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Do you really need an Instant Pot? How to buy countertop appliances

For the past couple of years, the Instant Pot has been the "must have" countertop appliance, with its ability to do everything from making yogurt and pressure cooking roasts to steaming rice and even canning.

Before that, small appliances consumers lusted for juicers, quesadilla presses, ice cream makers and rotisserie grills. But which trendy small appliances from this year or from times past will actually make life better for you - or at least make you happy you bought something you'll actually use and are happy to own?

"There's an overwhelming number of kitchen appliances on the market place," noted ReadyForZero, a blog that focuses on reaching zero debt. "With that comes the ever-present opportunity to overspend on appliances you probably don't really need." 

Instead of wasting money and causing clutter, analyze your needs before revving up your credit card, recommended ReadyForZero.

"Even though a slow cooker can be an excellent tool to turn low-cost ingredients into a meal, if it will remain in your cupboard then it doesn't make sense to buy one."

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To maximize your small appliance budget and avoid frivolous purchases, i.e. that $180 heart-shaped waffle maker you only used once, ReadyForZero recommended asking five questions before any countertop appliance purchase:

What's the return on value?

The value a countertop appliance earns should meet, or exceed, what you spent on the item. ReadyForZero puts slow cookers in this category, noting, "It's not so much the slow cooker itself that's valuable, its value lies in the time that it frees up for a busy cook. While cost effective ingredients (like beans and end cut meats) simmer in the crock pot, you're free to go about focusing on other tasks in your life." 

Good Housekeeping also refers to slow cookers as "countertop heroes" and recommended models based on ease of operation and ability to meet safe temperatures and produce tasty meals. 

How frequently will you use the item?

Break down the cost per use. If an ice cream maker makes phenomenal frozen treats but costs $60 and you use it just three times, each batch of ice cream costs $20 - and that doesn't even include ingredients. Tops in small appliances that you'll use all the time: a microwave, according to ReadyForZero.

Good Housekeeping's definition of a great microwave is one that can turn out steamed veggies, baked potatoes and crispy bacon that rival a range's cooking results. It chose several top-tested models worth putting to work.

Could you make do without the appliance?

"This is the best question to help you distinguish if an appliance supports your needs or your wants," ReadyForZero added. "Even things you might have considered indispensable aren't always necessary." Their choice for an appliance in the "useful and specialized category" was a countertop blender, noting that even top knife skills won't let you break down ice the way a blender can. To find the best countertop blender, check out Consumer Reports ratings

Will having to clean the appliance keep you from using it?

ReadyForZero's No. 1 example of a hard-to-clean small appliance is a food processor. When considering it and other countertop appliance purchases, "think about the time from beginning to end, and whether you find the timeline reasonable. The fussier an appliance, the less likely you are to take full advantage of it on a regular basis. When choosing something, keep ease of use in mind."

Do you want it just for the novelty?

Some small appliances, while fun, may be luring you in with dazzling packaging or marketing, or by making them seem like the key to achieving a totally different lifestyle than you have now. 

As for that Instant Pot purchase...

If you're eyeing an Instant Pot, you can rest assured that it cooks a bevvy of delicious dishes in record time. Just check out the recipes on blogs like Mother Nature Network and Food Network.

But if you're considering purchasing one, take the Lean Green Bean blog's findings into consideration. "I think it works best for people like me who have enough time in the evenings to cook dinner, but like to keep things simple and make things that require only a little effort and are ready fairly quickly," noted the author, Lindsay.

Cubes of beef are sauteed in the Instant Pot for a beef barbacoa tacos recipe. (Kimberly P. Mitchell/Detroit Free Press/TNS) (Kimberly P. Mitchell/TNS)

She also laid out these Instant Pot advantages and potential drawbacks:

  • It's fast. "I've always had a strong love for a crock pot, but the Instant Pot is better. Anything you can make in the slow cooker in 6-8 hours, you can make in the Instant Pot in 30 minutes."
  • But it's not instant. "You can make almost anything in 30 minutes or less of actual cooking time, but it does still take time for the pot to come to pressure and start cooking (usually about 10 minutes)."
  • It's multi-functional. Unlike a Crock-Pot, an Instant Pot sautés and is also a slow cooker and can be used as a warmer. "If you're a fan of making homemade bread or pizza dough, you can use the yogurt setting on the Instant Pot to proof the dough."
  • But it can be a little overwhelming. "When you first get it, it can seem overwhelming, and even after having it a year, there are still buttons and functions I haven't used. However, I still think it's worth it. You can use manual mode for almost anything and just ignore a lot of the buttons if you want to."
  • It still requires some effort. "If you're someone who really wants dinner on the table quickly with no effort in the evenings, a crock pot might be the better option. You can have things ready and waiting when you walk in the door. Although you can use the IP as a slow cooker, if you're using it as a pressure cooker, you still have to do a little work to get stuff into the pot and turn it on."

Good Housekeeping offers a summary of Instant Pot reviews and gave the Instant Pot Programmable Electric Pressure Cooker #IP-DUO60 four stars.

There are a variety online retail options for the beloved Instant Pot, ranging in price from $69.99 to about $150. Amazon has an 8-quart, 6-in-1 Instant Pot for $109, with free shipping. William Sonoma offers a 9-in-1, 6-quart for $119.95, with free shipping. Target has a smaller Instant Pot, a mini, 3-quart for $69.99. eBay has a 7-in-1, 3-quart Instant Pot for $99.99, with free shipping.

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