Screenshot: YouTube

It’s late at night, you’re alone, maybe there were a couple of glasses of wine with dinner. You’re too lazy to get off the couch, too awake to sleep. You’re flipping through channels and then something catches your eye. A miracle product, a shiny gadget, promising to change your life for the better for only a few easy payments of something-ninety-five... and that’s not all! There are free bonuses and accessories and if you act now, you can get a second one just for the cost of shipping and handling.

It’s easy to become a total sucker for a good food-gadget infomercial. Their comforting formula features an over-the-top product-hawker egged on by some wide-eyed blandly attractive woman, showing off the features of the equipment with a passion usually reserved for religious zealots. Regardless of the piece of gadgetry in question, it will, if you listen to the pitch, completely change your life for the better.

There is a special fondness in my heart for the products that solve a problem you never knew you had, video clips showing how conventional technology fails us. Nothing is more entertaining than a slo-mo overhead visual of someone tragically overshooting the colander, sending tangles of spaghetti down the drain, followed by a dramatic clutching of a scalded hand. Tarantino never got such a great tracking shot.

So when I got an inquiry from a PR company wanting to send me some As Seen On TV gadgets to test out, I wondered, what would happen if I spent an entire week cooking only with equipment that is advertised on television?

Photo: Stacey Ballis

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Here is what I was working with:

The Power AirFryer Oven is a multi-use countertop unit from Tristar, and has rotisserie, kabobs, rotating fry basket, and racks for dehydrating. The premise is that heated air is blown around the inside of the unit like a small convection oven.

The Copper Chef Pan set, also from Tristar, is a deep square nonstick lidded pan that comes with both a removable basket for deep-frying and a steamer rack.

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The Red Copper 5 Minute Chef is a small countertop appliance sort of like an oval waffle iron with a nonstick interior, the premise of which is that you put your food in the unit and it cooks top and bottom at the same time, reducing the overall cooking time and making for fast meals with easy cleanup.

The Red Copper Flipwich
is essentially a small Panini maker, a hinged square unit about the size of a standard slice of bread, with raised “grill” ridges, that closes shut for griddled sandwiches and is used directly on your stovetop.

Rounding these out for fun, were the famous Ronco Vegematic Deluxe slicer and dicer, for nostalgia’s sake. The Potato Express is a sleeve for baking potatoes in the microwave. The Pancake Express is a large battery operated jug with a built-in whisk that allows you to dump your pancake batter ingredients in and whip them up and then dispense that batter through a hole in the bottom of the unit. I paired this, naturally, with
The Flippin’ Fantastic, a seven-holed silicone mat that you place in the bottom of your skillet, pour batter into the holes and when cooked on the first side, pick the whole thing up and flip over to cook the other side. And of course, one must use the Ronco Showtime Knife, that famous “cut through your shoe” serrated slicing machine.

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I started basic. Before I even embarked on the official week of cooking, I figured I’d better have some snacks at the ready for between meals. The Power AirFryer Oven, as one of its many functions, serves as a dehydrator, but that can take between six and 10 hours per recipe. So I thought in prep for the week, I would try some beef jerky and dried fruits.

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The machine, while not completely intuitive, was pretty easy to operate, and was a lot quieter than I expected from an appliance that cooks “with the cyclonic action of a whirlwind of heated air.” The unit performed well, making perfectly good jerky and dried pineapple and mango, and certainly lived up to the promise of saving money on those generally fairly high-ticket items, coming in at less than a quarter of the price than buying them in the store. Not that I do a whole lot of jerky buying, but dried fruit is a regular purchase, and both the pineapple and mango were even better than store-bought versions, so that seemed to be a good thing.

Then I began in earnest, with a simple dinner for two. A chicken on the rotisserie spit of the AirFryer, broccolini in the steamer insert of the Copper Chef pan, a pair of potatoes in the Potato Express. This is where I started to learn about the reality of these gadgets. The chicken was perfectly serviceable, cooked well, and pretty juicy, and certainly a step up from the ones you buy at the grocery store.

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Photo: Stacey Ballis

The skin does brown, but does not fully render, so the “crispy skin” we were promised isn’t crispy at all. But nor is it flabby or unpleasant, and certainly no different than the skin of the grocery store versions that steam in their plastic clamshells on the way home. We gave it a solid ‘8’ as a decent weeknight meal. The Copper Chef steaming works no differently than steaming in any other vessel, so the broccolini was lovely. The Potato Express took nine minutes for two potatoes, instead of the promised three to five, but the potatoes were well cooked. Not better than potatoes just cooked in the microwave, but the weird little potato duvet did keep them warm while we carved the bird, so I suppose that is something.

The week flew by in a haze of meals that ranged from ghastly to perfectly satisfactory. As you can imagine, the promises of the equipment were fulfilled or not in some very interesting ways. Strangely enough, despite seeming to be the function most of these were designed for, breakfasts were the worst.

The marriage of The Pancake Express and the Flippin’ Fantastic was doomed from the start. The whisking attachment inside the jug only reached halfway to the bottom, so all it did was stir the wet ingredients on top of the dry ingredients, requiring some awkward spatula-and-whisk work to bring the batter together. The method for dispensing batter out of the bottom was so slow and difficult to work that I ended up pouring the batter out of the top like a regular jug.

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Photo: Stacey Ballis

The flipping action was not, as advertised, fantastic, but rather a mess, spattering uncooked batter from the top of the little pancakes all over. The batter had seeped under the little silicone rims and so it required some prodding to get the cakes to release from the silicone mold, where I discovered that what I had created was not the seven perfect little silver dollar pancakes that had been advertised, but rather one giant pancake with seven weird goiters. I think the best thing I can say about this pairing is that I believe the materials are recyclable for when you throw them away halfway through your first batch of pancakes.

The 5 Minute Chef, making omelets and hashed browns for two, took 52 minutes, and still the hashed browns were more like hashed blondes, and the omelets were rubbery and sad and pretty much inedible.

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Steaks and chicken breasts didn’t so much “sear on both sides” as they just steamed in their own juices, making them stringy and tough. The much touted “lava cake,” where you embed a whole candy bar into the middle of boxed cake mix batter, got a strange skin on the outside that was more than a little off-putting, as was the half-melted Three Musketeers ooze when you cut into it.

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While French fries from the AirFryer were cooked through and golden brown, they weren’t so much crispy on the outside as they were hard, as if they had developed a chitinous exoskeleton. I suppose if I were on a severely fat- or calorie-restrictive diet and was really craving fries, they provide a ketchup delivery service as well as ones baked in the oven, but not better than. It did a much better job on breaded chicken breasts, which came out crispy and perfectly delicious, and if you are a Tater Tot fan, the rotating basket will indeed give you a pile of fabulously crispy crunchy tots.

The Flipwich can make griddled sandwiches, but not particularly better or faster than ones you do in a nonstick skillet, and since it only makes one at a time, you need to be eating alone if this is your preferred cooking method. The one thing I really liked the Flipwich for is something they don’t even promote… eggs-over-easy. As I am a scrambled/omelet/frittata person, I don’t ever make the dreaded over-easy egg unless a houseguest requests them.

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The flipping gets me every time, and yolks break on me seven times out of 10. The Flipwich can handle two eggs, and the flipping action meant no broken yolks. If you can get past the weird ridges (the Flipwich is designed to give you “grill” marks), the eggs are well-cooked and the nonstick interior is nonstick enough for them to slide right out.

The Ronco Showtime knife may well be the worst, flimsiest, ill-balanced knife I have ever held in my hand, and is a recipe for a kitchen injury. I used it exactly once and then tossed it; afraid I would open an artery. If you have a shoe to slice in half, I suppose you might give it a shot, but for cooking, I recommend pretty much any other knife.

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The Vegematic Deluxe will, in fact, slice and dice, but requires such force to get harder vegetables like potatoes or carrots through it, it was like doing a full upper body workout. I made a vegetable soup and my arms and shoulders were sore for two days.

With the exception of the pancake disaster, we got through a full week of meals with this equipment. Not using the recipes that came with the gadgets quickly became the only way to manage, since for some odd reason, while health is a major promotional factor in all of the advertising, most of the recipes they provide are deeply unhealthy. I’m sure it is great that you don’t add “extra fat” to the grilled cheese sandwich that places four breaded mozzarella sticks between two slices each of American cheese and white bread, but that doesn’t make it health food. Using real ingredients and my own recipes helped a lot. It wasn’t our most favorite eating week, but most of it was perfectly acceptable.

In the end, we donated the two square pans to a friend with a weekend fishing cabin, where they will probably get some good use. The 5 Minute Chef, Flipwich, and Vegematic were happily given to a friend to donate to her church. We did decide to keep the Power AirFryer Oven, since we don’t have a dehydrator, and we do love dried fruits for snacking, and you never know when you will get a craving for some late night tots. If you buy a lot of rotisserie chickens at the grocery store, it might be worth getting one for yourself; it did a really good job on those.

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And I’m keeping the Potato Express. There is just something about that little spud sleeping bag that I find endearing.