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Save Big: Spend Smart on Small Appliances

How to Choose Kitchen AppliancesIf a Golden Age of kitchen appliances exists, it would have to be the 1920s, when the domestic Big Three leaped from the drawing board to the countertop. The creativity started in 1922, when Stephen Polawski invented the blender; he used his spinning blade contraption to make fountain drinks. Then came 1927, when architect John W. Hammes built his wife the world's first kitchen garbage disposal. (Either he was the World's most sensitive hubby, or just got tired of taking out the trash.) And finally, Ivar Jepson gave us the glorious Sunbeam Mixmaster, patented between 1928 and 1929.

Yet for all that invention, no one has crafted a device that can help homemakers make the best choices in outfitting the kitchen. In fact, you might well say "There's an app for that" -- as in appliance -- with all the gadgets you can stuff into your cooking and dining space. Noodle makers, apple peelers, juice grinders, espresso makers: How about an appliance that bends over and cleans up the spaghetti blob your kid just plopped under the table?

We may not have a patent on that device -- but at the Savings Experiment, we do promise some timely research and findings to help you make that kitchen efficient, modern and thrifty. Now there's a nice Big Three if we ever saw one.

RELIANCE ON THE APPLIANCE? THAT IS THE QUESTION
I'm a garage sale junkie, and I can't tell you how many times I've gone to blowouts this season and seen bread makers. It's always the same: The bread makers look like they've been used just once. And even though the castoffs are selling for 10 bucks, these bread makers might as well be bread wasters, given how much "dough" was spent on them. Many of these models probably retailed for about $100 new.

Therein lies rule No.1 for appliance bliss: No so-called bargain is a bargain if you don't use the thing! And so follows closely the second rule: Base your appliance purchases not on impulse, but what you'll use week in and week out.

An espresso maker, for example, might seem like an indulgence -- but since my wife loves her coffee, our Krups il Primo (since succeeded at Krups by the $60 Steam Espresso Machine) gets a daily workout. (Did I mention I found ours for $15 at a thrift shop, unused?)

Some of the more overrated kitchen appliances include:
  • Popcorn makers: Microwaves will do just as good a job, or you can always cook it on your stove. Save your money for buying the best kernels for popping, as opposed to the best popper for kernels.
  • Electric can openers: Unless you have hand-arm limitations or work in an industrial kitchen, why bother? The manual can openers made by Oxo Good Grips are ergonomically streamlined; you'll hardly know you're doing manual labor.
  • Waffle makers: Come on: How often do you make waffles anyway?
  • Ice Cream Maker: I know, I know: You have kids. So do I. And you know what? My rug rats are going to pick Baskin-Robbins, or even a few quarts of store ice cream, every time over the labor of making desserts at home. You'll use it once, pack it away and put a little green sticker on it for your next garage sale. If you want to entertain the kiddies with dessert activities, stick to instant pudding or gelatin.
  • Bread makers. Need I elaborate?
SO WHAT DO I KNEAD, ANYWAY?
If the first big step involves cutting out frivolous and impulsive kitchen purchases, than the next requires you to consider those items you may have overlooked, but can make a big difference in meal prep. Our research points to these value items as smart, budget-conscious kitchen necessaries:

* Cuisinart DLC-2AFR Mini-Prep food processor. You'll see it for up to $50, but we found it for $30 at eBay. It makes pesto, grinds cheese, chops onions and comes with a dishwasher-safe 3-cup bowl.

* Hamilton Beach Smart Toaster. No microwave worth its electric bill can make your bagels all crisp and crunchy. Provantage.com sells the four-slice model for only $24. Or, go for...

* Cuisinart Toaster Oven Broiler. Never try sticking cold pizza in a slot toaster, right? I love my Cuisinart toaster oven, and this model (the same one yours truly owns) lets you choose between toasting, convection baking and broiling. We found it for $80 at Lowes, up to $40 cheaper than at other stores.

* Bodum French press for coffee. A French press improves the quality of coffee immensely without the need for fancy filters, brewers, etc. You can get the 8-cup model on eBay for $15 -- less than the cost of three ventis at Starbucks.

A host of other items rate as possible necessities. Smoothie and soup enthusiasts will want to invest in a blender; tea drinkers will want to consider a kettle or electric kettle; and a hand or stand mixer rates as a must-have if you're dealing with cookie dough and cake batter. KitchenAid makes an outstanding mixer; its Artisan Series sells for $256 at U.S. Appliance. Yes, that's much more than the prices for the above-listed items, but this kitchen gem boasts such high quality and sleek aesthetics, it's hard to pass up -- especially if you'll use a mixer often. Otherwise, KitchenAid makes a hand-held mixer, ideal for lighter duty, that sells for less than a third of the standing-mixer price.

APPLY YOUR APPLIANCE I.Q.
Repeat after me, Savings Experimenters: There's a big difference between cheap price and cheapo quality. Often it pays to invest in a more rugged machine, even if the price tag is higher, because you'll avoid costly repairs and replacements further down the line. What's more, better-designed appliances will save you unnecessary strain and aggravation while preparing your meals.

So when shopping around, look for sturdy construction. Heavier usually is better. Metal gearing for mixers and food processors will last longer. Plastic will snap easier or can change its shape in conditions of extreme heat.

Consider how easy the appliance is to clean. Watch for cracks and areas that dirt and crumbs can get trapped in. Appliances with dishwasher safe parts are great if you can find them.

Tradeoff: Space versus capacity. While larger appliances will make more food in a single use, they'll also hog up your counter space, too. If you're living single, you don't need a four-slice toaster. If you have a large family, you may need a bigger toaster oven -- but how big? And where will you put it? Take some simple measurements before you buy anything.

GET COOKING: SOME PARTING THOUGHTS
By now, you've hopefully got some choice leads on products to buy -- and avoid. Again, remember to use your space wisely and buy well-built, quality products.

In the end, the best way to outfit your kitchen and save money is to start simple. Outfit your most basic needs, and buy more appliances as other needs become apparent. I still wouldn't advise buying a bread maker, but hey: If you feel like you've gotta bake a loaf every week, I'm not stopping you. But take this advice from a guy who bought a bread maker at a yard sale, then sold it at his own garage sale a year later after baking nary a loaf:

If you lust after a bread maker, be sure to check some garage sales first. Trust me, you'll find one. Or more than one. A lot more than one...

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