Serious Eats / Ashlee Redger

If you were around in the late ‘90s and early aughts, you probably remember the original Lean Mean Fat-Reducing Grilling Machines. They were all the rage for cooking sandwiches, burger patties, chicken breasts, and anything else you could shut between two hot plates. Heck, even Michael Scott had one (although we’d recommend other ways to cook your morning bacon that don’t risk clamping your foot in a George Foreman). 

In the past three decades, these machines (which we’ll call panini presses, but are also commonly referred to as indoor or contact grills) have seen a lot of technical improvement. Many of them now have adjustable temperatures, removable and reversible plates, and better floating-hinge covers that cook food more evenly. They can be a convenient option for weekday meals, a solution for those who don’t have easy kitchen access (like college students), or a good alternative for people looking to cut down on their usage of gas stoves. 

For most of us, though, kitchen space is tight, and countertop appliances take up especially valuable real estate. During this review, we favored panini presses that went beyond unitasking and that we could picture ourselves using regularly, if not daily. We spent a week testing nine of the highest-rated panini presses—priced from $25 to $200—to find which ones not only made the best sandwiches but were also super adaptable and easy to clean. After making dozens of sandwiches, we found four clear winners.

The Winners, at a Glance

The Griddler Elite incorporated all of the best features of a high-end panini press, including a built-in timer, separate temperature controls for the top and bottom, and detachable, reversible plates. The grill sides of the surfaces created the most distinct marks of the lineup thanks to their deep grooves that channeled away moisture and drippings. The Elite’s cover could be adjusted to hover above the base to make open-faced melts easy, or it could fold down flat to convert the panini press into a griddle.

Breville has a reputation for high-tech, chef-driven appliances (we’re big fans of its toaster oven andfood processor). The Sear & Press Grill shared a lot of the same capabilities as the Cuisinart Griddler Elite, plus it could be paired with compatible waffle plates (although they have to be purchased separately). It would be a good option for someone who’s looking to cut down on the total number of appliances in their kitchen, while still getting reliably excellent results. 

The Griddler FIVE had a clear user interface (complete with an LCD screen), a built-in timer, and a wide range of temperature settings. Like the two higher-end picks, it could expand flat and was a breeze to clean thanks to its detachable plates. It was smaller than the Griddler Elite and the Breville Sear & Press, making it easier to store.

At just under $100, the standard Griddler was the most budget-friendly panini press that still featured the same extras that set all of our favorites apart: easy-to-clean, reversible plates, adjustable temperature settings, and a top cover that could rotate 180 degrees to convert the press into a countertop griddle or grill. We also liked its analog temperature dials, which were dead simple to operate.

The Tests

Serious Eats / Ashlee RedgerCuban Sandwich Test: We made two Cubano sandwiches with each model to see how it fared with a tall sandwich made with heavy fillings and soft bread. We observed whether the grill’s lid pressed down evenly on the top of the sandwich or closed at an angle. We also evaluated if the cheese inside was melted by the time the bread was golden and crisp on both sides.Caramelized Onion & Mushroom Panini Test (Winners-Only): We used the models that performed the best in the Cuban sandwich test to make vegan caramelized onion and mushroom panini. Since the sandwiches had no cheese to hold them together, we watched to see if the lids were heavy enough to push the fillings out of the crusty bread, and how distinct the grill marks were at the end. Cleaning and Usability Tests: Throughout testing, we took notes on how intuitive each panini press was to use and if it was easy to clean the parts by hand (using the plastic scraper tool if it came with one).

What We Learned

The Panini Presses Could (and Should) Do More than Sandwiches

Serious Eats / Ashlee Redger

Like the original grilling machines, all of the presses we tested advertised their ability to cook burgers, vegetables, or even steak, and do it faster since it heated both sides at once. We wouldn’t exactly rush to get a hard sear our next ribeye on an indoor grill, since their plates were covered in nonstick coating (which, as we know from nonstick skillets, can degrade at high temperatures). But we would turn to one for weeknight chicken cutlets, quesadillas, and veggies like asparagus, to name a few.

Most of the models, from the $200 Breville Sear & Press to the $30 Elite Gourmet Panini Press, could open their lids up 180 degrees so they could be used flat as indoor grills. This feature was made even better when the press had adjustable temperature settings and reversible plates with grill and griddle options. The Cuisinart Griddler Elite, for example, could effectively double as an electric griddle, since it had broad cooking surfaces and exact heat settings. Both the Griddler Elite and the Breville Sear & Press had dual temperature modes. This meant that the top plate could be used, for example, on medium-high heat for searing breakfast sausage or frying eggs while the bottom is set lower for pancakes. Both models also had the option to set the lid to hover over the base, converting them into mock broilers for open-faced melts and flatbread pizzas. Some panini presses, including the Breville Sear & Press as well as Cuisinart’s Griddler and Griddler FIVE, had compatible waffle plates which would make them even more powerful multitaskers (though these were available separately, and we did not test their performance).

Presets Weren’t Particularly Helpful

We preferred adjustable temperature options (like the press shown here has), but were fine without any presets.Serious Eats / Ashlee Redger

Almost half of the panini presses we tested had no temperature settings beyond “on” and “off.” While this just meant slightly longer cook times for the Elite Gourmet, George Foreman, and Breville Panini Duo, the Chefman Panini Press & Grill got too hot and burned the bread before the sandwich was cooked through in the Cubano test. While one could adapt to this by making thinner sandwiches that heat through faster, we preferred grills that could adjust to our needs rather than the other way around.

On the other side, the panini presses that had adjustable heat levels often incorporated extra preset buttons for specific uses, like searing at the highest temperature. We often found these shortcuts nonspecific, like in the case of the Cuisinart Smoke-Less Griddler. In addition to manual controls, it had beef, poultry, fish, and pork presets that could be applied to the top plate, bottom plate, or both. It wasn’t clear what temperature the machine was heating to; plus, having to scroll through all of the functions in order to set it to anything made the user interface feel irksome and time-consuming. The Breville Sear & Press had a panini preset that got the plates searingly hot (to the point of lightly smoking), which we ultimately found less helpful than just setting the temperature ourselves. 

Detachable Plates Made Cleaning Easy

Serious Eats / Ashlee Redger

No surprise here! Cooking surfaces that could be popped out were more convenient to clean than those that couldn’t. All of the ones we tested that could be detached were dishwasher-safe, too. The fixed-plate models had to be wiped out with a damp cloth or sponge in an attempt to get all the burnt-on bits and grease out without getting water in the electrical components. It was bothersome when making relatively self-contained sandwiches, but would be a downright hassle after anything messier (like burgers). The George Foreman model we tested was especially hard to clean. Not only did it have fixed plates, but its drip tray was situated at the front of the cooking plate rather than the back. This left any drips that were on the lid a clear path down into the hinges as soon as the cover was lifted (which happened even with a light brushing of butter before we started cooking). The machine never felt fully clean and continuously showed smudges all over its black plastic exterior. 

Grill grate height also mattered in how easy the plates were to clean. The Griddler Elite had the deepest grooves on its grilling surface of any panini press (about eight millimeters deep), which produced the most prevalent marks on the final paninis. They were a tad harder to clean, though, since food could fall and burn in between them. A few minutes of soaking or a swipe with the plastic scraping tool that came with the grill helped us take care of any stubborn bits. All of the other models had grates that were between 1.7 and 3.5 millimeters deep, which could be easily wiped out with a sponge.

Most of the Budget Panini Presses Weren’t Up to Par

Smaller, cheaper panini presses could barely accommodate a single sandwich.Serious Eats / Ashlee Redger

We tested three models in the $30 range: The Elite Gourmet, Chefman, and George Foreman panini presses. Unfortunately, they all suffered from the same flaws, with fixed plates and no temperature control. Because of their smaller sizes, they also struggled to fit the Cubano sandwiches under their floating hinge lids and required the sandwiches to be flipped around halfway through in order to be cooked (somewhat) evenly. You could do less with them than say, a good nonstick skillet or grill pan, and they were harder to clean to boot.

Serious Eats / Ashlee Redger

For those reasons, we recommend just getting a grill press (also called a cooking weight)  instead of one of the more basic electric grills if you want to make paninis on a budget, which can be used with any skillet. Even an aluminum foil-wrapped brick to press sandwiches into whatever pan you already own works.

The Criteria: What to Look for in a Panini Press

Serious Eats / Ashlee Redger

A great panini press should have adjustable heat settings, a floating-hinge lid that can lower evenly onto the food, and detachable plates that are convenient to clean. We also loved covers that could open flat so the press could be converted into an indoor grill (bonus points if the cooking plates were reversible so it could also be used as a griddle). Instead of preset buttons, we valued panini presses that had more multitasking opportunities, like a top that be set a few inches above the base for open-faced melts and compatible waffle plates. 

The Best Panini Presses

What we liked: The Griddler Elite consistently performed the best throughout our tests because of its clear user interface and comprehensive set of features. The built-in timer was surprisingly convenient, and we liked that the lid locked closed so it to be stored on its side between uses. The responsive floating hinge allowed for even pressure (even on the towering Cubano sandwiches), while the prominent grill grates produced distinctly marked sandwiches. 

All of our favorite panini presses could open flat to become a full griddle or indoor grill, but the Griddler Elite also had independent temperature controls for the top and bottom so you could make two different dishes at once. The cooking surfaces were large enough to make three or four large sandwiches at a time, so it’s a good pick for families or meal-prepping.

Serious Eats / Ashlee Redger

What we didn’t like: This pricey model was the biggest and heaviest machine in the lineup. It took up about a square foot and a half of countertop space and weighed over 17 pounds, making it a hassle to put away in a cabinet. We also noticed that, even though the deep grooves of the grill surfaces made for better-looking sandwiches, they tended to be slightly harder to clean.

Price at time of publish: $154.

Key Specs

Dimensions: 14 x 15.5 x 8.25 inchesWeight: 17.4 poundsCord length: 36.5 inchesGrill grate depth: 8.1 millimetersMaterials: Stainless steel, aluminum, and plasticTemperature Range: 200-450°FWattage: 1800 wattsCare instructions: The detachable plates, plastic scraper tool, and drip tray are dishwasher-safe (top rack only). The external housing can be wiped with a dry or damp soft cloth. Avoid abrasive cleaners and metal utensils, as they can scratch the outside or damage the nonstick coating.Serious Eats / Ashlee Redger

What we liked: This model had the most complete set of features to make it an everyday go-to. Of course, it made great paninis: The floating hinge cooked the sandwiches evenly, the straightforward settings were quick to adjust, and the detachable ceramic plates were the easiest to clean. The lid could be suspended a few inches over the base to make open-faced sandwiches (or even pizza, in a pinch). It had reversible grill/griddle surfaces that could open flat and independent temperature controls for the two cooking areas. On top of all of its other bonuses, it can also be equipped with waffle iron plates (sold separately) to take its multitasking to the next level.

Serious Eats / Ashlee Redger

What we didn’t like: This was the most expensive model we tested. Like the Griddler Elite, it was large enough to make a few servings at a time—which also meant it took up a good bit of counter space and was cumbersome to store. We found the presets ambiguous, and the panini mode made the cooking surfaces too hot to heat our sandwich through without burning the exterior first (it was simple to switch it back to manual controls, though, which worked as expected). 

Price at time of publish: $200.

Key Specs

Dimensions: 12.25 x 13 x 5.25 inchesWeight: 8.2 poundsCord length: 34.75 inchesGrill grate depth: 2.6 millimetersMaterials: Stainless steel, plastic, and PTFE- and PFOA-free ceramic non-stick platesTemperature Range: 210-450°FWattage: 1800 wattsCare instructions: The detachable plates and drip tray are dishwasher-safe (top rack only). The external housing can be wiped with a dry or damp soft cloth. Avoid abrasive cleaners and metal utensils, as they can scratch the outside or damage the nonstick coating.Serious Eats / Ashlee Redger

What we liked: Cuisinart’s Griddler FIVE was a powerful cooking tool in a pared-down package. It still had the most useful features like plates that could be reversed or removed for cleaning, adjustable temperatures, and the ability to open flat. It also had a built-in timer and a clear digital screen. It’s on the smaller side (better for two servings versus the Griddler Elite’s three or four), so it can be more conveniently stored when it’s not needed. Like the Breville Sear & Press, Cuisinart offers waffle plates that can convert this press into a waffle maker.

Serious Eats / Ashlee Redger

What we didn’t like: It’s not quite as adaptable as the pricier winners, since there was only a single temperature control for both sides. The user interface was a little less straightforward than our other top picks and required more time and button pushes to adjust the heat and timer. The heat settings themselves were also fairly puzzling. The panini press required the user to choose between grill and griddle modes, but we couldn’t find meaningful differentiation between the two temperature functions or how they heated the cooking surfaces (both worked well to heat both plates, regardless of whether they were on their grill or griddle sides).

Price at time of publish: $113.

Key Specs

Dimensions: 13 x 13.5 x 8 inchesWeight: 9.6 poundsGrill grate depth: 2 millimetersCord length: 36 inchesMaterials: Stainless steel, aluminum, and plasticTemperature Range: 175-450°FWattage: 1500 wattsCare instructions: The detachable plates, plastic scraper tool, and drip tray are dishwasher-safe (top rack only). The external housing can be wiped with a dry or damp soft cloth. Avoid abrasive cleaners and metal utensils, as they can scratch the outside or damage the nonstick coating.Serious Eats / Ashlee Redger

What we liked: Many of the design aspects that we loved about the Griddler Elite and Griddler FIVE were present in the foundational Cuisinart Griddler. It had removable and reversible grill/griddle plates, a lid that could open up 180 degrees, and an effective floating hinge that allowed for more uniform cooking. The analog temperature dials were beyond simple to use and had options for setting the heat by temperature or on a low to high scale. It’s the smallest of our winning panini presses and the easiest to store if you aren’t looking for a full-time countertop resident. As an added bonus, it can be equipped with the same waffle plates as the Griddler FIVE to maximize its capabilities. Given the size of its cooking surface (it is about the same size as the Griddler FIVE’s), the Griddler is good for couples and smaller households.

Serious Eats / Ashlee Redger

What we didn’t like: The Cuisinart Griddler does make some compromises in exchange for being a lighter, more affordable machine (although we think they are fairly minor ones, at that). It does not have separate temperature settings for the top and bottom plates, a built-in timer, or the ability to lock the lid for sideways storage. We also noticed that the floating hinge necessitated sandwiches (particularly thicker ones, like the Cubanos) be pushed toward the back of the base plate in order to have the most even pressure from the lid. This happened to some degree for all of the panini presses we tested, but it was more noticeable as the cooking surfaces got smaller.

Price at time of publish: $97.

Key Specs

Dimensions: 11.5 x 13 x 7.75 inchesWeight: 9 poundsGrill grate depth: 1.8 millimetersCord length: 36 inchesMaterials: Stainless steel, aluminum, and plasticTemperature Range: 200-425°FWattage: 1500 wattsCare instructions: The detachable plates, plastic scraper tool, and drip tray are dishwasher-safe (top rack only). The external housing can be wiped with a dry or damp soft cloth. Avoid abrasive cleaners and metal utensils, as they can scratch the outside or damage the nonstick coating.Serious Eats / Ashlee Redger

The Competition

Cuisinart Contact Griddler with Smoke-Less Mode: We found the user interface of the Smoke-Less Griddler awkward and time-consuming to navigate. It had four, somewhat vague protein-specific presets to mitigate smoke as well as a front kickstand to encourage grease drainage. While the latter could be helpful for bacon or burgers, we preferred to adjust temperatures manually (smoke was relatively easy to manage just by avoiding overly high temperatures).Breville Panini Duo: This streamlined offering from Breville performed almost as well as our winners in making evenly toasted, melty Cuban sandwiches, but it had irremovable plates and no adjustable temperature settings. For a model in the same price range as the Cuisinart Griddler, we expected more convenience and adaptability.Chefman Panini Press Grill: The Chefman grill’s single heat setting was too hot and burned the Cuban sandwich’s bread in the time it took for the cheese inside to melt. It also had an ineffective floating hinge, so the back half of the sandwiches was deeply toasted while the front looked relatively untouched.Elite Gourmet Panini Press & Grill: This model had fixed plates that were hard to clean and no adjustable temperature settings. The base plate was just big enough to hold one Cubano, but the lid could not float over the thick sandwich and instead closed on it at an angle (pushing it apart in the process).George Foreman 2-Serving Classic Plate Indoor Grill and Panini Press: Despite the brand’s synonymity with indoor grills, this model lacked core design features that were standard in other presses. It had the drip tray set in the front of the machine, so any grease or oil on the top cooking plate ran straight down into the back hinges upon opening. Its lid also felt wobbly and loose, and could not exert enough pressure on the top of the sandwich to cook it evenly. Although it touts being able to cook two servings at a time, it was only big enough to hold one sandwich (at an angle).

FAQs

What is a panini press?

A panini press—also known as a sandwich press, indoor grill, or contact grill—is a countertop electric appliance that has heated plates on the top and bottom so it can cook food on both sides at once. The plates can be smooth (like a griddle), ridged (to create grill marks), or reversible with both options. It has a clamshell design, often with a floating hinge that allows the top plate to come down parallel with the base to create even pressure on the food inside. A panini press can also refer to a cooking weight, which is a flat, heavy piece of metal (usually cast iron or stainless steel) with a handle that can be placed on top of sandwiches, meat, or vegetables in a pan to encourage a uniform sear.

Can a panini press be used for more than panini?

Yes, panini presses are popularly used to cook burgers, boneless cuts of meat, bacon, kebabs, and vegetables. Some even have smooth plates and can expand flat for griddling food like eggs or pancakes. 

Can a panini press be used as a grill?

Sort of. Similar to using a grill pan on a stove, a panini press won’t be able to reproduce the smoky flavor and charred texture you would get from an outdoor grill, but it can yield food with seared grill marks and a crisped exterior. 

How do you clean a panini press?

Some panini presses have convenient detachable plates that can be removed and washed by hand (or sometimes, in the dishwasher). Others have fixed plates that must be wiped out with a damp cloth and mild dish soap. Many contact grills also include a plastic scraper tool that can be used to gently remove food debris from the cooled plates. If it comes with one, the grill’s grease drip tray should be washed by hand or in the dishwasher after each use to avoid buildup. The exterior can be wiped with a dry or damp cloth or soft sponge (do not immerse the machine in water). Never use metal utensils, abrasive detergents, or scouring pads on the panini press as it can damage the nonstick plates and scratch the outer body.

How do you make a panini without a press?

Paninis are easy to make at home, even without a bespoke appliance. You can cook the sandwich in any normal pan and use a cooking weight to press it down. If you don’t have a cooking weight, any other flat-bottomed, food-safe item will work: The bottom of a cast iron pan, a plate or pot lid (put a can on top for extra weight), or even a brick wrapped in aluminum foil (à la chicken under a brick). The total weight you need will depend on the type of sandwich you’re making: sturdier sandwiches like Cubanos can withstand three or four pounds on top; a simple grilled cheese would be better off with a pound or less. For the quickest and simplest solution, just use a sturdy spatula and apply pressure to the sandwich yourself.

Why shouldn’t you use nonstick spray on panini press plates?

Many panini presses with nonstick plates (as well as any nonstick cookware, for that matter) will warn against using cooking sprays because they often contain an emulsifying agent called lecithin. The lecithin can stick to the cookware and burn as it heats up, creating a sticky residue that is nearly impossible to scrub off without damaging the nonstick coating underneath (if you realize it is there at all). Over time, the film left on the plates can cause food to stick more, nullifying the nonstick effects. 

Why We’re the Experts

Ashlee Redger is a freelance food writer who has been reviewing equipment for Serious Eats since 2022.Her background is in culinary arts, nutrition, and recipe development. She has interned with America’s Test Kitchen, innovated menu items for a national restaurant brand, and developed dozens of recipes for home cooks.For this review, we tested nine of the most well-known panini presses. We made over two dozen sandwiches to evaluate which models could cook evenly, were easy to clean, and had user-friendly controls.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *