Tried & Tested; Do they make comforting autumn snacks, or a soggy mess? Our panel puts the heat under sandwich toasters
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The Independent Culture
Children Love them; some students live on them; and most grown- ups will admit to a sneaking partiality for toasted sandwiches on gloomy autumn days. They might not be gourmet food, but they turn a cold snack into a hot meal. Toasting in a dedicated sandwich maker renovates day- old bread, giving it a golden crunchiness, and any filling is heated at the same time - perfect cooking efficiency with little effort for the cook. At least, that's the idea.


The question is, are all sandwich toasters the same? What characterises the snack at its best and worst? And just how versatile can a toasted sandwich be? We selected six appliances which claim to produce top toasted sandwiches and tested them for evenness of browning, speed, cutting and sealing technique, ease of cleaning, safety and the appeal of manufacturers' recipes.


The panel consisted of one professional chef, Martin Lubeck. Of the four other were two toasted-sandwich enthusiasts - Claire Blezard and Robert Farrant - and two complete novices - myself and Andrew Simpson.


For toast and toasted sandwiches pounds l39 white, pounds 155 coloured

The entire panel recognised - with a sigh of approval - the massive, heavy-duty Dualit toaster on sight, confirming its position as a design icon. The new Dualit Combi offers normal toasting in two slots with sandwich toasting by virtue of an added, extra wide slot which accommodates a chromium- plated sandwich cage. (It is also available in a "2 x 2 format", ie two slots for toast, two for sandwich cages.) It has a "unique adjustable rear foot", presumably for uniquely sloping kitchen surfaces, and as part of the latest range, the Combi comes in one of seven finishes: white, black, utility cream, canary yellow, lavender blue, mint green and the original stainless steel.

All this is "rather wonderful" as Robert Farrant remarked, and it's clear that most people buy a Dualit so that it will look cool in the kitchen. But the sad truth is that it does not produce a toasted sandwich as we know it. Without hot plates, the sandwich cage can only really make toasted bread "with something not quite melted in the middle" said Claire Blezard. "The sort of thing you buy with bacon in it from a cafe for breakfast." And yet a major benefit of the Dualit is the way the wire cage opens out flat, so it's easy to wash.

"At least it has a timer," said Martin Lubeck, thinking of preparing a hundred and one other things in the kitchen at the same time, "which none of the others do." The timer is a pleasingly low-tech affair; "I love the tick, tick, tick and the way you just lift the cage out at the end, so you can't possibly burn yourself," mused Andrew Simpson, although he was worried that the Dualit's size would clutter his kitchen surfaces. "And does it even fit on the Generation Game conveyor belt?" he asked, quixotically.


Toast & Grill pounds 29.99 white, pounds 31.99 colours

Another combination appliance which seems to offer several functions but falls foul of its own ambitions, the Morphy Richards Toast & Grill looks like a conventional sandwich toaster, but can be converted into an electric grill by virtue of removable, non-stick plates (waffle plates are a further option). The sandwich plates are scalloped squares as usual; the contact grill-plates are ribbed, producing nice charred lines on your chicken breasts, salmon pieces etc.

The great benefit of the removable plates is that they can be soaked or put in the dishwasher, instead of attempting to remove clogged cheese and other baked-on fillings from an electrical appliance with a non-abrasive, damp cloth. Their downside only becomes apparent when toasting sandwiches: testers complained that the Morphy Richards doesn't clip together securely enough - perhaps because of the extra room necessary for the removable grill plates - and that without rubber feet the whole machine slides about on the kitchen surface.

In any case, the results were uneven browning, with the sides closest to the edge of the toaster not always done after seven minutes (for cheese) and in a recipe with no cheese, total disintegration of the bread. "This is a travesty of a toasted sandwich," noted Martin Lubeck, who was also scathing about the long list of uninnovative recipe ideas, featuring such joys as tuna melt, corn-beef hash, cottage cheese and pineapple, and Hawaiian ham.


Sandwich toaster pounds 9.99

With no pretensions, a modern classic green colour, rubber feet, non- stick hot plates, a "ready to cook" neon light and a very low price, the Hinari had to be the winner of our survey. It does everything the other sandwich toasters do, with excellent all-over browning and sealing of the bread (provided there was cheese - our trial proved that no cheese equals no toasted sandwich). The Hinari is strictly a one-sandwich machine. "But then it's the sort of thing you eat when you're on your own," said Claire Blezard.

The size is probably what makes this little appliance so efficient. "It's perfect for the odd moment - possibly once or twice a year - when you really fancy a toasted sandwich," said Martin Lubeck.


Distinctions 2-slice sandwich toaster pounds 25.99

The new Distinctions range from Russell Hobbs is not a sign of any particular innovation, but rather of snazzy new colours designed to appeal to this year's kitchen decorator. Our sample was called Knightsbridge Green which, as Andrew Simpson remarked, "just goes to show how upmarket Russell Hobbs are." In the event, this is a perfectly efficient and good-looking double sandwich toaster (other sizes are available), but one which bears an uncanny resemblance to the Breville in its casing, clip, feet, hotplates, screws and general design. "Is it possible they are made in the same Chinese factory?" the panel wondered. Robert Farrant summed up the brand's appeal: "The name makes you feel you are doing something frightfully English and rather dainty, but it's all the same bread and gloup, really."


Sandwich Master pounds 19.95

Almost synonymous with sandwich makers, Breville was responsible for developing the first such appliance in Australia in the early Seventies. It has now commissioned "extensive market research", which reveals, interestingly, that 40 per cent of adults in the UK already own a sandwich toaster - which is more than the ownership figures for food processors or hand-blenders - an assertion which the panel found hard to believe. The Breville Sandwich Master, available in several trendy dark colours (blue, green etc) comes as the "Uno", "Duo" or "Quattro" (that is, one, two, or four-slice).

While similar in looks and performance to the Russell Hobbs, the Breville claims to address consumers' concerns about snacks being high-fat foods by supplying each model with a recipe leaflet which encourages purchasers to prepare fillings with canned salmon and red pepper, or coleslaw with apple and celery. "Nice try," commented Martin Lubeck, gazing in dismay at the soggy mess which resulted. "But there's no point in pretending that toasted sandwiches will ever be much good without cheese, which basically forms the glue sticking them together." Another extravagant claim revolves around the Breville's ability to toast a sandwich in three minutes flat; it doesn't. It usually takes about seven minutes, like most of the others.


Sandwich maker pounds 19.95

Supplied in no-nonsense white, with regulation non-stick hotplates, heat- resistant handles and the ability to stand upright in a cupboard with its flex wrapped around its feet in order to save space, the Philips double sandwich maker was the panel's second favourite of all those surveyed. Like some others, it has a neon "ready to cook" light to show when the toaster has reached the perfect temperature, but it seals (around the outer edge) and cuts (diagonally across the middle, sealing in the filling) the sandwiches better than other makes. This may be due to its slightly higher wattage (670 watts as opposed to 500 or 600).

Claire Blezard reckoned that the Philips "feels more robust than the others" and she approved of the fact that the handle has two clips, allowing even chunky doorstep sandwiches to be sealed in tightly. "More to the point, this product doesn't patronise you with tasteless recipe ideas or lifestyle hints," said Andrew Simpson.


Morphy Richards, 0800 424848; Hin- ari from Comet, call for nearest store: 0500 425425; Dualit, Russell Hobbs and Breville from branches of John Lewis nationwide; Philips, 0181 689 2166. !