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Sandwiches, perfectly pressed

Times Staff Writer

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 to get it to work.

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 on the list) 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.

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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 so much that it squished 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 it 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 having to flip it over.

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.

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An electric performance

In comparison, most 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 and/or more features, such as adjustable heights and temperatures and grease runoff spouts, than others do. That makes them more 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 directly 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 crispy 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, even chunks of bittersweet chocolate -- is arranged evenly between the two pieces of bread.

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Traditions and tricks

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, as 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 some chives instead.

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.

The idea is right, even if the Italian grammar isn’t.

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amy.scattergood@latimes.com

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Croque-monsieur

Total time: about 10 minutes

Servings: 2 sandwiches

Note: Although a classic croque-monsieur is served with a sauce Mornay, this is a simpler version, with snipped fresh chives for garnish. This recipe assumes the use of an electric panini press.

4 slices white sourdough bread

4 ounces Gruyere cheese, grated or very thinly sliced

4 ounces Black Forest ham, very thinly sliced

2 tablespoons chives, snipped with a pair of scissors

1. Turn on the panini grill. While the grill heats, assemble the sandwich: Spread the cheese equally over two pieces of bread. Layer the ham equally over the cheese. Place the remaining slices of bread on top.

3. When the grill is hot (the light will turn on), place the sandwich (or both sandwiches, depending on the size of the bread and your panini grill) on the grill. Press the top of the grill down firmly, making sure that the top and the bottom of the grill are parallel.

4. Cook, for about 4 to 5 minutes, until the cheese is melted and the sandwiches are golden. Lift the top and remove from the grill, cut into quarters, stack and top with chives. Serve immediately.

Each sandwich: 528 calories; 34 grams protein; 46 grams carbohydrates; 3 grams fiber; 23 grams fat; 12 grams saturated fat; 92 mg. cholesterol; 1,140 mg. sodium.

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The way to go if you want cast iron

If an electric panini press is simply not for you (you want to make panini while camping, say, or you’ve given up on electricity altogether (maybe you’re living off the grid), the Le Creuset panini press and skillet grill set is the best of the manual models. It’s the most expensive, but it’s also got the smartest design of the five, including a perfectly weighted press of the right dimensions, pour spouts and an enameled cast-iron pan with prominent ribs for great grill marks.

Made from enameled cast iron -- in those cool Le Creuset colors (kiwi, teal, red, crimson, orange), the 10 1/4 -inch square pan with a 4-pound, 9-inch cast-iron press, makes great panini as long as you preheat both elements to the right temperature.

The press is just the right weight, and it fits surely into the pan, but not so tightly that there’s no room to maneuver.

Unlike the other sets we tested, the sides of this pan angle out, which makes it easier to adjust.

It also has pour spouts on two sides (none of the other sets has even one). Though you don’t need them to make panini, they’re a very useful feature when using the pan for other things, such as searing meat with a high fat content or cooking bacon (the press is great for this).

About $145 at Bloomingdale’s and online at www.amazon .com, www.bedbathandbeyond .com and www.cooking.com. Colors vary by retailer.

-- Amy Scattergood

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King of panini (and bacon!)

The brushed stainless-steel Breville Panini Grill has a 9 1/2 -by-10-inch nonstick grilling surface, variable temperature control (350 to 440 degrees), a six-setting height control, flip-out feet and a locking mechanism for upright storage. A large drip tray fits securely along the front. It comes with a recipe book and a grill scraper.

What’s the difference: This is the only grill that has a degree-specific temperature control; height control; and flip-out feet that let you elevate the front of the machine or slant it slightly downward. Because the pan has no lip, it doesn’t need a pour spout.

What we thought: The Breville is the clear winner. Like the De’Longhi, its temperature assured a nicely grilled sandwich every time, because you can regulate the heat according to what’s inside your sandwich. So when it comes to panini, there’s a two-way tie. But the Breville is good for making much more than panini -- it’s also great for grilling vegetables, cooking burgers, bacon, etc., particularly because the flip-out feet let you cook at an angle, allowing the grease to drain while you cook. The fact that the pan is lip-less, unlike all the others, makes cleanup much easier. The lip-less design also makes it easier to slide off cooked ingredients. The height control, on the other hand, doesn’t add much functionality.

How much: $100, exclusively from Williams-Sonoma stores and online at www.williamssonoma.com.

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Takes on the tall ones

The De’Longhi Retro Panini Grill has a height-adjustable hinge, an adjustable heat control, an 11 1/2 -by-9 1/2 -inch nonstick grilling surface and a locking system that allows upright storage. A recipe book is included.

What’s the difference: The De’Longhi has a temperature control with three settings.

What we thought: The shiny De’Longhi, with its cool, retro design, grills panini as well as the Breville. With its pivoting heavy top, the machine can accommodate tall ingredients, such as super-filled sandwiches or steaks. But it’s not as good at grilling anything fatty because the unattached cup that catches the oil is too small and doesn’t stay in place. Still, for panini it’s great.

How much: $60 at Bloomingdale’s stores and online at www .bloomingdales.com, www.cooking.com and www.amazon.com.

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One-temperature wonder

The Krups Universal Grill Panini Maker has a nonstick surface and a locking mechanism. It comes with a recipe book.

What’s the difference: The Krups only cooks at one temperature, and there’s no pour spout.

What we thought: The Krups is a sturdy, functional machine. Without a pour spout, though, it’s difficult to clean, and its preset temperature limits its use to panini and other foods that can cook at that particular temperature. Though it has a locking mechanism, the lock is flimsy, rendering the handle useless for carrying it (it falls open). But its nice, slim design makes it easy to store.

How much: $80 from Sur La Table stores and online at www.surlatable.com, www.krups.com, www.cooking.com and www .amazon.com.

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Small but sturdy

Cuisinart GR-1 Griddler Panini and Sandwich Press has a brushed stainless-steel housing, an 11-by-6 1/2 -inch nonstick surface and a floating hinge. It comes with a grill scraper.

What’s the difference: The Griddler only has about half the surface cooking area as the other pans.

What we thought: The small grill size of this new model means you can only cook two panini at once. Its lack of runoff spout and tray and the preset temperature control make the grill less versatile than the others. And accommodating tall sandwiches is more problematic because when the hinge is fully extended, you lose about an inch of surface grilling area. No lock means you can’t store it upright.

How much: $50 from www.cuisinart.com, www.bedbathandbeyond .com, www.cooking.com and www.amazon.com.

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Some disassembly required

The Hamilton Beach 25451 Contact Grill and Sandwich Press has a 9 1/2 -inch-square cooking surface with removable, dishwasher-safe nonstick grill plates.

What’s the difference: You can remove nonstick grill plates and put them in the dishwasher.

What we thought: The grill cooks unevenly, with food browning at the edges before it cooks in the middle. The design of the press, which has edges that rise farther up than the ribs on both sides, also means that you can’t cook very thin food, such as bacon slices or thinly sliced bread. The grill plates rattle, so the machine doesn’t seem very sturdy (also, the unattached drip pan is easily knocked around). The parts are dishwasher-safe, but it’s not much easier to clean because disassembly is required.

How much: $50 from www.target.com and www.hamiltonbeach.com.


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