With a roast beast 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 our picks of top holiday helpers.
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], baked biscuits adequately in a preheated oven.
One of the midsized countertop models, the LG LCSP1110[ST], shown above, 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 and the Maytag MMV6186W[S]—that capably grilled a steak. The Sharp Steamwave also had 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.
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, also has infrared heating.
The Hamilton Beach Set & Forget 31230, 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.
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 four burners in our tests are all ceramic glass, don't get as hot as standard radiant cooktop burners, are 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. The Waring Pro ICT100 (shown) is especially attractive, with very good overall performance and the lowest price of the four models tested. We consider it a Best Buy.
If you are mashing potatoes or squash, remove it 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 veggies in a serving dish for reheating later. You can also purée winter squash soup. All four of the recommended food processors in our tests were very good at puréeing, including three Cuisinarts and a Breville.
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 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 (shown).
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. For Starbucks lovers, there's the Starbucks Verismo 580.
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.