I purchased the Cuisinart Griddler Express GR-2 at a Linens-n-Things last year when the Panini fad was in full swing. Paninis were selling like hotcakes everywhere, and the toasty, ridged sandwiches seemed like a tasty treat for my hungry diners at home. I have long made grilled cheese and "Croque Monsieur" or "Croque Madame" sandwiches for my family (which include turkey or ham) using a skillet and spatula. I figured that a panini press would add the ridged effect to the bread and make the sandwiches even tastier.
Recommend this product?
The Griddler Express is a very handsome machine, which made it really stand out from its competitors. Its brushed stainless-steel housing gives it a modern, chic appearance--unfortunately it lives in a cabinet most of the time, so pretty is as pretty does. Additionally, the appliance bears the Cuisinart name which is usually (although not always) a reliable indicator of quality.
The GR-2 is a 12 x 9 non- stick contact grill. I think the size is just right for a family of four, in a Goldilocks sort of way (not too small, not too big). The large handle raises and lowers the upper plate and works quite well. The top plate maneuvers using a flexible hinge, which means that it closes at a variable height, depending on the depth of whatever you're grilling.
The Griddler Express has a variable temperature control dial (off/low/medium/high) which allows for cooking flexibility. I use medium temp for sandwiches and high temp for meats. I haven't tried veggies yet, but they should work fine as long as they are cut evenly. When you plug the machine in, the red light shows Power On. After it's hot enough for cooking, the ready-to-cook indicator light turns green.
The non-removable griddle plates are this grill's least desirable feature. What were they thinking? Having non-removable plates means that cleaning the machine requires laborious effort, with creative application of dish soap, water, paper towels and sponges on a non-immersible apparatus. The first time I grilled skirt steak for fajitas, I spent at least 30 minutes cleaning off the stuck-on meat drippings from the ridged grill plates. The non-stick surface helps a little, but don't be fooled, it's very inconvenient and frustrating to clean.
Fat Diversion: If you've seen the commercials for the very popular George Foreman Grill (a similar product), they emphasize how the grill whisks away the fat and leaves lean meat, grilled to perfection. Well, the Cuisinart Griddler Express also has a channel at the bottom which diverts fat and meat juices out of the grill and into a drip tray which you place on the counter underneath the grill. The drip tray which comes with my model is made of lightweight plastic and tends to move about, so I replaced it with a heavier steel measuring cup, which fits perfectly and catches the drips. In my experience, the drips do contain fat, but also contain a lot of meat juice, so I strain the drippings that have collected (about 2/3 cup) and use them for "au jus" upon serving the meat.
Cooking Results: Here's a brief run-down of my experience cooking panini, steak and chicken on my Cuisinart Griddler Express. The griddle does sear meat well on its high setting, but you need to make sure the steaks, chicken parts or hamburgers are the same depth. If pieces vary in depth even a small amount, you create a situation where the highest piece gets nice grill marks from contact with the top grill plate, but the lower pieces don't quite reach the top plate and steam instead of grill. The result--the thicker piece is done perfectly but the thinner piece is less appetizing and has no grill marks.
As for those sexy Italian panini, they do come out tasty in the Cuisinart. My only complaint is that the cheese tends to ooze out into the griddle. However, the panini develop lovely, wavy griddle marks and take on a professional appearance for serving. Based on my experience, grilling sandwiches is definitely the machine's forte, and probably best use.
The GR-2 also includes a recipe book, cleaning tool and drip tray. I'm embarrassed to say, I have misplaced them all! Luckily, the grill is large enough that I haven't lost it yet...
Overall, the panini taste great, but you can make them just about as easily in a large skillet. They won't be pressed like they are in the griddle--but it's also easier to clean up. I rate the machine a four star review for its panini making ability (but only three for grilling). I still recommend the product because it's sturdy and fulfills its purpose, if you don't mind the cleanup. The jury is out in the grilling function. I'm inclined to skip it when I think of the scrubbing I'm in for later on.
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Amount Paid (US$): 60