Electric panini press trumps tradition

Things I love: perfectly cooked panini, anything cast iron (also steak weights and bricks).

Things I don't love: single-use kitchen gadgets, nonstick coating, anything I have to plug in.

So when it came time to test the many panini makers, manual and electric, on the market this holiday season, I was expecting to fall in love with a gorgeous, old-fashioned hunk of iron. This did not happen.

On the contrary, I now plan to get anyone on my Christmas list who wants a panini grill (that would be everyone) an electric nonstick panini maker.

Here's why.

The manual pans, which are made of either ridged cast iron or anodized aluminum and come with heavy, ridged, cast-iron presses, are gorgeous &

especially Mario Batali's, a stunning, shiny crimson square.

But as much as I wanted to love them, they look better than they cook. And the hinged, electric presses? I've been using one every day since I began my experiment.

I tested five manual pans made by some of the heavyweights (so to speak) of cookware: All Clad, Calphalon, Le Creuset, Mario Batali and the Italian company Bialetti. They range in price from $60 to $150.

The Calphalon, Le Creuset and Batali are made of enameled cast iron, painted in pretty colors, with matching iron presses. The All Clad and Bialetti pans are aluminum with nonstick surfaces; they come with cast-iron presses.

I also tested five electric presses, the newest models from Cuisinart, Breville, Krups, De'Longhi and Hamilton Beach, ranging in price from $50 to $100.

To test them, I made a basic ham-and-cheese panino on each. I was looking for even grilling on top and bottom, a press that supplied enough pressure to cook the panino through yet not squish out the filling, ease of use, design versatility and ease of cleanup.

The manual presses, despite their terrific hefty aesthetics, were a big disappointment. With some models, the weights are too heavy, squashing the panino rather than pressing it; others perched on top of the panino without pressing it enough to cook through.

Heating the pans to the correct temperature requires some guesswork and it's difficult getting pan and press to the right temperature simultaneously, which is necessary if you want to cook the panino without flipping it.

And even if you manage to correctly heat the separate elements, it's hard to get the panini to come out perfectly without monitoring pan and panino like a complicated science experiment. The pan cooks unevenly, the press doesn't stay parallel to the surface of the pan, the pan gets too hot as the press cools (which makes for a charred bottom and an uncooked top), or it doesn't stay hot enough.

So much for the simplicity of cast iron.

In comparison, many of the electric pans I tested are a joy to use. You just plug them in, they light up when they're ready to grill and they cook panini to a terrific crispness &

evenly and simultaneously from top and bottom.

Some of the electric grills have larger surface areas or more features, such as adjustable heights and temperatures and grease runoff spouts. That makes them versatile, capable of grilling steaks and hamburgers, fish and vegetables, even cooking bacon and making great crostini. Others are less versatile &

but also less expensive.

All five have floating hinge systems that solve the problem of earlier generations of home panini makers, allowing parallel adjustment of the machine to fit the sandwiches (or other contents) being pressed. Older presses had a tendency to squash their contents from the rear of the pan out, as the hinges didn't float, but were, well, hinges.

Of the five electric grills, the Breville is the most impressive. It's smartly designed with a degree-specific temperature control, adjustable legs that allow for the pan to tilt or lie flat, and a front that curves down into an attachable drip tray.

I used it to make perfect panini of all heights and dimensions: Prosciutto and cheese panini, grilled vegetable panini, and my absolute favorite, a Nutella panino.

Then I used the machine to cook fish fillets, grill perfectly crisp bacon, make toast; I even caramelized shallots and wilted arugula on it.

No, it's not as great looking as the cast iron, nor will it probably last as long. But it works perfectly.

Regardless of which pan you choose, there are some tricks to making good panini.

Use a traditional panino roll or a good country white bread; cut into slices of even thickness. Make sure whatever filling you use &

cured meats and cheeses, grilled vegetables, marinated tuna, chunks of bittersweet chocolate &

is arranged evenly between the two pieces of bread.

Bring the ingredients to room temperature before you grill: If the ingredients are cold, the bread will brown long before the interior of your panini is heated, much less melted.

Once you have your sandwich assembled, simply put it on the hot grill. You don't need to butter the bread first or grease the pan because the bread won't stick to the surface.

Press down the top for a minute to make sure that everything is firmly in place, then let the sandwich cook until it's golden and crispy.

Grill an "autostrada," a traditional Italian panino made with Italian meats and cheese and marinated peppers, or a glorious croque-monsieur, a French bistro-style ham and cheese sandwich. With rich slices of Black Forest ham and nutty Gruyere cheese, you don't even need the traditional sauce Mornay on top: Just sprinkle on chives.

With the right pan &

and a little electricity &

you can make a terrific panino out of just about anything. That would be "panino," singular. I guess the manufacturers of these "panini pans" assume you won't ever make just one.

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