As a professional cook, most of the restaurant kitchens I've worked in have been somewhat puritanical about gadgets. Our talent is on display, not the machines we work with, so we keep our tools basic: knives instead of food processors, prodding fingers instead of timers. Maybe that's why I get an illicit thrill from watching kitchen gadget infomercials on television. I'm lured in even though I know better. Could these cooking machines transform food preparation from a time-consuming, messy, skilled process to something quick, clean, and idiot-proof?
I decided to test popular counter-top cooking devices sold for under $150. They include the Ronco Showtime Rotisserie, the George Foreman Lean Mean Fat Reducing Grilling Machine, the Turbo Cooker, and a Philips waffle iron. (I also tested a 30-year convenience veteran, the Rival Crock-Pot.) With the exception of the Turbo Cooker, each machine has its own electric heating elements that allow you to cook entirely off the stove. Even though I love what I do, there are many days when I want dinner to happen without actually "cooking," and these machines appeal to that impulse to get away from the stove. But, in my kitchen at least, counter-top real estate is scarce. Which devices were worthy of a spot on the Formica? Here's how I decided to test them.
The Chicken Test
I cooked a chicken dish in each machine following manufacturer's instructions. The cuts of chicken and seasonings varied in order to emphasize the strengths of each device.
The Pork Chop Test I cooked the exact same cut of meat in each machine to compare cooking times and texture differences. Eight of my neighbors graded and commented on the meat in a blind tasting. (Click
The Versatility Test
Machines like these are marketed as multitaskers. I used each to cook vegetables and a dessert and made notes on how worthwhile the results were.
I really hate to wash pots and pans, but I hate washing fussy little bits of equipment even more. Each device earned a grade based on the amount of time and aggravation it took me to clean it.
Ronco Showtime Rotisserie Model 3000-T, $99.95
The machine: A portable rotisserie oven. It comes with a motorized spit, a basket attachment for small pieces of food, and a steamer tray to cook side dishes on its roof.
The tests: "Just set it, and forget it," says Ron Popeil of his Ronco Showtime Rotisserie Oven. Forget it? That's ridiculous. Watching this machine at work is as addictive as OxyContin. The oven looks like a television: Behind the big glass screen, the whole chicken I cooked in it toasted and bubbled and let off steamy sighs.
It took me a neat 55 minutes to roast a 4-and-one-quarter-pound chicken in the Showtime. That's not really a timesaver—it takes the same amount of time to roast a chicken in a 450-degree oven—but the chicken was admirable, just shy of excellent. Next time I might stuff lumps of butter or bacon under the breast skin for extra juiciness. But I'm quibbling. The chicken was 600 times better than those roasted chickens in the grocery store deli.
I used the basket attachment to cook the pork chop. It came out a little pale, but tied for first place among my neighbors who praised its "buttery" texture. As for versatility, the Rotisserie is first and foremost a meat machine. Brown sugar pineapple kebabs came out roasty and tasty, but how often do you really crave fruit kebabs for dessert? Skewered vegetables cooked adequately, but proved hard to baste in the small oven. In terms of cleanup, while each part of the Showtime was easy to wash, there were a lot of parts to keep track of.
The George Foreman Lean Mean Fat-Reducing Grilling Machine, Superchamp Limited Edition, $39.99 The machine: Two hinged, nonstick cooking plates set at an angle close around your food and cook it quickly. Juices run out of the machine into a drip pan to "knock out the fat."
The tests: I couldn't wait to try my George Foreman Lean Mean Fat-Reducing Grilling Machine. It's stout and sturdy and looks a little like a laptop. It reminded me of both a panini press (I love cheese) and a waffle maker (I love waffles). I even had the perfect dish to make in it: chicken saltimbocca, a pounded boneless breast with a couple of sage leaves and a piece of prosciutto on the non-skin side. While the Rotisserie puts on a great visual show, GFLMFRGM's appeal is in its sizzle. After hissing in the machine for a few minutes, the chicken came out well, but the same dish cooked in a low-tech non-fat-reducing skillet made for juicier meat in the same amount of time.
The unvarying, direct heat of the GFLMFRGM is good for creating a crust, but it's too drying for most foods. My panel of neighbors agreed in the blind pork test, commenting on its sumptuous brown surface, but saying that it was a little dryer and chewier than the other chops. The machine is also a pain to clean. Even with its special scraper, it's hard to get all the little crusty bits out of the grooves of the cooking surface. It grilled vegetables acceptably, but I swear I could taste the Teflon on my zucchini slices. For dessert, I did make a perfect piece of nectarine-stuffed French toast with it; the GFLMFRGM does excel at pressing and toasting bready things. In the future, I'll forget about knocking out the fat and stick to melting the cheese with my newly designated panini press.
Philips Waffle Iron, Belgian Waffle Model, $19.99
The machine: Two heated grids that close together, ostensibly to cook Belgian waffles.
The tests: Sure, waffle irons were designed solely to cook waffles, but as far as I could tell, the technology was the same as my GFLMFRGM but cost half as much. And if I could get a machine that cooked burgers and chicken as well as waffles, well then, that might be worthwhile. I cooked the same chicken preparation in it as I did the GFLMFRGM, and the results were admirable. Despite odd dimpling, the chicken cooked quickly and was moister than the Foreman chicken. Disappointment rushed in only when it came time to clean the waffler, which was encrusted with chicken bits and grease. It was such a pain to clean that I had to withdraw the waffle iron from the competition.
The Turbo Cooker, $59.99
The machine: A sturdy Teflon-coated pan with a tall, valved lid (shades of a pressure cooker), a steaming rack, and a cake pan for cooking multiple dishes at once.
The tests: According to its brochure, "The Turbocooker pan's unique steamfrying system allows you to get juicy succulent meats, creamy side dishes and bursting-with-flavor vegetables WITHOUT ONE DROP OF OIL." I wanted to do fried chicken in the pan without a single drop of oil, so I breaded some drumsticks and followed the directions, which involve changing burner heat and adding water numerous times over the course of 25 minutes. The chicken came out a little scorched from the initial browning without oil. And the final steaming made the cornmeal breading congeal into a doughy mass—a sort of unintentional tamale.
On the other hand, an identical piece of chicken I threw into my conventional oven for 22 minutes came out well. The Turbo Cooker did better with the pork chop I used in the blind test. It was described as moist, with a "mellow meaty flavor," but other voters complained that it was "greasy."
Driven by morbid curiosity, I had to try a cake in the Turbo Cooker, and it came out, to no great surprise, as a tacky, chewy mess. Vegetables, steamed above the pork chop, cooked up fine, but by that point, the machine was beyond redemption.
So after this orgy of gadgets, there are only two I respect in the morning: the Showtime and the George Foreman. While all the machines promised to take the guesswork out of cooking, in my experience, the real key to cooking good food isn't guesswork; it's observation. It takes a lot of looking, poking, prodding, tasting, and adjusting. And this is why the Showtime emerged as a clear winner: It allowed me to observe and adjust cooking food better than the other gadgets. So if the $100 price tag isn't a burden for you, it's a novel way to make tasty roasted meats. The George Foreman was a solid second-place finisher: It cooked quickly and gave good crust—but it didn't allow me to easily check for overdrying or scorching. There's no replacing a real stove in my heart. Clunky as it is, my range has taken me from fricassees to soufflé. But when I need a night away from it, it's good to know that Popeil and Foreman are ready to cook.
Chicken Test Chop Test Versatility Cleanup Average Score Conventional Stove Top and Oven A- A A- B+ A- Ronco Rotisserie A- A- B B+ B+ George Foreman Grill B- B+ B B B Rival Crock-Pot B D A B- Turbo Cooker D B C B C Waffle Iron B+ N/A N/A F N/A
Conventional Stove Top and Oven
George Foreman Grill