Sandwich grills are, at their heart, small contact grills with "floating" hinges, meaning the top can be adjusted so the lid can lay flat atop your sandwich, toasting the bread to a golden-brown crisp while heating any meat and cheese in the sandwich, but not producing so much heat that you scorch the bread, or so much pressure that the melted filling squishes out the sides. Because of this, a panini press usually has a handle for good control over the pressure of the lid, and its maximum temperature usually isn't as hot as the highest-powered electric grills. Some panini grills don't even have an on/off switch; you just plug and unplug them. If your panini press has an adjustable temperature control, you can use it for everything from making hot sandwiches to cooking burgers, steaks and vegetables. Most panini makers also open flat so you can use them as an open -- albeit small -- grill.
It's no contest in this category, the Cuisinart GR-11 (Est. $60) gets kudos across the board as a great panini press and a versatile performer for other cooking tasks. It's a consistent recipient of rave reviews from experts at food-centric sites such as FineCooking.com and FoodandWine.com. Experts say that sandwiches come out of the GR-11 golden and crisp, with lovely grill marks, and that the grill is hot enough to quickly melt the cheese and warm the meat.
The Cuisinart GR-11 is a multitasker too. Swap out the grill plates with a pair of smooth plates and flip the GR-11 open to use it as a grill, doubling your cooking space. The removable non-stick cooking plates can go straight into the dishwasher for cleaning and the front feet adjust for better grease drainage.
The only real complaints we found about the Cuisinart Griddler GR-11 were about its size; it's only up to cooking one sandwich at a time. If you'd like to share in your sandwich press bounty, the Cuisinart Griddler GR-4N (Est. $85) -- which we discuss in our separate section on the Best Indoor/Outdoor Electric Grills, is the literal big brother to the GR-11, with a 13-inch by 11-inch cooking area that allows you to cook more than one sandwich at a time
If you'd like an alternative to the Cuisinart Griddlers, models from VillaWare also draw praise from the food experts at FoodandWine.com and FineCooking.com for the perfectly crisp, golden-brown sandwiches they turn out. Although VillaWare tends to rotate model numbers fairly frequently, they're such a consistently good bet that we still feel comfortable recommending them. The latest model, the VillaWare Panini Maker and Grill NDVLPAPFS1 (Est. $100) gets raves from customers who love the sandwiches it produces and its relatively roomy 9-inch by 11-inch cooking area; many say they often use it as a contact grill too. And, of course, they love that the removable heating plates can go right into the dishwasher.
On the downside, the latest VillaWare's short power cord vexes some users, and the non-stick plates typically need a little scrubbing to come clean. Although the adjustable temperature dial is a nice touch, many users say it's best to just crank this sandwich maker to high and leave it there permanently.
Finally, our runner up in this category is the Breville BSG520XL Panini Duo (Est. $70). Some might miss having an adjustable temperature dial, but many owners love the Breville's plug-and-go operation and the fact that you can suspend its lid just above the sandwich's surface, allowing you to heat open-face melts as well. The non-stick plates aren't removable, but most users say it's easy to clean in spite of that. One complaint we did note is that number of users would like to see an on/off switch; the only way to turn the Breville BSG520XL off is to unplug it.