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”.)
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.
Beyond the sandwich
We tried some other suggested uses for panini presses and were mostly pleased with the results.
Mushrooms, eggplant, zucchini, onions, and red peppers: Sliced and brushed with oil, these vegetables cooked very quickly and well on all models featured here.
Steak, chicken cutlets: Cooked very quickly, but not easy to retrieve juices and browned bits for a pan sauce. Much splatter and steam, so ventilation is a must.
Banana and pineapple slices: Dipped in brown sugar and cooked with butter, the fruit caramelized quickly.
Pros: This panini press is handsome and solid, and its top plate settles well on tall, narrow sandwiches. The top plate has a heat-resistant leading edge, making this the only model that lets you make lid adjustments without a potholder. This press was one of the easiest to clean, thanks to its drip spout in front and widely spaced ribs. It offers adjustable heat, though we found this mostly an unnecessary feature, since “hottest” is the operative heat needed for good panini.
Cons: The bottom plate on our unit didn’t seem to get quite as hot as the top plate.
Pros: This jazzy-looking model got hotter than most we tested, made the crispest, cleanest-looking grill marks, and produced delicious, attractive sandwiches and more. Like the other two models we feature here, it offers adjustable heat and a drip spout to collect fat, which is an advantage for cleaning.
Cons: It took close to 7 minutes to heat up, 2 minutes more than most other presses. This machine has deep, closely spaced ribs with squared edges, which are a chore to rid of grease. We also found the lock on our unit wasn’t always reliable when carrying by the handle for storing.
Or go low-tech
In addition to electric panini presses, we also tested the nonelectric alternative: a cast-iron pan with a foil-wrapped brick or handheld cast-iron panini press, such as the Le Creuset one to the right. They work beautifully—for one sandwich at a time. If you’re making sandwiches for two or more, an electric press cooks faster, retains heat well, and reheats quickly.
How we tested:
We evaluated 11 electric presses on preheating time, speed and quality of cooking, ease of operation, and ease of cleanup. We made grilled cheese, 31/2-inch tall sandwiches, and tried a variety of non-sandwich foods on those presses that promoted other uses. In addition to the models shown here, the following were also tested: Breadman Panini Maker TR456, Breville 2-in-1 Panini Press SG630XL; Breville 2-in-1 Panini Press SG820XL; Deni Panini Maker; Flama Panini Grill; Hamilton Beach Panini Press Gourmet Sandwich Maker 25450; and Krups Universal Grill and Panini Maker FDE312-75.