Best small appliances for the big holiday dinner

These countertop helpers will get you through busy meal prep

Last updated: November 18, 2014 08:00 AM

With a roast filling the oven and side dishes on every available burner, a holiday host can quickly run out of space to cook a meal and all the trimmings. But with some creative use of small countertop appliances, you can coordinate your dinner so that everything's ready at the same time. Many of today's microwaves and toaster ovens have improved cooking capabilities and warming trays have given way to induction burners that can be used to cook as well as serve. Here are some holiday hints and helpers from the experts at Consumer Reports. 

Panasonic FlashXpress NB-G110P

The most basic microwave can be used to reheat casseroles and side dishes made in advance. But a microwave with a convection mode is far more versatile and can be used to brown and crisp food. In our tests, at least one of our microwaves with a convection function, the GE Profile PVM1790SR[SS], $600, baked biscuits adequately in a preheated oven.

One of the midsized countertop models, the LG LCSP1110[ST], $230, features a pizza oven in a drawerlike oven beneath the microwave cavity, although it can't be used at the same time as the microwave. Still it has preset buttons not only for pizza but other baked goods. It scored very good overall as a microwave and baked biscuits to satisfaction.

At least two of the microwaves in our tests feature a grill—the Sharp Steamwave AX-1100S, $500, and theover-the-range Maytag MMV6186W[S], $680—that capably grilled a steak. The Sharp Steamwave also has a steamer option. We steamed fish nicely, but fresh broccoli took longer than expected. Still, it's an option when the cooktop is otherwise employed.

Toaster ovens
A large toaster oven can serve as a second oven. Use one to bake muffins or bread and to warm up pie for dessert. Several of the toaster ovens in our tests have convection heating, which manufacturers claim is faster and cooks more evenly. At least one model, the Panasonic FlashXpress NB-G110P, $150, also has speedy infrared heating.

The Hamilton Beach Set & Forget 31230, $100, a midpriced toaster oven, provides very good overall performance, especially when it comes to broiling. The interior is large enough to accommodate a 4-pound chicken, though in our tests the built-in thermometer wasn't as accurate as the Set & Forget label might lead you to believe.

192586-hotplates-waring-proict100.jpgInduction burners
Countertop induction burners are, basically, high-tech hotplates. They provide extra cooking space in kitchens that need it. They plug into standard 120V 15-amp outlets so are limited by their electrical supply to provide less heat than what is provided by induction cooktops or ranges, which use 240V 50-amp supply circuits. Still, the burners use magnetic coils to heat more quickly and efficiently than conventional electric hot plates by sending most of the heat to the pan rather than to the cooking surface, but work only with magnetic cookware.

The induction burners in our past tests were all ceramic glass, don't get as hot as standard radiant cooktop burners, were easy to clean and easier to keep clean (since they don't as readily burn spilled food). For typical cooking tasks, they offer plenty of power, above and beyond what a standard hot plate can offer. 

Food processors
If you are mashing potatoes or squash, move the cooked veggies from the pot to a food processor. Pulse it to get it to the right consistency but don't over mix it. Then place the food in a serving dish for reheating later. You can also purée winter squash soup. Four of the six the recommended food processors in our tests were very good at puréeing, including three Cuisinarts and a Breville.  Our top-rated machine is the Breville BFP800XL/A, $400, which was superb at slicing, shredding, and grating. And for all its power and performance, it’s surprisingly quiet.  

To save time after dinner, make coffee ahead of time and store it in a thermos. All the better if you already have a thermal carafe. In our tests, none of the recommended models comes with a thermal carafe—though the recommended Mr. Coffee BVMC-SJX33GT, $40, has one you can purchase separately. But at least 15 others that didn't do quite as well in our coffeemaker tests come with that feature, including the Krups Silver Art Collection KT600, $150.

If time isn't an issue, use a single-serve coffeemaker to make everyone an individual cup of coffee. All three of the top models in our pod coffeemaker tests are from DeLonghi Nescafé and range in price from $130 to $150. For Starbucks lovers, there's the Starbucks Verismo 600, $150.

Don't blow it
Before plugging in your high wattage helpers, make sure they are running on separate circuits or at least not at the same time. You don't want to trip a breaker switch just as your guests are gathering around the table. 

Mary H.J. Farrell (@mhjfarrell on Twitter)

Holiday Planning & Shopping Guide

For more tips and tricks from the experts at Consumer Reports read our Holiday Planning & Shopping Guide. You'll also find suggestions for gifts that were top-performers in our tests.

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