Finding the key to the perfect waffle
Hard-core waffle lovers are quick to dismiss frozen waffles; there's nothing like the taste of a crispy, golden-brown waffle straight from your own waffle iron, they say. Expert test kitchens agree that countertop or stovetop waffle makers can turn out a superior product -- but only if you get a good waffle maker and use good batter. A substandard waffle maker or poor batter will make even the most generic frozen waffle look good.
There are two types of "perfect" waffles out there, and no single waffle maker can do both. You have to opt for either American-style waffles, which are thin and crispy, with relatively shallow pockets on top, or Belgian-style waffles, which are thicker and softer (but should still be crispy on the outside). The deeper pockets on Belgian waffles are great for holding syrup, whipped cream or fruit.
Once you've decided which type of waffle to aim for, your next choice is between an electric countertop waffle maker or a stovetop waffle iron. Almost all electric models can be adjusted to produce lighter or darker waffles, and many have indicator lights and audible beeps to cue you through the preheating, battering and cooking stages.
Stovetop waffle makers are a little harder to use because it's up to you to regulate the waffle iron's temperature and cooking time -- but they're also more versatile, because you can use them for tailgating, camping trips, or during a power outage (if you have a gas stove). Stovetop waffle irons are usually much smaller and thinner than countertop models, too; so they're the ideal choice for small kitchens with limited storage, camping or tailgating, off-the-grid living, or anyone who enjoys the challenge of learning to create the perfect waffle by hand.
How we found the best waffle irons
So, what makes a good waffle maker? No matter which type you're dealing with, consistent, even heat is key to turning out one crispy, golden-brown wonder of a waffle after another. A cool, easy-to-grip handle is also important, and, if you're dealing with an electric waffle maker, having the ability to turn the waffles for even cooking comes in handy (but isn't essential).
Once the waffle is done, it should release cleanly from the waffle maker's grids. Most waffle irons come with a non-stick coating to make this easier, but even with the best non-stick waffle iron you'll get better results if you apply a bit of cooking oil before adding the batter. Truly picky cooks use a heat-resistant brush to swab on a light coating of oil instead of using a spray-on oil that might have other ingredients which could eventually gum up the waffle iron's grids.
That non-stick coating and oil combo not only results in pretty waffles on your plate, it also means cleanup is a snap because you won't have to scrub bits of stuck waffle out of the grids with a toothbrush. If you're dealing with an electric waffle maker that doesn't have removable grids, you can't dunk the whole thing for a good cleaning -- so a soft-bristle toothbrush or damp rag are your best cleaning options.
Finally, be aware that if you're getting so-so results from a waffle maker that usually draws rave reviews, the problem might be your batter instead of the machine. Users who substitute pancake batter for waffle batter quickly find out that there is, indeed, a difference between the two. Waffle batters usually have more oil and more liquid in general to create that fluffy interior and crisp exterior.
Pancake batter in a waffle iron generally produces a heavy, dense mess that'll stick to the waffle iron like glue, and users warn that some "waffle recipes" found on the back of pancake mix boxes don't do much better. If you're into creative pancake making, you'll do better cooking them on a stove top skillet or electric skillet, both of which we cover in separate reports.
As always with any kitchen appliance, user reviews are king because they tell how the appliance does under real-world conditions with a real person at the helm. That said, in addition to the thousands of user reviews we evaluated, we also found great expert, hands-on testing information from publications such as BonAppetit.com, ConsumerReports.org, Cook's Illustrated, Good Housekeeping and TheSweetHome.com.
The best waffle irons
When it comes to making American-style waffles -- the thin, crispy type -- there's no question: the Cuisinart Round Classic Waffle Maker (Est. $27) is the winner by a landslide, drawing hundreds of enthusiastic user reviews and kudos from experts like TheSweetHome.com and Good Housekeeping. The Cuisinart waffle iron turns out one waffle at a time, with five doneness settings to choose from and indicator lights that tell you when it's ready for batter and when the waffle is done.
"The Cuisinart Classic proves you don't have to pay a lot to get beautifully browned and tender, yet crispy waffles," write the editors of Good Housekeeping, while the editors of TheSweetHome.com make it their budget pick for its great value. "It truly excels at making consistently thin, crunchy waffles," they write. They say that a bit of uneven browning they noticed in their test (there's a darker brown patch on the center) is just aesthetic and doesn't affect the waffle's crispness or taste.
Owners love the Cuisinart Round Classic's performance too, saying they're happy to finally find a good waffle maker that makes something other than Belgian waffles. Users say that it takes two to three minutes per waffle and that as long as you wait for the waffle iron to preheat and apply a little cooking oil to it before adding batter, you'll never have issues with waffles sticking. There is a grooved "spillover" reservoir around the waffle grid; any excess batter gets funneled here and it also cooks, essentially making a bigger waffle. It can't hold much, though, so be careful how much batter you add.
The Cuisinart Round Classic Waffle Maker also has a non-stick coating (although you'll want to apply a little cooking oil beforehand for best results), and it's small enough to take up very little space, especially when stored on its edge. Watch your fingers, though: editors at Good Housekeeping found that its top and sides can become very hot while cooking. TheSweetHome.com also points out that one of the two models they've tested over the years vented steam onto the handle, making it too hot to touch; users who encounter this issue solve it by putting something heavy on top of the waffle maker's lid to keep it shut as the waffle cooks, which in turn stops the steam from escaping.
Despite its great performance and ease of use at a great price point, the Cuisinart waffle maker only cooks one waffle at a time, and the editors of TheSweetHome.com point out that it's not as sturdily built as some of the competition -- a point echoed by many users, although it doesn't seem to affect the waffle quality. That may make this waffle iron best for either small groups or occasional waffle-making. That said, Cuisinart offers a three-year warranty -- right up there with some pro-level appliances that cost six times as much -- and users prize it for its great value and consistent results; they say it's even great for making foods like hash browns, bacon and potato cakes.
Like most electric waffle irons, the Cuisinart WMR-CA waffle maker isn't meant to be submerged, and the waffle plates are built right into the machine, so you can't remove them for a good scrubbing. Surprisingly, removable plates are relatively rare -- especially in the American/traditional waffle maker category -- but the Black and Decker G48TD (Est. $35) has them and it performs beautifully. Not only do the non-stick waffle plates pop out for easy cleaning, they also have a completely flat reverse side (also non-stick). Flip the plates to their flat side and open the G48TD's lid all the way, and you have yourself a mini griddle -- or close the "floating" hinged lid and use it to toast sandwiches.
The Black and Decker G48TD is all about versatility; and for that it draws a nod from the lifestyle website GroomNStyle.com, and many positive reviews from users who say it's just like what their grandmother or mother used back in the day. They're more than willing to give up some counter space to this appliance and a little bit of control over the final waffle color in exchange for its versatility and the ability to give it a thorough cleaning.
The biggest user concern we found about the G48TD is that it's not built as well as previous models, which easily lasted for eight, 10 or even 20 years before needing replacing. This is an unfortunate trend among almost all waffle irons we surveyed, but many users still remain very happy with this machine's basic but versatile performance. (It lacks an audible indicator for when it's preheated, but does have a small indicator light.) Do read the instructions on how to securely attach the waffle/griddle plates, make sure that everything lines up properly when you first take the machine out of the box, and watch out when you open the lid flat or have kids around; the exterior of the G48TD gets hot enough to burn some counters or small hands.
If you're primarily making waffles for children -- or you have a strong whimsical bent of your own -- you might enjoy the Disney Classic Mickey Waffle Maker (Est. $20). Instead of the familiar grid-shaped waffle, it presses 7-inch waffles in the shape of Mickey Mouse's head. (You can also purchase this same waffle irons with Minnie Mouse or Olaf, the snowman from Frozen.) The Mickey-shaped waffle "grid" does have a non-stick coating, but you'll want to add a little cooking oil to help the waffles release easily.
Most users agree that the actual result of this waffle iron is somewhere between a fluffy light waffle and a denser pancake; one person has dubbed them "wancakes." Still, this little machine draws a lot of positive reviews for its whimsy and easy, basic operation. Kids can help by watching for the "ready to bake" indicator light to turn blue, but should still be supervised because this waffle maker heats up quickly. The most common user concern we saw was about build quality -- again, an unfortunate constant in most consumer-level waffle makers nowadays -- but this Disney waffle makers is backed by a one-year warranty.