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They slice! They dice! But do they work?

Got kitchen gadget fever? Before you buy, here's the inside scoop.

By Devra First
Globe Staff / May 12, 2010

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Late at night — perhaps stricken by insomnia and watching bad TV, that mental NyQuil — one can be talked into things. Things that, in the clear and rational light of day, are bad ideas. Such as purchasing a chopping device hawked by a manic guy named Vince, or a large red mold that allows you to bake a cupcake 25 times the size of a normal one. The next morning, it’s easy to say: Wait, I already have a chopping device. It’s called a knife. Or: But cupcakes’ whole shtick is that they are small. And isn’t a large cupcake commonly known as a cake? But you’ve already clicked or dialed, and your package is on its way, $19.99 or so plus shipping and handling.

These plugs for labor-saving devices, often unintentionally hilarious, got us wondering. Are any of them actually useful? At 3 a.m., bleary and weary of watching poker tournaments and reruns, we decided to find out. We called 1-800-IMA-SCKR and ordered some frequently advertised gadgets. Then we tested them, in the clear and rational light of day. Here is what we found.

BIG TOP CUPCAKE

WHAT IT IS: A three-piece red silicone mold in the shape of a giant cupcake. ($19.95 plus $6.95 shipping/handling. 866-518-2281. www.bigtopcupcake.com.)

WHAT THE INFOMERCIAL SAYS: “A fool when your cakes aren’t cool? And why do tiny cupcakes take so long to make? Get in the spotlight with Big Top Cupcake, the fast and easy way to make colossal cupcakes that are up to 25 times bigger.’’

THE LOWDOWN: Do tiny cupcakes take so long to make? It never really seemed that way to me. At any rate, the Big Top Cupcake isn’t any quicker. The halves need to bake for anywhere from 35 to 50 minutes. One can bake a solid cupcake or use the filling insert, basically an upside-down saucer that is placed in the bottom half of the mold to create a depression. After the halves have cooled, ice cream, pudding, frosting, or whipped cream goes into the hollow.

The instructions explicitly call for boxed cake mix. (Actually, they call for “caked mix,’’ but I’m hoping that’s a typo.) There’s no mention of what a from-scratch baker might do to create a successful Big Top Cupcake. On my first attempt to use the mold, I baked a chocolate cake from scratch. When I unmolded it, it crumbled. On my next try, I used a mix. It came out perfectly. I’m certain one could experiment with recipes and find one that works with the Big Top Cupcake. That’s called baking — trial and error and a little uncertainty, ultimately yielding delicious results. It’s not the Big Top that keeps you from being a fool when your cakes aren’t cool. It’s the cake mix. It comes out the same every time, the baking equivalent of staying at a Holiday Inn and eating at a Cheesecake Factory when you’re on vacation. You know what you’re getting, but you’ll never know what flavor (local or chocolate) you missed.

My Big Top Cupcake looked good, a faux Hostess creation, chocolate frosting on chocolate cake with a white squiggle on top and white cream on the inside. Any kid would have been excited to see it and eat it, sugar writ large. But it tasted like the cardboard box that was its provenance. With more time on my hands, I might experiment with recipes that would work in its flexible red shell. At a kids’ birthday party, a giant cupcake would kill. For the most part, though, this is the kind of novelty that winds up squished in the back of the cupboard, behind the banged-up old bundt pans, cookie sheets, and springform pans people who love to bake turn to again and again. For my next trick, I’ll be turning out Flea Circus Cakes. They’re one-25th the size of a regular cake. You bake them in muffin tins in batches of 12. Fun for the whole family! Everyone gets their own to decorate as they wish.

PERFECT BROWNIE PAN

WHAT IT IS: An 11-by-7-inch baking pan with removable bottom, 18-square divider, and stand. ($19.95 plus $8.95 shipping/handling. 800-664-2590. www.perfectbrowniesale.com.)

WHAT THE INFOMERCIAL SAYS: “You cut, rip, and tear, but your brownies never turn out square. And when they’re stuck, you’re totally out of luck. Need a hand? Now there’s Perfect Brownie Pan, the new, nonstick way to bake, slice, and serve perfect brownies.’’

THE LOWDOWN: A rhyming dictionary in the wrong hands is a very bad thing. Apparently a knife is, too. Cut, rip, and tear? Come on. The world is a complicated place. Cutting brownies is easy. There’s no need to invent hardship where it doesn’t exist. Bake brownies. Take your knife. Slice them. Eat them. You don’t need this gadget.

Here’s how it works: You make the batter, put the removable base in the pan, and pour in the batter. Then you lower in the divider, a grid of 18 squares. Bake. When the brownies are done and still warm, pull out the divider, leaving 18 brownies in the pan. A separate stand is smaller than the pan, so when you place the pan on it, it drops down to table level like a guillotine for baked goods. That leaves your brownies on the pan bottom, slightly elevated. It’s as unnecessary as it sounds. Plus, in terms of sticking, you still have to grease each piece of the so-called Perfect Brownie Pan. Not exactly a time saver. And the divider conducts heat, which dries out the brownies. You trade moistness for a chewy edge on each square. If that’s the way you roll, go for it.

Did I mention you don’t need this gadget?

XPRESS REDI-SET-GO

WHAT IT IS: A round, hinged red electric grill with two pan inserts, one divided down the middle, one with round wells. ($39.90 plus $29.90 shipping/handling for two units. 800-515-0764. www.redisetgo.com.)

WHAT THE INFOMERCIAL SAYS: “Fast food can be fantastic food thanks to the Xpress Redi-Set-Go.’’

THE LOWDOWN: Enthusiastic spokeswoman Cathy Mitchell (you may recognize her signature corona of ginger curls from other infomercials) evangelizes about the time-saving powers of this device. You can use it to make meatballs, restaurant-worthy steak, pizza, desserts, and more, all in less than 10 minutes, she says. Again, this is cooking time. Prep time isn’t taken into account.

I use it to make an omelet. I beat my eggs with a bit of milk, insert the pan that’s divided down the center, and preheat the Xpress Redi-Set-Go. Then I add a bit of olive oil, pour in the eggs, and set the timer for five minutes.

Remember “The Tell-Tale Heart’’? The heartbeats in the Poe story could not be any more crazy-making than the sound of the Xpress Redi-Set-Go’s timer ticking. When it dings, my relief has nothing to do with hunger. I take out my omelet, which seems to be nicely browned on the bottom but not the top. If your ingredients aren’t tall enough, the upper heating element won’t touch them. It’s cooked, though. It’s also tough and not particularly fluffy. I can make a delicious, delicate, fluffy omelet in a pan over high heat in less time, and it never fails.

Next up, grilled cheese. I use Iggy’s sourdough and some sharp cheddar. I don’t set the timer, just eyeball it. It’s a grilled cheese sandwich. How hard could it be? By the time the bread is browned, though, the cheese has nearly liquefied, melting into the bread. You can’t control the device’s temperature. There’s no finesse. The Xpress Redi-Set-Go fills the same niche as the panini press or George Foreman grill that may already be lurking in your cupboard. If you live in a dorm room, it would be useful.

But it’s not the savior from fast food that Mitchell portrays. None of these devices are. Cooking — real, legitimate cooking, in frying pans and ovens — truly can be fast. These gadgets do people a disservice. Under the guise of saving us time, they teach us not to cook.

MAGIC BULLET

WHAT IT IS: A miniature blender with several different-size cups and two different blades, one flat and one shaped like an X. ($99.99 plus $47.97 shipping/handling for two 21-piece sets. 866-446-6352. www.buythebullet.com.)

WHAT THE INFOMERCIAL SAYS: “The personal, versatile countertop magician that does any job in 10 seconds or less.’’

THE LOWDOWN: Ten seconds? On the infomercial, the timer begins to tick after the mise en place is already en place. Well, sure. If you could eliminate the prep time, the majority of cooking tasks would become rather speedy.

Blending something in a regular blender, for example. For someone with limited counter space or an infrequent blender user, the Magic Bullet might be an improvement. Its footprint is small, and the device is light. But it doesn’t blend quite as well, particularly when it comes to anything dense such as ice or frozen fruit. And that price tag!

If you’re going to purchase one, at least you can make a credible cappuccino with its help. It functions as a coffee grinder, too. Though my ancient Krups is quicker and more effective, the Magic Bullet has the advantage of being dishwasher safe. After I grind the beans, I try using the thing to froth milk, then switch out the blade for a perforated lid and stick it in the microwave. Presto: steamed milk topped with lovely foam. Coffee snobs everywhere would be shocked.

Magic Bullet’s recipe book offers a seven-second salsa, and that timing is fairly accurate. It has the airy texture tomatoes get when you put them in the blender. But it’s good salsa — better than anything you get in a jar, made as spicy or garlicky or cilantro-y as you like it. Ditto guacamole and hummus. Of course, you can make these things in any blender or food processor. But many people don’t. We get lazy, we cut corners, we buy tiny plastic tubs for three times the cost of the ingredients. The Magic Bullet shows people who might not otherwise realize it that making your own is easy, cost-effective, and tastier. That’s its value.

For others, the device may be beside the point. No one should make muffins in this thing, for instance, no matter what the commercial says. There’s no way to avoid overmixing the batter, one of baking’s biggest no-nos. It makes for tough muffins. Just because you can do something with this device doesn’t mean you always should.

SLAP CHOP

WHAT IT IS: A device with a W-shaped blade. You hit the plunger repeatedly to chop whatever lies beneath. ($19.95 plus $7.95 shipping/handling. 877-399-3491. www.slapchop.com.)

WHAT THE INFOMERCIAL SAYS: “You’re gonna be in a great mood all day because you’re gonna be slapping your troubles away.’’

THE LOWDOWN: Spokesman Vince Shlomi talked you into buying the ShamWow, an absorbent towel. Now he uses his powers of persuasion to convince you this flimsy piece of plastic makes chopping easier.

You take your onion, your carrots and celery and tuna, your nuts, what have you, and put them on the cutting board. Then you lower the Slap Chop over them and start slapping the handle. When Shlomi does this, the thing chops. When I do it, the blade gets wedged in an onion and I spend several minutes trying to extricate it without slicing my fingers off. I am not in a great mood. I am cranky.

Shlomi claims the Slap Chop is easy to clean. You just twist a piece of plastic and the two sides of the Slap Chop open like a butterfly’s wings. I have to wrestle with the thing to get the plastic piece to twist. This device confirms the suspicion that sneaks up on me as I use the Perfect Brownie Pan: There are people in this country who suffer from knife-o-phobia. You know who you are, and it’s time to get therapy. A knife is straight, sharp, and elegant. It’s quick to use and easy to clean. For chopping and slicing, it cannot be improved on. Put your $19.95 toward a really good one and you will never regret it.

But I still want a ShamWow.

Devra First can be reached at dfirst@globe.com.