still the “Cook for the Cure” Komen Foundation pink edition of the the KFP750 available.

Ummm… I just… ummm… oh, dear.

Well, as of this writing, it’s there if you want it.

Cook’s current second runner up, the Breville Sous Chef Food Processor (above) would have been their first pick, except for the price tag: it’s almost double that of their highest recommendation, the Cuisinart DFP-14BCN 14-Cup Food Processor below.

In fact, that’s the order Consumer Reports placed them in: the Breville is #1 and the Cuisinart ranked #3, separated by another Cuisinart model not mentioned at all by Cook’s, the Cuisinart DLC-2011CHB Prep 11 Plus. (Consumer Reports did not factor cost in their overall score, focusing instead on performance, noise, and convenience.)

In any case, given the neck and neck ranking race between the Breville and the Cuisinart, for the extra $200, we figured we could buy a lot of cabbage PLUS this beauty, which we did.

Cuisinart DFP-14BCN 14-Cup Food Processor

Amazon reviewers agreed with a 4.4 star rating and over 500 reviews.

Two words sum up our feelings on the Cuisinart: LOVE IT! Long-term readers of our blog will know we make a lot of food–soups, stir-frys, pizzas–based on sliced, chopped, or diced fresh vegetables and/or grated cheese. The Cuisinart has drastically reduced our prep time for these dishes, but it still wasn’t clear to us: which was the best machine for which task?

In the past, we had tried to use our Vitamix 5200 for several of these slicing, chopping and dicing tasks, but since blenders tend to want to puree everything into something either slurpable, drinkable or dippable, we gave up and went back to knives and box graters, until we made room in the tent for our new darling.

By following the directions in the short (and delightfully kitchy) instructional DVD that came with it, we now create perfectly sliced mushrooms and tomatoes, grated cheese, diced celery, etc. in the time it used to take us to pull up a stool and pour a glass of wine to sustain us through the job of doing it all by hand.

Zip… et voila! C’est finis!

cuisinart-1The one task that food processors in general don’t do well is emulsifying or liquifying large quantities. This isn’t because they aren’t up to the emulsification–is that a word?–itself.

I suspect this is in part where the “blender vs food processor?” confusion comes in as they can both do the job. It’s because the food processor container isn’t designed to accommodate that much liquid, and if you push the boundaries, you can end up with one helluva splashy mess on your hands. (Note the tiny “max liquid fill” line on the container in the image above.)

Blenders: Think “Beverages”

In addition to testing for durability, speed, and noise, Cook’s tested the blenders mainly on their ability to pulverize, puree, or liquify whatever was thrown in them. And the winner in the category of best blender is…

Vitamix 5200

We have owned one for years, and again, LOVE OUR VITAMIX. In addition to being an absolute work horse for making our morning smoothies and pureeing soups, it can slush up a mean margarita. But it’s not the only Cook’s approved option.

This, ladies and gentlemen, is the Breville The Hemisphere Control Blender..

Aside from the funky name, Cook’s give this their “best buy” rating, and at about half the cost of the Vitamix, 582 reviewers on agree on a 4.2 star rating. But neither the Vitamix nor the Breville win the race at either Consumer Reports or on Amazon’s best seller list in the category: that honor goes to this puppy:

The Ninja Master Prep Professional (QB1004) is ridiculously inexpensive, it performs beautifully, and unless you’re looking for a power workhorse that can make soup and/or chew gravel, almost 2000 reviewers on Amazon agree in 4.4 alignment that it’s a solid bet.

However, on occasion, we at rickandkathy DO want a blender that can make soup and/or chew gravel. Plus, we are Vitamix groupies. (What can we say?!)

The Vitamix also comes with a “dry” container that can, in theory, chop nuts, breadcrumbs, etc., but our experience is that it’s difficult to get a uniform consistency that’s fine enough without accidentally pulverizing stuff into meal. Our new Cuisinart food processor is a much better option for those tasks.

And while the Vitamix can mash together a good smooth hummus (in fact, that was one of Cook’s tests), we have found we prefer the slightly more rustic (read “chunky”) mouth feel we can get with the pulse lever on the Cuisinart.

The hummus example above is one of the crossover possibilities between food processors and blenders and is no doubt another source of the confusion between the two machines. However, for our money (literally), there is more than enough differentiation between the sweet spots of each to warrant making room on the shelf for both.

Two additional pluses to owning a food processor that we didn’t see coming : 1) no more weepy onion eyes, and 2) the ability to cut cold butter into other ingredients means that there are now recipes open to us that we simply couldn’t make any other way: see the recipe for “Creamy Milk Chocolate Frosting” below from our Cook’s Baking Illustrated.

Creamy Milk Chocolate Frosting

Adapted from Cook’s Illustrated “Baking Illustrated
Makes enough for a 9X13 sheet cake with 1/4 inch frosting. Give it an hour or so to cool before using.


  • 1/2 cup heavy cream
  • pinch table salt
  • 1 tablespoon light or dark corn syrup
  • 10 ounces milk chocolate
  • 1/2 cup confectioners’ sugar
  • 1/4 c. cold unsalted butter, cut into 8 pieces


  1. Heat the cream, salt, and corn syrup in microwave-safe measuring cup on high until simmering, about 1 minute, or bring to simmer in small saucepan over medium heat.
  2. Place chocolate in pieces in the work bowl of a food processor fitted with steel blade. Pulse until the chocolate is coarsely chopped.
  3. With the machine running, gradually add the hot cream mixture through the feed tube. Continue to process for one minute after the cream has been added.
  4. Stop the machine and add the confectioners’ sugar and process to combine, about 30 seconds.
  5. With the processor running, add the butter through the feed tube one piece at a time, and process until it’s all incorporated and smooth, about 20 seconds longer.
  6. Transfer your creamy and delicious frosting to a medium bowl and cool it at room temperature, stirring frequently until thick and spreadable, about 1 hour. Slather on to your cake, let it set, then serve with confidence: this frosting will make anything under it an outstanding success!

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Cooks Illustrated Best Kitchen Tools: Crock Pots and Slow Cookers

UPDATED 9/29/14:

In their newest review of slow cookers, Cook’s Illustrated introduces a new “digital 6-quart slow-cookers under $100” review that digs into some of the new technologies that are now available in slow cookers.  They tested a total of seven models, some of which include recent innovations such as self-stirring pots, combo units that go from the stove to the cooker base, internal temperature thermostat jobbers, and models that speed up or slow down cooking time so the meal is completed at a specific time.

Bottom line: the tried-and-true technology variables of even cooking and easier-to-use interfaces won the day with a new winner in the category: the KitchenAid 6-Quart Slow Cooker. The previous winner, the Crock Pot Touchscreen was bumped to a highly respectable second place, while the All Clad Slow Cooker with Ceramic Insert (once upon a time featured in second place in “no longer available online” review) wasn’t in the running at all due to its price coming in over $100.

The content below updates our original 1/5/14 blogpost to incorporate findings from the latest Cook’s Illustrated slow cooker review.

Best Slow Cookers

The “Highly Recommended” winner of the latest Cook’s Illustrated slow cooker review is a KitchenAid 6-Quart Slow Cooker that features four temperature settings, 24-hour programmability, and a 6-quart removable, oval-shaped ceramic vessel:

KitchenAid 6-Quart Slow Cooker

The winner of an earlier Cook’s review (and the second-place finisher in the current review) is the Crock-Pot Countdown Touchscreen Digital Slow Cooker, an oval-shaped slow cooker with 6-1/2-quart removable stoneware crock, touchscreen control panel, and programmable cooking time:

Crock-Pot Touchscreen

The Crock-Pot Touchscreen is easy to use (read: don’t need to be a computer scientist to work the control panel), features a glass lid so you can monitor wazzup, and a timer that goes to 20 hours, even on high.

Slow Cooker-1Too bad we hadn’t read the Cook’s review before we bought our All-Clad.

The All-Clad Slow Cooker with Ceramic Insert is in the increasingly rare “Slow Cookers Over $100” category. Even though this slow cooker is marketed as being a “26-hour max cycle programmable” model, it will only stay on the high setting for a max of 8 hours before switching to the warming mode.

That 8-hour maximum on the High setting has complicated the preparation of more than a few of our meals. I have, on several occasions, stumbled through the dark to re-boot a batch of our favorite fantastic 24-hour baked beans (recipe below) that needed LOTS of liquid and the high setting, fer instance.

Small Slow Cookers

Now this makes a lot of sense to me: a small slow cooker for smaller families or smaller kitchens. Of course, you are still looking for a model that is consistent, easy to use, good-looking, low maintenance, and cheerful first thing in the morning.









Cuisinart 4-Quart Cook Central 3-in-1 Multicooker

Voila! Meet the perfect contender in the newly emerging field of “multicookers”: slow cookers that can also brown, saute, and steam food. The Cuisinart Multicooker can accommodate about half the quantity of food of its larger brethren and also has… wait for it… a programmable timer that can cook on high for up to 24-hours before automatically switching over to “keep warm.” According to Cook’s, everything (brown/saute/steam) works according to plan with the benefit of being able to sear food before cooking or reduce sauces afterward without mucking up another pot.

Portable Crock Pots








Crock-Pot Lunch Crock Warmer

Okay, not sure why exactly we would give over cabinet space for a portable crock pot, unless all those Facebook postings about the evils of microwave ovens are true. However, if you find yourself in need of a little base and insert to carry and reheat food somewhere with electricity yet not your home or using a microwave oven, this Crock-Pot Lunch Crock Warmer is apparently the best portable crock pot on offer, recommended “with reservations.”

Pros: It works. The crock pot heats quickly to 140 degrees and after a couple of hours hits a max of about 175 degrees and stays there until you shut it off. You can also leave the base at the office and just schlep the 20-ounce insert back and forth from home.

Cons: Since the lid can leak after multiple heating/cooling cycles and trips through the dishwasher, Cook’s recommends putting the insert into a zip-lock bag for transport.

Best Slow Cooker Tips and Tricks

Here are five slow cooker tips and tricks to ensure that your slow cooker meals are as fantastic for your health and palate as they are for your time management resolutions.

  1. Fill your slow cooker to the right level to make sure you hit the timing in the recipe and to keep your food safe. Overfilling (over 2/3 full) can result in a slower-to-temp ramp, leaving your food (especially meat) in the dangerous “luke-warm” zone where bacteria are most comfortable and breed happily.
  2. Pick your weapon: use the correct size. Most slow cooker recipes are created with a 5-6 quart slow cooker in mind. The key is to make sure that the vessel is neither under- nor over-filled (see gross bacteria warning above).
  3. Use only thawed food and bring liquids to a simmer (microwave works great for this) before adding them to the pot to jump start the initial “heat up” process. Cut meat into pieces to make sure they don’t take too long (see icky bacteria insights above), or end up being undercooked entirely.
  4. Glass lids help avoid the temptation to lift the lid and peek, letting precious heat and moisture escape. Don’t peek!
  5. Invest in one of the new multicookers for maximizing flavor. There’s nothing like some toothsome carmelized bits from searing and sauteing right in the pan and then deglazing with whatever liquid you add, all without the added step (and mess) of using another pan, to amp the “wow” factor of your next easy-peasy culinary masterpiece.

For more slow cooker tips and tricks and for some KILLER slow cooker recipes, check out these top-rated slow cooker bibles from America’s Test Kitchen:

Slow Cooker Revolution

and the follow up volume:

Slow Cooker Revolution, The Easy Prep Edition

With recipes for everything from Chicken Soft Tacos to Poached Salmon and even Cheesecake, you may never pull out your frying pan again!

24-Hour Slow Cooker Vegetarian Boston Baked Beans

  • 1 pound dried navy, soaked overnight
  • 2 medium onions, grated
  • 1/3 cup molasses
  • 1/3 cup maple syrup
  • 1/4 cup ketchup
  • 1 14.5 oz. can of crushed tomatoes
  • 1.5 teaspoons smoked paprika
  • 1 tablespoon dry mustard
  • 1/4 to 1/2 teaspoon cayenne
  • 2 teaspoons tamari or soya sauce
  • 1/4 cup bourbon or rum
  • 2 tablespoons cider vinegar
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • Freshly cracked pepper

After soaking the beans overnight, drain them, cover with fresh water, and bring to a boil for 5 minutes. Drain again. Whisk together all of the remaining ingredients and place in a slow cooker with the beans. Add water to amply cover the beans.

Cover and cook on high until the beans are very soft, at least 12 hours, although on occasion I’ve left ours for 24 hours and they were fabulous. IMPORTANT: Check periodically and add more water to keep the beans from drying out until they’re soft enough to squish between your tongue and roof of your mouth. You’ll look long an hard to find a recipe that produces richer, browner, and more flavorful baked beans!

Small Cook’s Country: Small Slow Cookers, August 1, 2013
Cook’s Country: Slow Cookers, October 1, 2014

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BookBook Review

This is not a review of books about book reviews. (Ouch.)

This is a review of BookBooks, a line of iPhone, iPad, iMac, and MacBook covers manufactured by TwelveSouth, a fanatically Apple-devoted accessory company.

TwelveSouth makes all kinds of elegant Apple accessories, but what we’re concerned with here are their leather BookBook cases, of which we are, apparently, dedicated fans.

bookbook-1It’s a classic case of BookBook addiction.

Between the two of us, Rick and i currently own six BookBook cases: two iPhone 4S’, an iPhone 5S, an iPad mini, an iPad 4, and a MacBook Air. I don’t own one for my MacBook Pro, mostly because I don’t move it from my desk much, and when I do, it’s in a padded briefcase. (Rick’s iPhone 4 case didn’t make it to the photo shoot on time to be included, but it’s just like mine on the top of the stack except it’s black.)

So, what’s the appeal?

First, there’s something richly tactile, nostalgic, and enjoyably aromatic about leather-bound books, unless you’re a cow, in which case you’re probably not such a big fan.

And BookBooks actually look, smell, and feel like our library of leather-bound books, which is not only cool when you’re actually reading something on your Kindle app, but it’s also a theft deterrent. How many opportunistic petty thieves do you know who want to pull a snatch-and-run for a copy of Crime and Punishment when you can get the Kindle edition for 99¢?

But the thing that sold me originally on the BookBook for my iPhone 4S is that it’s not just a case: it’s a wallet.

bookbook-4This is my new iPhone 5s BookBook. I love how it’s not just a great protective case for my phone. It’s also a beautifully crafted leather wallet with room for my driver’s license, a couple of credit cards, my health insurance card, and space behind it all for some folding money. Heading out the door for a quick errand? Just grab your KeyKeys, your BookBook, and GoGo!

It’s a great convenience to find in something so functional that simultaneously doesn’t look like an iPhone OR a wallet! It really does look like a little well-worn leather pocket book, which, since I have my Kindle library on my phone as well, it technically is.

bookbook-5It has broken in beautifully, just like a favorite pair of gloves.

bookbook-7It’s well designed so the phone fits snugly in the holder while still giving you easy access to all the fiddly bits and buttons.

bookbook-8The iPhone 5 BookBook even has a camera lens hole ready for the stealth photographers among us.

There you stand in the Louvre, “book” open, looking for all the world like a European philosophy major reading deep and important things about the Mona Lisa, when in fact you have the sound turned off and are unobtrusively snapping photos of the dear lady with no nasty guard scurrying over to tut-tut you away.

Not me, of course. But other people might do that kind of thing.

bookbook-9The other BookBook cases are equally as well made and thoughtfully engineered. Rick loves his MacBook Air BookBook. It’s like a sturdy yet lightweight zippered leather binder for all his creative brilliance, plus it looks better lying around on a coffee table than the computer itself. (Don’t tell Apple I said that.)

bookbook-11The BookBooks for iPad cases are equally functional, beautiful, and deceptive.

Last week, I was reading in a restaurant and had a friend come up to say “hi.” When I put my iPad Mini BookBook down on the table with the case open, face up, she exclaimed, “Oh! That is so cool! From across the room, I thought you were reading a hand-written journal. Even the zipper tabs look like those old-fashioned ribbon book marks.”


Going forward, all new books that come into our house via our Kindle app will be leather bound. And who wouldn’t enjoy a leather-bound copy of “Green Eggs and Ham?”