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If you're looking for an encyclopedia of kitchen appliance knowledge—and on Black Friday, you must be—look no further than Sharon Franke.
As the director of the Kitchen Appliances and Technology Lab at the Good Housekeeping Institute, where she's worked for 28 years, she's an expert in all kitchen tools, small and large. She once gave Bette Midler (Bette Midler!), who was passing through the office, a blender recommendation, and she's constantly fielding calls from friends and family members asking for her advice.
In Sharon's lab (which, yes, is a real science lab filled with what seems like every appliance you could ever want), her team develops and conducts performance and usability tests for cookware, cutlery, bakeware, cookware, and small and large appliances.
The heavy-lifters like ranges, refrigerators, and grills are under Sharon's purview, as are all the smaller cogs in the kitchen machine—the wooden spoons, ice cream scoops, pizza cutters, and rolling pins that make a difference in your cooking life.
So before you fasten your elbow pads and secure your mouthguard, ready to scoop up whatever appliance is the most discounted, take a moment to heed Sharon's advice.
With these 10 tips, you're likely to save money and end up with longer-lasting, better-performing, easier-to-clean appliances.
1. More expensive isn’t always better. (Seriously.)
While a top-end product will likely have more features—fancy bells and whistles like hot water makers on refrigerator doors and "browning elements" in ovens—the price does not necessarily reflect its ability to do its core job.
Most fridges, for example, are up to the basic task of keeping the refrigerated section below 40° F and the freezer below 32° F, but the higher-end appliances may have design elements that make them more convenient to your lifestyle.
And when it comes to ranges, Sharon instructs consumers to be particularly wary of the "most expensive, professional-style" stoves and ovens. They're "not the best performers, and in many cases, they’re the worst performers; a lot of brands that foodie friends and professionals swear by and that are in test kitchens here in New York City do badly." In a test of ranges scaling in price from $600 to $6000, the $600 G.E. Hotpoint was among the top candidates. Basic in its features, it received high marks in function.
So spring for the more expensive fridge or range or coffee maker if the perks (or looks) matter to you, but do not assume the budget-level appliance doesn't fulfill its essential duty just as well (or better).
2. Before running out for a new appliance, consider cleaning what you have.
It may not be time for a new coffee maker; it may simply be time to clean it out, advises Sharon. Appliances, especially small ones with lots of nooks and crannies, rely on your diligence to function properly. Instead of buying a new blender, take your old one apart, give it a good cleaning, and try using it again.
Voilà: You just saved yourself a whole lot of money! Cleaning isn't as glamorous as a shiny new object, but it might get the job done.
3. And the same goes for reading the instruction manual.
While some appliances simply work better than others, there's also a lot of human error at play (which is why the Good Housekeeping team conducts all of their testing in a lab where they can control for as many variables as possible). If you're frustrated with your appliance, do some research—be that reading the instruction manual or asking our asking our Hotline—to see if there's a chance that you're using it incorrectly.
Unsatisfied with your broiler? Maybe you should be broiling with the oven door open (or closed!). Blender not working? Maybe you could use a a refresher on the order in which to add ingredients.
Maybe it's a big-ticket appliance, like a range, that's bugging you but you're unable or unwilling to replace it. Remember that you'll get to know its quirks over time and that you can invest in small items, like an oven thermometer, to make your life easier: Once you know if your oven runs hot or cold, you'll end up with less burnt or underdone food.
Sharon herself still has the range that was in her New York City apartment when she moved in 42 years ago. And while she'd like to replace it, the two have come to a satisfactory détente.
All that being said, it's time to upgrade your new appliance if there's any sort of safety hazard or if it's so dysfunctional (the toaster toasts only half the bread, for example) that you've stopped using it.
3. Trust brands, but don’t follow them blindly.
"Certain brands tend to perform very well—but not always," says Sharon."We think this is going to be the best because it’s always best in every other category and then all of the sudden, mysteriously, a certain brand won’t perform well" in a particular area. Just because you trust one brand of stand mixer, for example, doesn't mean that same company makes the best food processors. Read the reviews, even if you're loyal to a particular brand.
4. But sometimes, if you need that classic item, it's okay to sacrifice performance (a little).
It shocked me to hear that in a test of seventeen Dutch ovens in which the team made the exact same beef stew in all pots, Le Creuset was not the top performer. Instead, the beef stew tasted best out of the Cuisinart and Mario Batali-brand Dutch ovens, both brands that Sharon wouldn't have recommended off the top of her head.
And yet, despite the evidence, Sharon still uses a Le Creuset at home. Although it wasn't the top-performing product, no kitchen item is perfect and if you're going to sacrifice a bit of performance for classic beauty and a brand you love, that's okay, too.
5. Try not to fall for the newest trends.
Besides the fact that you simply might not use that slow cooker as much as the 2 A.M. infomercial convinced you you would, the other point is that appliances on the forefront of a trend may not function as well as they should (or, in a few months or years, will).
Sharon is confounded by slow-cookers in particular: "They could be vastly improved upon," she says, "but yet consumers seemed to have embraced them." Right now, most slow-cookers cook on much too high of a temperature, practically boiling the food. Sharon predicts we'll see temperature management on ranges and free-standing appliances improve greatly in the coming years, with precise temperature maintenance becoming widely available.
In that case, it might be smart to hold off a few years and invest in a better-quality slow cooker.
6. Consider not just performance, but ease of use.
Sharon's team tests not only for how well they function but also for user experience. Because no matter how well a food processor processes or a blender blends, how often will you use it if it's a pain in your butt to clean? Consider all the factors that will affect how you interact with the product—its brand name, its appearance, its ability to do its job, its propensity to break or stain or collect dust—rather than a single one.
Clean-up is very important to Sharon. While she used to rely on enamel cast-iron pans in her own kitchen because she liked the way it looked, she realized they were not a top performer for browning, frying, or even cooking. She now uses aluminum with nonstick finish: The ease of clean-up is immeasurable and she doesn't find stainless steel is easy to clean after you've cooked over high heat.
7. Don't forget about smaller items like tools and bakeware.
Sharon enjoys conducting the higher-stakes test—large appliances like grills, fridges, and ranges—but she also tests wooden spoons, pizza cutters, cookie sheets, loaf pans, whisks, and the like. And while not as much is at risk with these smaller guys (if you buy one cheap-o wooden spoon that frays and warps, it's only a $10 loss), they can still make a big difference in your kitchen.
Take banana bread, for example. Don't blame yourself if your loaf sinks every time no matter what recipe you use. When Sharon tested 40 or 50 loaf pans with the same banana bread recipe, the differences were amazing. "We found found that many were totally unacceptable and yet we were testing pans that lots of people are using to make the banana bread they're serving and bringing to bake sales."
8. Consider your own particular needs and circumstances.
Sharon's team does her best to predict user expectations—what it means to you as a consumer that a pan "works well" or a stovetop heats water "quickly" or a French press "retains" heat—but she'd be lying if she said they could capture all variables and special circumstances. Think about how often you'll be using your appliance or tool and in what capacity.
The same goes for the appliances or tools you need. No, not everyone needs a rice cooker or a tofu press, but if you make rice and tofu four nights a week, those might be just the kinds of items you should make room for in your kitchen and your budget. And if you have a family of 10 and will be making a lot of toast come Sunday breakfast, make sure you get a toaster that wins points at durability.
9. And if all else fails, go with an item that can't be improved upon.
Sharon makes it a point to not speak about brands outside of her scientifically-proven reviews, but there are two appliances she thinks are close-to perfect: the KitchenAid stand mixer and the Breville toaster oven. If you've been bitten by the Black Friday bug and just need to buy something without poring over reviews, those two items are practically guaranteed to live a long and happy life in your kitchen.
What appliances are on your holiday wish-list and what sources do you use for reviews? Share with us in the comments!