Top-cut vs. side-cut can openers
Can openers can be top cut or side cut, and each type has its pros and cons. Many of us have learned to accept the risk of sharp, jagged edges when opening metal cans with a top cut opener, but side-cut or smooth-edge can openers change that by cutting along the side of the lid, splitting the seam where it joins the can and leaving smooth edges on both pieces.
Safer than traditional top-cutting models, smooth-edge can openers are more popular with parents of small children. They're also a great choice if you're buying for an elderly member of the family or are just tired of fishing top-cut can lids out of your food; a side-cut lid will not fit into the body of the can. Plus, a side-cut can opener's cutting teeth never actually contact the food, so they're more sanitary, rarely need to be washed (according to users), and are thus much less likely to rust than their top-cut competitors.
But smooth-edge can openers still aren't perfect. Because they don't leave an obvious separation, it can be hard to tell when you've cut all the way around, and if you cut around more than once, you risk creating sharp metal slivers that can get into your food or cut your fingers.
Durability is a continuing issue with smooth-edge can openers as well, and getting the lid off is sometimes a challenge. Some side-cut openers come with tiny pliers to help you grasp the lid and pull it off. Owners occasionally complain about the cutting blade of their smooth-edge opener dulling over time, requiring them to circle the can more than once, which, as noted above, creates metal slivers.
Top-cut models seem to last longer and open cans more dependably than their side-cutting counterparts, perhaps due to more robust cutting blades. Top-cut models are often equipped with magnets to keep the cut lid from falling down into your food. Both of the highest-rated handheld can openers are top-cut models, although we did find one (more expensive) side-cut model that's worth considering. If you are considering an electric can opener, our top pick among those is a side-cut model.
Electric models take the effort out of opening cans
Electric can openers reduce the process to the flip of a lever or push of a button, especially helpful if you have limited hand strength. Some will even stop automatically once they've completed the cut.
Electric can openers are usually faster than manual models but are also more expensive, typically $20 to $40 or more, compared with $5 to $15 for the average manual can opener. They also require you to sacrifice some counter or cabinet space; most models will not fit in a drawer. Also, not all electric can openers are tall enough to handle the largest cans. A few users fix this by placing the unit right at the edge of the counter, dangling the oversize can off the edge. Electric can openers come in both top- and side-cut configurations, although the top-cut versions remain more common.
Cordless automatic can openers occupy the middle ground, doing the work for you and then stowing neatly in a kitchen drawer. These battery-powered gadgets are usually just slightly larger than manual models. That said, we found many complaints they get stuck partway around the can or run very slowly. None of them makes our list of top picks.
Jar openers: The other indispensable kitchen tool
Jar openers are tools that either clamp or slide onto the jar lid, providing extra leverage to help you get the jar open. Most jar openers require some (minimal) hand and wrist strength, but owners find they're still a big help for those with arthritis or limited grip strength. We cover jar openers at the end of our discussion of the best manual can openers.
Finding the best can openers
It seems like everybody's frustrated with dud can openers, searching eagerly for one that will just work. We found plenty of expert tests, choosing only the most recent and scientific ones for this report. Cook's Illustrated magazine and ConsumerReports.org are trusted sources for kitchen gadget tests. TheSweethome.com and the bloggers at AnnaAndKristina.com conduct well-designed comparison tests -- on-site at soup kitchens, donating all of the food from their can-opening sprees to these facilities. The Wall Street Journal and Chicago Tribune get in on the act, staging their own head-to-head can opener battles. Owner reviews at Amazon.com, Walmart.com and AceHardware.com reveal how can and jar openers work in real life, and some bestselling ones have amassed thousands of reviews.