Tag Archives: Consumer Reports

Rowing Machines: Consumer Reports vs Amazon

Want a gentle, back-friendly, total-body workout that doesn’t feature pounding, twisting, or dependence on just one major muscle group to elevate cardiovascular effort? There may be a rowing machine in your future. The good news is that it’s a fairly easy decision to make.

Dig into the world of rowing machine reviews in search of the best rowing machine, and you’ll quickly learn one thing: you’ll basically be deciding between the Concept2 Model D  and something else.

The Concept2 rowing machine is THE industry standard bearer. The company has been in business for 40 years and the Model D has a huge fan base. Amazon awards a whopping 4.9 stars from over 1000 reviewers and, with an overall score 85 from Consumer Reports, it’s their highest rated rowing machine for 2016 out of the six machines they tested (top two runners up listed below), measured in the categories of:

  • How well designed is the pedal restraint system? (excellent)
  • How easy is it to see and operate the display and fiddle with the resistance level? (very good)
  • How well made is it? (excellent)
  • How safe is it to use? (excellent)


Even the Concept2 page on Amazon knocks all the others out of the park, with a series of super-thorough but short videos broken down into manageable bites of rowing machine advice on everything from how to use a rowing machine, proper technique, intensity and pause workouts, and more.

As my dad would say, these Concept2 people know their onions.

However, as is often the case at Chez Rick and Kathy, the Consumer Reports highest-rated gizmo isn’t the one we ended up buying. We landed on the Xebex Air Rower instead.

So… why the Xebex?

That’s what Winston wants to know.

(Or maybe he’s just wondering if he’ll ever get a turn.)

Rowing Machine Decision Factors

In addition to the four variables Consumer Reports tested, the pertinent factors for us also involved cost, storage options, seat height, a touch of arthritis (or whatever the hell it is that’s making my left index knuckle huge), and my delicate tail bone/backside.

We’re definitely a “zero pain but ALL the gain” kinda couple. So, why did we go with the Xebex?

Rowing Machine Pricing

The Concept2 Model D and the Xebex are (as of this writing) priced almost exactly the same: both come in at $945 on Amazon.com, with the Xebex currently shipping an additional free “conditioning pack” composed of “Back Saver Pad, EZ Speed Rope, 20-pound Premium Wall Ball, and 15 pound Slam Ball.” Beyond the extra goodies, however, the two machines are not equally matched, feature for feature, and this is where our path diverged from Consumer Reports.

Space and Storage Requirements for a Rowing Machine

Where to operate and store a rowing machine was a huge care-about for us in our not huge home.

All rowing machines need roughly 9 x 4 feet when in use, which actually isn’t that much to ask in an average room. It’s sort of the conversation space between facing furniture. We simply don’t have ~40 feet of unused space in our house, however, to dedicate permanently to a piece of exercise equipment. We needed something that stored upright and was easy to move into place.


The Xebex has an easy-to-use hinge system. You just pull out the pop-pin, fold the unit neatly in two on to its four sturdy wheels, and whistle it into a corner and out of the way. If you can lift a 12-bottle pack of Perrier into a grocery cart and wheel it to the checkout, you can handle this.

It’s also a much sturdier unit than the Concept2, which means that even at maximum intensity by a big guy it feels solid and locked in place. It also means it’s a much heavier unit than the Concept2. However, with the fold-up design, handle, and four wheels, it’s also much easier to move around, and we don’t plan on carrying it up or down stairs any time soon.

The Concept2 Model D separates into two parts for storage, so it can also compress into a tidy footprint when not in use. However, we liked that the Xebex stays in one piece and has a solid base of four wheels to lightly skootch around on. It just seems like an easier set-up/tear-down system to us after about a month of use.

Rowing Machine Seat Height and Comfort

The Concept2 Model D has a standard seat height of 14″ from the ground, where the Xebex has a higher seat of 21″, or roughly the same as that of a normal chair. This makes mounting and dismounting the machine and getting your feet into the adjustable foot pads easier. For Rick at 6’1″, this is more important for him than for me at a piddly 5’8″, but still… my theory is that anything that makes exercise easier and more enjoyable is worth consideration.

Here’s where the pricing game came back into play.

Concept2 also has a newer model, the Model E, that sells from roughly $200 more than the Model D, and one of the big differences is… you guessed it! The seat is positioned 20″ from the ground.


Plus, the Xebex comes with a nicely padded seat (as do I, so that works out well). If you’re looking at rowing for 45-60 minutes a day, that extra seat padding can make a huge comfort difference. After all, the lungs can only benefit from what the bum can endure.

Of course, you could buy the Concept 2 Model D and for about $50 more, swap the original seat for the cushy upgrade by the aptly-named company, “EndureRow.”

Rowing Machine Handle Comfort

There’s extra padding on the thick rubber Xebex handles as well, and while there is much less wear-and-tear on your hands than I would have expected (if you’re rowing correctly, which means you’re holding the handle loosely with the ends of your fingers like you’re carrying a suitcase, keeping your wrists flat), the handle on the Xebex is light and comfortable. No issues with that lovely knuckle of mine.

Of course,  you could always just add a pair of these Neoprene/leather workout gloves to your cart: 1000 Amazon reviewers have given them a solid 4.4 stars. Note: in the reading and videos I’ve dived into on correct rowing technique (a few good resources listed below), I’ve never seen anyone recommend this particular grip. Maybe it’s just to show off the rowing gear here:

The Xebex Rower Display

The tiltable, battery-operated display on the Xebex doesn’t have the back lighting offered by the Concept2 “Performance Monitor 5” (PM5). This isn’t a huge issue for us as the display is still reasonably visible as you can see below.

Although the Xebex display is more limited in terms of fancier tracking of split times, etc., we don’t care. We’re not in this to compete, so the more feature-rich display doodads actually only serve to confuse the user (me). It tracks distance, speed, time, watts, paddle width, calories burned, and with the addition of a compatible heart-rate monitor, heart rate. Just hit “start” and begin to row, and all the metrics start tracking with the first pull. There’s even a programmable interval function, but as I manage this with the order of songs on my rowing playlist (below)… meh.

While Rick says it was a breeze to unbox and assemble (took him about 45 minutes), the user’s manual is helpful only from an entertainment perspective. For example, the first point in the section describing how to set a target distance reads as follows:

“Distance will gleam value at Distance field. DM will be time remnant. Time will be the time how long have user exercised. Others will blank.”

Yup. I blanked all right.

Fortunately, as mentioned above, it’s pretty intuitive, and for the non-gym rats/serious outdoor rowers among us, hitting “start” and rowing will get you all the info you need.

Finally, the webbed straps that keep your feet anchored to the foot rests tend to loosen a little over the course of a rowing session, so occasionally you might have to pause to give them a yank and cinch them up again. However, in conversation with other rowers, I’ve come to the conclusion this isn’t a problem unique to the Xebex as others report the same minor irritation with other models. That said, it is easily fixed: just attach a couple of stick-on velcro pieces to the strap ends.

Other Rowing Machines Rated by Consumer Reports

The H2O FitnessSeattle Wooden Rower WRX1000 tied for 2nd place in Consumer Reports with a score of 72.

This model uses a water flywheel to replicate the feel and sound of the real deal. What I love about the Xebex wind-resistance approach is, well, the wind. It’s a self-rewarding system: the harder I exercise, the more of a breeze I create for myself. Close your eyes, put on one of those “spa water music with seagulls” CDs, and there you are, skimming gently down the stream… (Or use my own custom playlist below if you want to keep your strokes per minute (SPM) between 23 and 30.)

Our local fitness equipment store mentioned that they get feedback that the webbed “chain” doesn’t get as high marks from their customers as does the actual chain style.

One reviewer on Amazon commented: “Leaks,” which shouldn’t be a problem as it is currently unavailable. Maybe they’re looking into the leak thing.

Also tied for 2nd place is the WaterRower A1, score 72.

Others besides Consumer Reports seem to like this model: it scores 4.7 stars across ~170 reviewers at Amazon. Having lived with the lovely breeze that a wind resistance model supplies–plus the possibility for heading downstairs for a quick row and encountering a soppy mess–makes us unlikely candidates for any water rower, regardless of the ranking on Consumer Reports or Amazon.

Rowing Playlist

I find listening to appropriately tempoed music has always heightened my enjoyment of any workout experience. (Masking the sound of my gasping for breath seriously amps my ability to slide into the “fun!” zone.) But believe me, it isn’t easy finding a rowing machine playlist already pulled together for a 50-something rower who wants to keep her heart rate in the 100-130 beats-per-minute zone. For me, this translates to roughly 22-30 strokes per minute, depending on if I’m warming up, zooming along at coasting speed, or indulging in the occasional sprint for some interval work.

It is, admittedly, a very eclectic mix, which works nicely for me. Want a more strenuous (or gentle) workout? Futz with the wind resistance damper until you find your sweet spot, then hop on for the ride!

Do You Remember?” by Phil Collins. 23 SPM

Byzantium Underground,” by Jesse Cook. 27 SPM

Baby Seat,” by Barenaked Ladies, 26 SPM

Girl With The Red Balloon,” by The Civil Wars, 26 SPM

Black Horse and the Cherry Tree,” by KT Tunstall, 26 SPM

Yes, I’m Ready,” by Jeffrey Osborne, 26 SPM

I Can’t Get Next To You,” by Annie Lennox, 27 SPM

Love Will Come Through,” by Travis, 27 SPM

Breathe,” by Anna Nalick, 28 SPM

Walking on Broken Glass,” by Annie Lennox, 29 SPM

Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin’,” by Michael Jackson, 31 SPM

Love Gun,” by Ceelo Green, 30 SPM

That’s Right,” by Jesse Cook, 28 SPM

Take Me to the River,” by Annie Lennox, 27 SPM

And finally, for when you step off the rower and ease into a lovely stretch routine (you do stretch, right?): “Hello” by Adele, or “At Last,” by Etta James, no SPM for either one. Just three minutes of gentle anti-aging body care that’s as important, if not more so, than your time in the seat.

Trust me on the stretching.

 Rowing Machine Tips, Techniques, and Tools

Rowing machine poster

Sometimes it helps to have a visual reminder of what, at the highest level of abstraction, matters the most about a subject. Flashback: my teen-aged bedroom plastered with David Cassidy, Michael Jackson, Davey Jones, and a brief ill-advised flirtation with Donny Osmond.

This poster is actually way more helpful than any of the above ever turned out to be.

Row Daily, Breathe Deeply, Live Better

A great starter book for those stepping up to a rowing machine for the first time, or for the rest of us who just arrogantly hopped on and figured we knew everything there was to know about this mighty machine. It’s a little quirky, but enjoyably so, and full of helpful tips on how to row, the benefits of rowing, how to think about keeping your body fit for the rest of your life, and a bunch of stuff in the middle.

The Complete Guide to Indoor Rowing

According to Amazon reviewers, this is a much more technically sophisticated tome for those interested in improving their on-water technique, achieving their PR (Personal Record for athletically-challenged among us), and so on. I’ll have to take their word for it. I’m still grooving with the “Zen of Rowing” vibe, the “rowing for fitness” mind-set, and the white-haired model reflected in the “Row Daily” book above.

Bottom Line

Consumer Reports chose not to include the Xebex at all in their most recent testing, so it’s hard to compare apples to apples without putting it through its paces in their lab. However, recent conversations with our local gym buddies and fitness equipment dude in town, along with the price point, higher and more cushy seat, padded handle bars, sturdiness of build, and ease of mobility around our guest/TV room convinced us that this workhorse deserved a chance, and we almost always root for the underdog.

Just a little piece of gym trivia for you to whip out at the water cooler (because I stumbled on it during my research and hate to waste it):

Indoor rowing machines were originally called ergomachines (or “ergs,” by the cool kids) as they measure the amount of work performed. Why ellipticals or any other fitness machines that measure calories burned, distance run, etc. aren’t also called “ergs,” is because the rowing machine got there first. They’ve been around since the 4th century BC as onshore training devices for inexperienced oarsmen, but they weren’t known as ergs until the early 1960’s when they became the first piece of equipment that could precisely measure human power output.

You’re welcome!

Best Anti-Wrinkle Creams

Google the words “face cream” and you’ll net a mind-boggling 150 million search results.

Add to your research “moisturizer” (20.5 million results), “lotion” (69.9 million), “ointment” (24 million), and “face serum” (50.7 million), and you now have well over THREE HUNDRED MILLION opinions to consider.

At that startling moment in a woman’s life where deciding on the best anti-aging cream for her particular face has suddenly become an earnest goal, that is definitely TMI.

Online shopping doesn’t reduce the complexity any either. An amazon.com search for “face cream” in all departments returns ~119,000 actual product listings, and that’s not even counting all the viscosity options mentioned above. Even a physical saunter through the stultifying number of face creams in my local London Drugs can cause me to break out in facial hives, which is precisely not the point.

Cracked-RoadIn addition to the overwhelming number of options, I’m accosted by relentless marketing propaganda suggesting I search my mirror for signs of red blotches, visible pores, dark bags, fine lines, and reflections hinting at anything crepey, sagging, shriveled, or likely to turn into a pothole by next spring.

Factor in quasi-medical articles warning me of chemical ingredients likely to mutate my lymph nodes, and I confess to rapidly losing sight of my inner beauty.

Face Cream-1Credible recommendations and reviews of the best anti-aging face cream and anti-wrinkle lotions are as illusive as the Fountain of Youth itself. Can’t someone trustworthy just point me to the magic cream, please?

Turns out there are, at least in my world, a number of sources I do trust, starting with Lulu of Lulu’s Chinese Health Center in Parksville on Vancouver Island.

The Magic Cream (above), which Rick went to pick up for me, was intended as a break from my regular OTC cortisone for a chronic patch of dermatitis on my leg. After getting squared away on the cream, Lulu made Rick stick out his tongue.

He complied and came away with some intriguing goodies to restore the yin to his yang, but that’s a story for a different day. My point here is that when he told me of her somewhat startling request, I was aware that my confidence in the leg cream immediately went way up. Apparently, for my money, if you’re in the business of recommending curatives for one of the biggest organs of the body—a person’s skin—it’s a huge credibility builder if you also know a thing or two about reading tongues.

facecream-cartoonThis isn’t as silly as it sounds.

The FDA regards face goop as a “cosmetic,” and as such, devoid of medicinal value or worthy of the more rigorous testing applied to drugs. Any statement they make approving a cream is focused exclusively on safety, not effectiveness. Cosmetic companies, however, are experienced and crafty in the art of blurring the perception lines between “medically proven to FDA drug-level standards” and “tested in a lab with a dermatologist somewhere in the building.”

So when someone—anyone, apparently—with a whiff of actual healing insight comments on a face cream, I pay attention.

Face Cream-2Thus, the other actual person that I trust to recommend the best anti-wrinkle cream for me is my dermatologist, a woman of respectable age with skin that glows with a radiance that starts at least a half an inch below the surface of her face.

Her advice came prefaced by saying the best anti-wrinkle cream is a sunscreen with an SPF factor of at least 30 that I should have been using since birth. Once the wrinkles, blotches and spots actually arrive, the best you can hope for with potions and lotions is to prevent further damage and maybe to modestly plump up the saggy bits with a nicely scented unguent that makes your skin feel good.

CeraVe Moisturizing Facial Lotion SPF 30

“Best face cream? CeraVe. Use the one with sunscreen on your face, neck and back of your hands. For the rest of you that you can reach, slather on either the lotion if it’s hot and humid, or the creme if it’s winter and dry. It absorbs well, and smells good.”

Apparently there are a lot of dermatologists (or best friends) giving the same advice: the modestly priced 12-oz. CeraVe lotion ranks on Amazon as the #1 Best Seller in Facial Moisturizing Lotions with a 4.7 star rating by over 1200 reviewers.

CeraVe Eye Repair Cream

The CeraVe eye wrinkle cream was my idea.

While my busy dermatologist didn’t have time to unpack the rationale for her medically-informed opinion on CeraVe, the Mayo Clinic weighs in on the topic by suggesting that while there is no known “face lift in a bottle” available for the weary and wrinkled consumers, products containing retinol (vitamin A), vitamin C, hydroxy acid, coenzyme Q10, tea extracts, grape seed extracts and niacinimide “may” result in “slight to modest improvement, mostly due to their ability to exfoliate, prevent water loss, or counteract inflammation.


cate skinImage source: http://pre05.deviantart.net/b6ad/th/pre/i/2014/074/4/e/galadriel_by_lotsoflowe-d7ac7tu.png

They go on to say that when sifting through the merits of, say, 120,000 or so available options on Amazon, you should consider the following variables:

  • Cost: there’s no discernible correlation between more money and fewer wrinkles
  • Concentration of effective ingredients: all non-prescription options contain lower doses than their prescribed counterparts, resulting in more limited and short-lived miracles
  • Individual differences: Everyone’s skin is different. Just because wearing a 1/2- inch thick coat of mayonnaise to bed every night works for Cate Blanchett doesn’t mean it will work for you. (I just made up this example, but mayonnaise and olive oil do feature highly in the list of homemade wrinkle cream ingredients.)
  • Layering on of ingredients: there’s no proof that using two or more of the above use ingredients works any better than one by itself.
  • Frequency of use: there’s no overnight drama in the face cream world, unless you count a nasty reaction that leaves your face bright red and flaky. You need to use products for many weeks before even the “modest” effects kick in, and they’ll disappear if/when you quit
  • Side effects: see “nasty” above

So what DO they recommend to retain whatever youthful dewy glow remains?

  • Quit smoking: It wrecks your facial collagen and elastin, causing skin to sag and wrinkle prematurely. The up side of this is if you’re 45 but your face and neck look 75, people might conclude you have great legs for your age!
  • Use moisturizers, and choose one with a built-in sunscreen of at least 15. Though moisturizers can’t prevent wrinkles, they can plump up dry skin and temporarily mask tiny lines and creases. The best wrinkle cream yet may be a wide-brimmed hat and limited sun exposure.
  • Consult a dermatologist if you’re interested in a personalized skin care assessment and recommendation for what OTC products might work best for you, and when to call in the big guns of prescription creams, Botox, or sand-blasting.

One final go-to source that we often find helps cut through the mental fogging of choice-overload is Consumer Reports. In this 2011 wrinkle cream review, (latest review available), they report having rigorously tested a swath of anti-aging face creams across 69 women and 12 men for a period of 12 weeks.

They report that while the Garnier Ultra Lift Anti-Wrinkle Firming Moisturizer, L’Oréal Paris Revitalift Face and Neck Day Cream, and Lancôme Paris Renergie Double Performance Treatment Anti-Wrinkle Firming Cream each produced a very modest improvement after an hour, after six weeks all the products tested had smoothed fine lines a teensy bit, and on only a third or fewer of the people who used them. This result included the control cream they used which had no anti-wrinkle magic ingredients at all.

And while I’m tempted to hoot that you can’t make up product names like the Lancome winner above, apparently, you can.

Twelve weeks in, the sensory panelists judged that in a field of burst bubbles, the Garnier product came out slightly ahead of the contenders, judging by blind-controlled photos that it reduced wrinkles “somewhat” on a little more than half of the test subjects who had tried the product. And even at that, fewer than half said they’d buy it, citing an aroma containing a hint of floral and “sweet plastic,” the need for some serious elbow grease to rub it in, and a slight residue. The rest of the products barely moved the needle at all on fewer than 20% of the testers who used them.

Ironically, without even knowing the brand or specific product, the highest number of votes by test subjects said they’d buy the control product with NO anti-wrinkle ingredients, the Neutrogena moisturizer. (Note: the report didn’t specify which exact Neutrogena moisturizer was used. I just picked one with an SPF rating of 30. This one also has an SPF rating of 30 and a slightly higher reviewer rating, but I put it in second place for using a word I don’t understand–“Helioplex”–in the product name.)

Bottom Line

In the search for the best face cream for you, pick one that’s easy on your wallet, has a decent sunscreen, and smells and feels nice.

For now, I’m trying a little dab of the Magic Cream on my face with my CeraVe (I can’t help myself), but just in the morning. While it feels great, it smells vaguely like Pad Thai with sesame oil. And even though Rick tells me frequently I’m quite a dish, I don’t want to go to bed smelling like one.

Pasta Machines: Cooks Illustrated vs Amazon vs Good Housekeeping

Last week I was struck with an overwhelming desire for fresh, homemade egg pasta because…

Pasta Machine-1… basil.

Question: Is pasta bad for you? Answer: Hell, no!

Is it made fresh, with love, from four of the most basic kitchen staples and make you happy you’re alive?

Does it inspire you to consume armfulls of verdant summer herbs at their height of greenliness and a glass of a good Italian red?

Is it easy, cheap, delicious, and fun to make?

Pasta Machine-2
Well. There you go, then.

Even our Italian-made pasta machine knows that eaten in moderation, fresh pasta brings wellness into your life.

This is why it’s confusing to us that, to date, neither Cook’s Illustrated nor Consumer Reports has reviewed the humble manual pasta machine. (We’ll keep an eye out and let you know if either one ever weighs in with their “highly recommended” or “best buy.”)

When we wanted to buy one a couple of years ago, we were left to our own sleuthing and landed on the Amazon favorite, the Marcato Atlas Wellness 150 pasta maker.

Pasta Machine-3
Simple, safe, and satisfying to use, the Marcato pasta roller and cutter brings one thing to the game that a rolling pin and knife combo never will: consistency.

To qualify as comfort food, the noodles must be of a consistent thickness and width, bite after bite. There’s something about the hypnotic bliss of excellent pasta that demands an unvarying mouthfeel.

It’s why great restaurants care about evenly diced ingredients. Turns out, size really does matter.

Marcato Atlas Wellness 150 Pasta Maker

And for the home kitchen chef in search of consistency, sometimes machines are just better. In the case of manual pasta makers, almost 1000 Amazon reviewers rated the Marcato Atlas a whopping 4.7 stars of approval.

Kitchenaid Pasta Roller Attachment
Fits Stand Mixers

If you’re more into the motorized kind of fun and have a KitchenAid stand mixer (and as a foodie’s kitchen “must have,” you should!), there are pasta attachments that fit the power hub on your machine. The crew at Amazon love theirs: another 4.7 star recipient here across more than 800 purchasers.

By the way, just because a Good Housekeeping article on cool retro-styled kitchen appliances includes a pasta machine, in this case the Roma Express Electric Pasta Machine , that doesn’t mean it’s actually cool.

Weston Roma Express Electric Pasta Machine

Cute, red, and vaguely reminiscent of Rosie, the maid on the Jetsons? You betcha!

But for our money and kitchen, we go with brains and performance before beauty. At a measly 3.4 star-rating on Amazon, the Weston  just doesn’t measure up. Any product that scores a 1-star rating for 27% of the reviewers definitely falls into the category of “proceed with caution.”

(On the other hand, this darling ceramic tea kettle Good Housekeeping also lists in the same article… Oooh, baby!)

Philips Pasta Maker

Finally, for those among us who prefer homemade fresh pasta only if it’s coupled with almost zero engagement, experience, or kitchen mess, Williams-Sonoma has high praise for the electric pasta machine by Philips, their all-in-one pasta whiz, and guess what? 4.7 stars on Amazon too.

You put the weighed ingredients in the top, push the button, and… presto! Like magic, the machine kneads, rests, and starts extruding pot-ready perfect pasta.

While Rick and I can see that this approach has its appeal for many of our friends, we like to play with our food. And besides, we already have a no-mess pasta mixing and kneading machine to go along with our wellness maker:

Pasta Machine-7
… our Cuisinart food processor.

Whether you go with hand cut, manual roller and cutter, or all new-fangled electric, if you’ve got one of these babies in your kitchen, you are just moments away from fresh egg pasta dough.

Watch how easy it is to make and cook pasta.

Pasta Machine-4Lidia Bastianich, Queen of All Italian Cooking, lays out a helpful fresh pasta dough recipe on a per person basis: one egg per person, combined with between 1/2 and 2/3 cup flour (start with 1/2), 1/8 tsp. salt and 1/4 tsp. olive oil.

That means for Rick and me, we start with 2 eggs, 1/4 tsp. salt and 1/2 tsp oil. (If you’ve only got refrigerator temp eggs when you start, pop them into a bowl of warm tap water while you’re getting things set up to bring them closer to room temperature, but no biggie if they’re a bit on the cooler side.)

Pasta Machine-6In a Pyrex 2-cup measuring cup, combine the eggs, salt, and oil, whipping them until they’re foamy.

Pasta Machine-8Put the flour in the Cuisinart with the metal blade, turn it on, then drizzle the egg/salt/oil mixture into the top.

Pasta Machine-9Run the Cuisinart until the dough forms into a rough ball, about 30-40 seconds. If the dough remains pebbly and refuses to collect into a ball, add just a dribble (seriously) of warm water, giving the processor a good chance to thoroughly incorporate the moisture before deciding it needs an additional dose.

If the dough is sticking to the work bowl, add more flour, 1 tbsp. at a time, until the dough looks something like ours above.

Don’t worry too much about over-processing the dough while you decide if the texture is right. It’s not that precious.

Pasta Machine-11When you think you’re close, take the dough out of the processor and give it several good kneads with the heel of your hand, flipping and folding it on itself between pushes until you have a warm ball of silken wellness.

See why we prefer a little manual interaction with our pasta? Why should a machine have all the fun?!

Give the gluten a time out to calm itself  by fully encasing the dough with plastic wrap and letting it sit on the counter for an hour or so. (This will keep you from fighting in the rolling/cutting stage with what Lidia calls “nervous dough.”) It can also sit in a fridge for a day, but be sure to let it warm to room temp before proceeding to the next step.

Pasta Machine-13Cut and hand roll the dough into two smaller balls per egg used. In our case, we ended up making two separate batches, four eggs in total, so we had eight smaller balls waiting to be processed.

Pasta Machine-14You’ll be working with one ball at a time, so keep the rest covered on a floured baking sheet while they wait their turn.

Pasta Machine-15Flatten the ball into an oval patty, set the thickness regulator to three, and crank it through.

Pasta Machine-16Fold it in half lengthwise and send ‘er through again.

Pasta Machine-18
Sprinkle both sides evenly with a little flour between rollings to keep the dough from sticking,

Pasta Machine-19
Change the setting to six, and roll again, or even a couple of times to get a consistent thickness across the whole sheet of dough.

We’ve tried settings of five, six, and seven, and for the flat noodle, six seems to work best. For spaghetti, you might want to go a little thicker and use a setting of five on the regulator.

Pasta Machine-20Attach the cutter device by sliding it into the brackets on the machine. Move the crank to the appropriate hole on the attachment, and feed in the rolled dough.

Pasta Machine-21For ease of laying out the noodles to dry, it can be helpful (and fun!) to have a buddy on hand to neatly catch and hold flat the noodles as they emerge. Even if you’re on your own, you can switch cranking hands and catch them yourself, or simply let them fall into a nest and dry them that way. They will separate just fine either way as they cook.

Pasta Machine-22We laid the flat noodles we were planning to eat in a few hours on a floured baking sheet in a (mostly) single layer to dry.

Pasta Machine-23For the spaghetti we were planning on eating later in the week, we took each batch as it emerged directly into the utility room and hung it on our freshly wiped laundry rack so it would dry completely before we stored it in ziplock bags.

If you’re into making more than one batch at a time, you might want to invest in a nifty foldable drying rack, but so far, we haven’t felt like pasta for dinner on laundry day, so we’re good.

Pasta Machine-24Bring a good-sized pot of water to a boil, add a pinch of salt and a dash of olive oil, drop your noodles in, and cook uncovered, stirring gently a couple or three times.

For thinner, finer noodles, start testing (fish out a noodle and bite it) at 90-seconds. It’s okay if the pasta is still just a teensy bit firm as it will continue to absorb moisture and soften from the sauce.

For thicker noodles, cook two minutes and begin testing until you like the feel of it between your teeth.

Drain the noodles, reserving a few tablespoons of the water to add to the sauce to bring a beautiful gloss to the whole gig. Don’t rinse the noodles as it will prevent the sauce from adhering to them.

Pasta Machine-25Return the hot noodles to the pot and gently fold in enough of your sauce to amply coat them.

Pasta Machine-28Using tongs, lift the noodles and twist them into a nest as you drop it into place to build a little height into the presentation.

Top with a generous extra dollop of sauce and sprinkle with a little parmesan cheese if you’re so inclined.

Grab the camera and shoot like crazy while it’s still steaming, because it’s dinner time, and…

Pasta Machine-27

… basil.



Lidia’s Italian-American Kitchen

Our copy looks better than this. There are smears of egg-flour-and-water paste permanently lodged on Lidia’s beautiful Italian left cheekbone and chin, exactly as they would be in real life.

Best Bluetooth Portable Speakers

We’ve been enjoying our great-sounding Bose SoundDock portable (sorta) speaker in our kitchen for the past decade or so.

Speaker Ratings Cartoon 1of4 | rickandkathy.com
The problem is our iPhones have outgrown our speaker: current generation iPhones have eight-pin Lightning connectors while the SoundDock has the previous generation 30-pin dock connector (discontinued by Apple in 2014). Oh, and it lacks the convenience of Bluetooth.

Although Bluetooth speaker adapters and 8-Pin to 30-Pin adapters are both available for not much money, Frankenstein patches are right up there with tape and chewing gum on the elegance scale.

blue tooth speakers_rickandkathy.com-4
Plus, the old SoundDock is bigger than Winston’s head.

It just wasn’t going to work for us anymore.

Sniff, sniff.

Speaker Ratings Cartoon 2of4 | rickandkathy.com
Bluetooth portable speakers are widely noted for cool industrial design, sound quality, battery life, suitability for outdoor use and, in some cases, speakerphone capability. A good bluetooth speaker also seemed the way to go to avoid “pin non-compliance” issues in the future.

So, time to buy a bluetooth speaker. But where to begin?

Where we always begin these days: searching the Internet for bluetooth speaker reviews to help find the speaker to meet our needs. A Google search for “best bluetooth portable speaker” led to recent reviews from Consumer Reports, CNET, PCMag, and the Amazon community we thought would be helpful.

Speaker Ratings Cartoon 3of4 | rickandkathy.com
Unfortunately, the search results turned out to be more overwhelming than helpful. There are so many portable speakers available these days that it’s crazy-making to try to compare all of them.

Speaker Ratings Cartoon 4of4 | rickandkathy.com
We (by which we mean Rick) started building a comparison grid to help organize and sort through the mind-numbing information on the websites noted above, and even that proved really hard to do.

Consumer Reports tested 51 models of WiFi and Bluetooth speaker systems in May 2014 (which makes for quite a long list in itself) and awarded top honors to the Libratone Zipp WIFI/BT 4.0 Speaker.

Libratone Zipp

However, not all models tested by Consumer Reports even align with the manufacturer’s own websites. For example, #14 rated “Bose SoundLink Wireless Mobile Speaker II” can’t be found on the Bose website and, as of this writing, the Consumer Report site itself says “Currently there are no sellers listed for this product.”

 Consumer Reports: Top 10 Bluetooth Speakers
 Brand & Model Rating
 Libratone Zipp 63
 Jabra Solemate MAX 60
 Klipsch KMC 3 60
 Sony SRS-X7 60
 TDK Life On Record Wireless Weatherproof (A33) 60
 Bose SoundLink Color 58
 Harman Kardon Onyx 57
 Stelle Audio Couture Audio Pillar 57
 Definitive Technology Cube 56
 TDK Life On Record TREK MAX (A34) 55
Source: Consumer Reports, Wi-Fi & Bluetooth speaker systems Ratings

There are also such remarkable differences from one review site to the next that we often wondered if they’re even talking about the same product.

Take the Jawbone Mini Jambox for example. The bottom line from CNET states “While you’ll pay a premium for it, the Jawbone Mini Jambox is the best-sounding and best-designed micro wireless speaker” while PCMag says “The good-looking Jawbone Mini Jambox is a very thin and light Bluetooth speaker, but it makes too many compromises on sound quality.”

Jawbone Mini Jambox
Amazon Rating: 4.3 / 5 (~800 reviews)

Another example is the Logitech UE Boom. CR’s Take: “The Logitech UE Boom had overall sound quality that was only fair. While it’s perfectly fine for dialog and use as a speakerphone, more finicky listeners looking for a speaker for playing music and movie/TV soundtracks may prefer a different model” while PCMag says “Solid soundscape. Powerful, clear midrange and treble.” As a bottom line, Consumer Reports gives the UE Boom a less-than-spectacular rating of “40” while PCMag and CNET both rate this speaker as “Excellent” and the consensus of the Amazon community is 4.4  stars (out of 5) based on over 320 reviews.

Logitech UE Boom


 PCMag: Top 10 Bluetooth Speakers
 Harman Kardon Aura 4.5
 Bose Soundlink Color Bluetooth Speaker 4
 Bose Soundlink Mini 4
 Bowers & Wilkins T7 4
 JBL Clip 4
 Logitech X300 Mobile Wireless Speaker 4
 Soundcast Melody 4
 Creative Sound BlasterAxx AXX 200 4
 Polk Audio Woodbourne 4
 Ultimate Ears UE Megaboom 4
Source: PCMag “The 10 Best Bluetooth Speakers” (February 3, 2015)


 CNET: Best Bluetooth Speakers of 2015
 Logitech UE Boom ★★★★
 UE Megaboom ★★★★
 Bose Soundlink Mini speaker ★★★★
 Bose Soundlink Bluetooth speaker III ★★★★
 TDK Life On Record TREK MAX (A34) ★★★★
 Sony SRS-X3 ★★★★
 Beats Pill XL ★★★★
 Sony SRS-X5 ★★★★
 Bose SoundLink Color ★★★★
 Nyne Bass ★★★★
 Fluance Fi30 ★★★★
 Jawbone Big Jambox ★★★★
 Logitech X300 ★★★★
 Jawbone Mini Jambox ★★★★
Source: CNET “Best Bluetooth Speakers of 2015” (February 6, 2015)


Eventually, we became so overwhelmed by the process of researching “What is the best bluetooth speaker?” that, having sorted through all the high-brow audiophile chatter we could stomach, we ended up doing our own consumer testing, albeit sort of by accident.

Let us present our entirely manageable list of three top bluetooth speakers.

First, we went with price (plus Amazon reviewer love) and threw a dart at the AmazonBasics portable bluetooth speaker for about $50.

AmazonBasics Portable Bluetooth Speaker

Did we score a bulls-eye? Well, almost.

It’s a great well-balanced little speaker, and if you’re looking for something to keep you company while you’re doing laundry or hanging out in a college dorm room, you’ve found your speaker buddy. With over 700 reviews, a great average rating of 4.4 / 5, Amazon’s willingness to put their own name on it, and an unbeatable price tag, you can’t go wrong.

Clean round sound, acoustically well mannered, as well as being a really decent speakerphone, this unit has found a cherished home in my office.

Why my office and not, say, our living/dining room?

After our purchase, we realized that not only were we replacing our now defunct Bose SoundDock, but in fact, our entire home stereo system.

This is it. Our entire collective music library is now digital and is housed in a maximum of five devices per person, none of which have a great speaker.


A bluetooth speaker is what we will be “listening to music” on now, as in, when we’re sitting in front of the fireplace and just want to zen to some tunes and drift a while. And while the AmazonBasics is a fine (probably the best) speaker for the money, we found we missed the richer dimension and bass response of the Bose for all around music appreciation moments.

Side note: Ironically, six weeks after we bought the AmazonBasics, as a Christmas gift we received a second portable speaker which had also been on our shortlist but was twice as expensive as the AmazonBasics:

Ultimate Ears Mini Boom

As grateful as we are for Rick’s new office speaker, we didn’t really hear a huge difference between the Ultimate Ears Mini Boom and the AmazonBasics.

The Mini Boom definitely wins the “tiniest footprint and cute” category with no obvious distortions at higher volumes (to our ears), so if you’re looking for something to easily fit into a crowded desk space or kitchen nook, this may be your answer.

Still, for the price delta, the AmazonBasics shines a little brighter in our opinion.

blue tooth speakers_rickandkathy.com-5
The bottom line is that neither the UE Mini Boom nor the AmazonBasics was quite hitting the mark for what we now realized would be our home stereo, so we went back to the tried and true (and best seller on Amazon for bluetooth speakers, BTW) and purchased the ~$200 Bose SoundLink Mini Bluetooth Speaker.

Bose SoundLink Mini Bluetooth Speaker

We heartily agree with the 4500+ Amazon reviewers who gave it a whopper average rating of 4.8 / 5.

We love it.

rickandkathy.com’s thesaurus for Bose SoundLink Mini suggests: “rich,” “full,” “high color,” “substantial,” “convenient,” “sleek,” “portable,” “affordable,” …

For anyone else at the tipping point of moving from the full-meal-deal faux audiophile home stereo to something non-threatening (financially and technically) with amazing sound that works with your digital library, this is our vote.

blue tooth speakers_rickandkathy.com-3
You’ll score astounding sound from a device that is just slightly larger than the transformer needed for our decade-old workhorse, the Bose SoundDock. Oh, what a difference a decade can make!

The only caution we found is that the Bose needs to be placed at least a foot or two from a solid/reflective vertical surface (which they specify in their user manual) to avoid an overly emphasized bass boom. This is, from our perspective, a small price to pay for a satisfying musical experience from such an inexpensive, portable, and succinct device.

blue tooth speakers_rickandkathy.com-2
We now own not one but three bluetooth mini speakers, and given the right space, budget, and expectations, all three are winners.

His, hers, and ours. It’s how we roll.

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 Amazon.com, 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 Amazon.com, 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.

More Kitchen Recommendations

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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 | rickandkathy.com

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.

More Kitchen Recommendations

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