There’s something irresistible about a grilled sandwich, with its crisped, golden-brown bread, gooey cheese, and warm fillings. That must be why panini—which are essentially grilled sandwiches—are popping up all over, and why panini presses have become such a hot item for home cooks.
An electric panini press is a type of contact grill, with heated bottom and top plates that cooks the food on both sides simultaneously. What makes the panini press different from other contact grills, such as waffle makers and George Foreman grills, is that the plates aren’t hinged together at the back. Instead, the top plate floats above the bottom one, staying parallel (ideally) as you lower it onto the food. This lets you cook any size sandwich with even pressure and heat, whether it’s a four-inch triple decker or a skinny grilled cheese. A handle provides extra leverage for pressing a tall sandwich so that ingredients bond and the sandwich compacts somewhat. Panini presses typically have ribbed plates to give the food grill marks, and in fact, many of them can “grill” more than just sandwiches (see "Beyond the Bread," below). Of 11 presses, we found the three featured here to be the best. (See “How we tested”.)
Cuisinart Griddler $124 at Everythinghome.com
In a class by itself
Pros: This versatile unit operates as a traditional panini press with a center-pivot top plate, but it can also open like a book, offering two surfaces for open cooking. It’s the only unit with an on/off dial (the others must be unplugged). And its removable plates—one smooth set and one ribbed— made it far and away the easiest to clean. It was the hottest of all the presses (and also had adjustable heat, 200° to 425°F), and it turned out some of the most attractive sandwiches.
Cons: It’s nearly $50 more than its most costly competitor. As with all the presses we tested, the top plate needs a gentle nudge to help it settle level on the sandwich.