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Consumer Reports

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    2 toxins an air purifier can't remove from the air

    Air purifiers can be great for trapping fine particles like dust, pollen, and smoke that swirl about in your home’s air, as Consumer Reports discovered in its tests of portable and whole-house air purifiers. But some gasses readily pass through even the best air purifiers, including two that can harm you:

    Radon. This radioactive gas, colorless and odorless, seeps up through the foundations of 1 in 15 U.S. homes, and after smoking it’s the top cause of lung cancer. Overexposure is symptom-free, and once you're exposed, there's no treatment. Smokers in the household are particularly at risk.

    Short-term (2- to 7-day) kits for radon detection, such as the top-scoring RTCA 4 Pass Charcoal Canister, $23, are available. But because the radon level can vary from day to day, we generally recommend kits that work for 90 days or more; of these, the Accustar Alpha Track Test Kit AT 100, $25, topped our tests of radon test kits. The Environmental Protection Agency advises you call in a pro for potential mitigation (about $1,200 for an average house) if you get a level between 2 and 4 pico Curies per liter (pCi/L). Mitigation should bring the pCi/L down below the 2 mark.

    Carbon monoxide. Also colorless and odorless, this silent killer can strike without warning if it leaks from a faulty furnace, gas clothes dryer, or other fuel-fired appliance such as a generator. Install a CO alarm on every level of your house, including the basement—and skip the temptation to buy combination smoke/CO alarms, which are often good at detecting one risk but not both. Replace CO alarms every five years. Check our Ratings for CO alarms, which include such recommended models as the First Alert OneLInk CO511B, $85, an interconnected alarm that makes all alarms in the house go off when one is triggered; and the standalone First Alert CO615, $30.

    Before shopping for any of the above, be sure to see our buying guides for air purifiers, radon test kits, and CO alarms.

    —Ed Perratore (@EdPerratore on Twitter)

    Consumer Reports has no relationship with any advertisers on this website. Copyright © 2006-2014 Consumers Union of U.S.

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    The best cookware from Consumer Reports' tests

    A cookware set is the perfect gift for newlyweds, new home owners, and college grads moving into their first apartment. Heck, a couple that’s been married for 25 years may appreciate a new set to replace the one they got at their wedding. You can spend a lot on a top-notch cookware set but you don’t have to as Consumer Reports discovered in its cookware tests. And we panned some sets with a celebrity name on the box. Here are the details.

    Stick with non-stick

    Our two top cookware picks are both non-stick sets. No uncoated cookware made the grade. Here are our two favorite sets.

    The Swiss Diamond Reinforced 10-piece set, $600, was the highest rated of all our tested sets. It was very good at evenly heating food and, when new, it was superb at releasing food. This set was very good at withstanding our non-stick durability test in which steel wool is rubbed over a pan for up to 2,000 strokes and like most non-stick cookware, is easy to clean. The aluminum set comes with a lifetime warranty.

    The Calphalon Simply Nonstick 10-piece set, $200, a CR Best Buy, combines performance and value and was very good overall. It was excellent at evenly heating food without it sticking to the pan. The handles stayed cool to the touch, but aren't as sturdy as the top-rated Swiss Diamond set. The aluminum set is durable and easy to clean and comes with a 10-year warranty.

    Frying pans that sizzle

    Frying pans are perhaps the most replaced pan in the kitchen. We found three to recommend including a $40 omelette pan that any cook would love.

    The 10-inch Swiss Diamond Classic nonstick frying pan, $90, was very good overall. Food cooked evenly and released without sticking. The pan withstood our nonstick durability test  and cleanup was a snap. This pan is made of aluminum and comes with a lifetime warranty.

    The Scanpan Classic, $90, is 10¼ inches and performed very well overall. It was superb at evenly heating food and did a very good job releasing food. It’s sturdy, easy to clean and dishwasher-safe. The aluminum pan comes with a lifetime warranty.

    The Calphalon Simply Nonstick 10-inch omelette pan, $40, is such a good deal you might want to buy one for yourself. A CR Best buy, it combines impressive performance and value and was very good overall. It was excellent at evenly heating food and releasing it without sticking. The aluminum pan is sturdy and easy to clean and  comes with a 10-year warranty.

    Don’t be tempted by claims and names

    Celebrity cooks have invaded the cookware aisle as have some as-seen-on-TV products that make claims that may be too good to be true. Keep in mind that a celebrity’s cookware set may not be a star in the kitchen. Here’s how to find a gift without the gotchas.

    Count the pans not the pieces. The cookware box may tout sets with 10 or more pieces but look closer and you may discover that the count includes lids and cooking utensils as well. A 10-piece set, for example, may include six pans and four lids. One 16-piece set we tested included six cooking utensils in addition to the pans and lids.

    Over-the-top claims. The manufacturer of the Pauli Never Burn Stock Pot claims, “You’ll never burn your recipe again because the Perfect Sauce and Chowder Pot eliminates the need for stirring!” But misjudge the heat setting and you’re cooked. In our tests, the Pauli pot warped even on medium heat—and what’s medium, anyway? Could be 5,000 or 10,000 Btu/hr., depending on the burner. Moreover, you might want higher heat for browning, deglazing, and other common recipe steps before simmering. One plus, the food we cooked didn’t stick to the pot.

    The name game. We took stock of cookware sets from Rachel Ray and Guy Fieri and neither bubbled to the top. On the plus side, the non-stick Rachael Ray Porcelain Enamel II 10-piece set, $140, released food quickly, was easy to clean and its handles were comfortable without getting too hot. But cooking evenness and durability were only so-so. The Rachael Ray 10-inch Open Skillet, $30, got similar reviews.

    The Guy Fieri Stainless Steel 10-piece set, $200, was the winner of our tests of uncoated cookware but fell far short of our top picks list. Speed of heating was very good but cooking evenness and handle comfort were so-so and it was difficult to clean.

    —Mary H.J. Farrell (@mhjfarrell on Twitter)

    Consumer Reports has no relationship with any advertisers on this website. Copyright © 2006-2014 Consumers Union of U.S.

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    Keep food poisoning off the menu

    Food poisoning can strike any time of the year. But during the holiday season, when we’re often hur­riedly preparing meals that are larger than usual, it’s easy to become careless about food and kitchen safety. Slipups in food handling, preparation, and cook­ing can lead to a botched favorite dish—or worse, serious sickness.

    The national Centers for Disease Con­trol and Prevention estimates that each year, one in six Americans has a bout of food poisoning, often caused by food-borne bacteria such as salmonella, cam­pylobacter, and E. coli. About 1 million cases are associated with a differ­ent bacterium, clostridium perfringens, which happens to sicken people most often in November and December—right in the middle of the holidays. To stop those bacteria from crashing your holiday meals, follow these simple kitchen commandments.

    Separate poultry and meat from other food. Fewer than one in five shoppers use plastic bags (provided by many supermarket meat departments) to keep meat juices from contaminating other items in their cart, according to a recent Kansas State University study. The researchers recommend using the bags while shopping and when storing the products in the fridge.

    Avoid the thawing ‘danger zone.’ The safest way to thaw frozen meat or poultry is to put it in the refrigerator, not on a counter. (Thanksgiving tip: Allow 24 hours of thawing for every 4 to 5 pounds of turkey.) Counter-thawed food can enter that dangerous zone between 40° F and 140° F, when bacteria multiply rapidly.

    Prep vegetables properly. Bac­teria can also contaminate raw vegetables. Scrub hard veggies, such as root veg­e­tables, under cold water with a vegetable brush. Salad greens might contain bacteria and pesticide residue; always rinse them well under running water. Never use soap on vegetables, because it might contain ingredients that are harmful if ingested.

    Get more info on food hazards and food safety advice in Consumer Reports' Food Safety & Sustainability Guide. Check out the results of our safety testing of ground turkey, chicken, and pork.

    Take care with cutting boards. Avoid bacterial cross-contamination by using designated cutting boards for different kinds of food—raw produce, raw meat, poultry, and seafood. (Using plastic boards in different colors makes it easier to distinguish which is which.) Deep scratches or grooves are a haven for bacteria. When such damage makes a board hard to clean, throw it away.

    Wash your hands often. Think of your hands as cooking utensils. Wash them well for 20 seconds with hot soapy water every time you handle raw meat, poultry, and seafood. Scrub them again between food prep and cleanup to avoid spreading bacteria to other areas of your kitchen and home.

    Store leftovers immediately. Bacteria can grow in cooked food, so hot dishes that aren’t being discarded should be refrigerated within 2 hours of cooking to prevent food poisoning.

    A healthier Thanksgiving feast

    Following food safety guidelines is essential in making sure your holiday meal is as safe as it can be. Equally important to the health of your guests is using quality ingredients. Here's what to consider when shopping.

    Turkey. Look for a bird with a “USDA organic” or “no antibiotics/USDA Process Verified” label.

    Packaged stuffing. It’s a source of trans fat, so nix any product that has partially hydrogenated oil on its ingredients list.

    Cranberry sauce. Consider skipping the canned, jellied stuff. Just a quarter-cup can have 110 calories—almost all from sugars, often in the form of high fructose corn syrup. You can find organic versions that don’t have HFCS, but they may contain another sugar.

    Pumpkin pie. Frozen pies can be full of HFCS and palm oil. And don’t be fooled by labels that make a product sound homemade. For instance, Sara Lee’s Oven Fresh Pumpkin Pie may have come “fresh” from an oven at some point, but it’s still a processed, frozen product.

    Editor's Note: This article also appeared in the November 2014 issue of Consumer Reports on Health.

    Consumer Reports has no relationship with any advertisers on this website. Copyright © 2006-2014 Consumers Union of U.S.

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    5 five-minute home repairs that cost only pennies

    Not every homeowner is born with the do-it-yourself gene. But even someone who's all thumbs can master a few simple home repairs and avoid calling the plumber or other expensive pro. Toilet running? Sink clogged? The fix may be something you can do yourself without breaking a sweat. Here are five common problems and their five-minute solutions from the experts at Consumer Reports.

    Problem: Running toilet
    Solution: Fix the flapper.
    A running toilet can be a real water waster. Often the problem is a flapper that fails to close or seal properly. To investigate, take the top off the tank, flush the toilet and see whether the chain is too long or too short or if the arm isn’t operating as it should. Before you attempt a fix, turn off the water using the handles behind the toilet. Then adjust the chain or arm. If you need a new flapper, you can buy a kit at the hardware store and follow the instructions.
    Full toilet Ratings and recommendations

    Problem: Refrigerator not cold enough
    Solution: Clean the condenser coils. Overstuffed refrigerators may be struggling in advance of the holidays. To get the most cooling power out of yours, clean the dust and grime off the condenser coils. The first challenge is to find the coils—they’re usually on the back of old refrigerators and at the bottom of new models. You’ll have to remove a panel to access the coils underneath. Once you do, unplug the refrigerator and clean the coils using a combination of a brush for surface dirt and your vacuum attachment.
    Full refrigerator Ratings and recommendations

    Problem: Radiators won’t heat up
    Solution: Bleed out the air. Cast iron radiators have their charm but over time air can get trapped inside leaving you with radiators that are hot on the bottom and cool on top. Often there’s no need to call the plumber. You can bleed the air from the radiator using a key that costs a dollar or less at your hardware store. With the heat off, insert the key into the bleed valve and slowly twist it. You’ll soon hear air escaping. Keep an old towel handy in case hot water squirts out. When it does, your job is done. If your house has multiple floors, start on the lower level first.
    The most reliable gas furnaces

    Problem: Leaky faucet
    Solution: Replace a washer. The drip, drip of a leaky faucet can be annoying. Stemming the flow can be as easy as replacing the washer, a cheap part you can buy for pennies at any hardware store (bring the old one with you).  Before you begin, turn off the water supply using the handles under the sink. Then carefully dismantle the faucet until you locate the washer or O-ring. If you have what is called a ball faucet, you can buy a replacement kit for about $20. Just follow the instructions in the box.
    Faucet buying guide

    Problem: Water backing up in sink
    Solution: Unclog the drain.
    If your sink won’t drain, try using a toilet plunger to dislodge the clog. Cover the drain with the plunger and quickly pump it up and down. If there’s no standing water in your sink or tub, you can forego chemicals and try a more natural solution by pouring equal parts of baking soda and vinegar into the drain, waiting five minutes and then pouring boiling water down the drain. If the water continues to drain slowly, try using a snake. You can find an inexpensive one at the hardware store.
    Full sink Ratings and recommendations

    Got other problems? There are plenty of how-to websites and videos online that walk you through home and appliance repairs. So do a little research before giving up and calling a pro. The money you save will make you glad you did.

    —Mary H.J. Farrell (@mhjfarrell on Twitter)

    Consumer Reports has no relationship with any advertisers on this website. Copyright © 2006-2014 Consumers Union of U.S.

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    Best small appliances for the big holiday dinner

    With a roast filling the oven and side dishes on every available burner, a holiday host can quickly run out of space to cook a meal and all the trimmings. But with some creative use of small countertop appliances, you can coordinate your dinner so that everything's ready at the same time. Many of today's microwaves and toaster ovens have improved cooking capabilities and warming trays have given way to induction burners that can be used to cook as well as serve. Here are some holiday hints and helpers from the experts at Consumer Reports. 

    Microwaves
    The most basic microwave can be used to reheat casseroles and side dishes made in advance. But a microwave with a convection mode is far more versatile and can be used to brown and crisp food. In our tests, at least one of our microwaves with a convection function, the GE Profile PVM1790SR[SS], $600, baked biscuits adequately in a preheated oven.

    One of the midsized countertop models, the LG LCSP1110[ST], $230, features a pizza oven in a drawerlike oven beneath the microwave cavity, although it can't be used at the same time as the microwave. Still it has preset buttons not only for pizza but other baked goods. It scored very good overall as a microwave and baked biscuits to satisfaction.

    At least two of the microwaves in our tests feature a grill—the Sharp Steamwave AX-1100S, $500, and theover-the-range Maytag MMV6186W[S], $680—that capably grilled a steak. The Sharp Steamwave also has a steamer option. We steamed fish nicely, but fresh broccoli took longer than expected. Still, it's an option when the cooktop is otherwise employed.

    Toaster ovens
    A large toaster oven can serve as a second oven. Use one to bake muffins or bread and to warm up pie for dessert. Several of the toaster ovens in our tests have convection heating, which manufacturers claim is faster and cooks more evenly. At least one model, the Panasonic FlashXpress NB-G110P, $150, also has speedy infrared heating.

    The Hamilton Beach Set & Forget 31230, $100, a midpriced toaster oven, provides very good overall performance, especially when it comes to broiling. The interior is large enough to accommodate a 4-pound chicken, though in our tests the built-in thermometer wasn't as accurate as the Set & Forget label might lead you to believe.

    192586-hotplates-waring-proict100.jpgInduction burners
    Countertop induction burners are, basically, high-tech hotplates. They provide extra cooking space in kitchens that need it. They plug into standard 120V 15-amp outlets so are limited by their electrical supply to provide less heat than what is provided by induction cooktops or ranges, which use 240V 50-amp supply circuits. Still, the burners use magnetic coils to heat more quickly and efficiently than conventional electric hot plates by sending most of the heat to the pan rather than to the cooking surface, but work only with magnetic cookware.

    The induction burners in our past tests were all ceramic glass, don't get as hot as standard radiant cooktop burners, were easy to clean and easier to keep clean (since they don't as readily burn spilled food). For typical cooking tasks, they offer plenty of power, above and beyond what a standard hot plate can offer. 

    Food processors
    If you are mashing potatoes or squash, move the cooked veggies from the pot to a food processor. Pulse it to get it to the right consistency but don't over mix it. Then place the food in a serving dish for reheating later. You can also purée winter squash soup. Four of the six the recommended food processors in our tests were very good at puréeing, including three Cuisinarts and a Breville.  Our top-rated machine is the Breville BFP800XL/A, $400, which was superb at slicing, shredding, and grating. And for all its power and performance, it’s surprisingly quiet.  

    coffeemaker_Krups_Silver_Art_Collection_KT600.jpgCoffeemakers
    To save time after dinner, make coffee ahead of time and store it in a thermos. All the better if you already have a thermal carafe. In our tests, none of the recommended models comes with a thermal carafe—though the recommended Mr. Coffee BVMC-SJX33GT, $40, has one you can purchase separately. But at least 15 others that didn't do quite as well in our coffeemaker tests come with that feature, including the Krups Silver Art Collection KT600, $150.

    If time isn't an issue, use a single-serve coffeemaker to make everyone an individual cup of coffee. All three of the top models in our pod coffeemaker tests are from DeLonghi Nescafé and range in price from $130 to $150. For Starbucks lovers, there's the Starbucks Verismo 600, $150.

    Don't blow it
    Before plugging in your high wattage helpers, make sure they are running on separate circuits or at least not at the same time. You don't want to trip a breaker switch just as your guests are gathering around the table. 

    Mary H.J. Farrell (@mhjfarrell on Twitter)

    Holiday Planning & Shopping Guide

    For more tips and tricks from the experts at Consumer Reports read our Holiday Planning & Shopping Guide. You'll also find suggestions for gifts that were top-performers in our tests.

    Consumer Reports has no relationship with any advertisers on this website. Copyright © 2006-2014 Consumers Union of U.S.

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    A wake-up call about the calories in coffee

    Chances are, you'll indulge in some high-calorie, special foods on Thanksgiving. But you probably don’t think of the coffee you sip at the end of your meal as one of them. Maybe you should. While coffee can be good for you, there can be quite a few calories in coffee. Two cups with two ounces of cream and two teaspoons of sugar each will give you about 300 calories and 24 grams of fat—about the same calories and twice the fat as in a slice of pumpkin pie.

    And for most of us, coffee is a daily habit. Simply adding cream to two cups a day adds up to 87,600 calories and 8,760 grams of fat in a year. Add sugar, and you tack on another 23,360 calories. Whole milk is a little better; pour it in two cups of coffee a day and you’ll add 27,740 calories and 1,460 grams of fat to your diet over the course of a year. Realize that the usual rule of thumb is that 3,500 calories equals about a pound of body fat. 

    Discover more ways to stay healthy over the holidays, along with great gift and money saving ideas, in our holiday guide.

    Does all this mean you have to drink your coffee black? Not at all. But a few simple adjustments, such as switching to 2 percent or nonfat milk or weaning yourself off sugar, can make a big difference. To figure out exactly how many extra calories and grams of fat you’re pouring into your coffee mug, keep these numbers in mind.       

    Addition

    Amount (oz.)

    Calories

    Fat (g)

    Nonfat milk

    2

    22

    0.1

    2% milk

    2

    30

    1.2

    Whole milk

    2

    38

    2

    Cream

    2

    120

    12

    Sugar

    1 tsp.

    16

    0

    —Adam Kaplan 

    Consumer Reports has no relationship with any advertisers on this website. Copyright © 2006-2014 Consumers Union of U.S.

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    The blenders that make the best smoothies

    Knowing that smoothies and frozen drinks are among the most common blender recipes, Consumer Reports modified its test method to better measure those key competencies. As a result, some models have risen in our blender Ratings, while others saw their scores slip. Paying top dollar will get you top performance, but some less expensive models also measure up. 

    In the past, our sensory panelists tasted each virgin pina colada we blended for smoothness and consistency. Working closely with these experts, we developed a new test in which the frozen concoctions are poured through metal sieves. Lots of icy chunks trapped on the mesh result in a subpar score and lower rank in our Ratings. This new test allows us to look at the entire blended drink, not just the portion our testers see and taste. It also allows us to better cover the changing marketplace, which features more high-powered blenders designed to handle a variety of recipes, from smoothies to soups to whole-fruit juices.

    And the winner is. Vitamix, the original uber blender, fared especially well in our new Ratings. The Vitamix Professional Series 750, $650, claims the top spot, cranking out superb frozen drinks and purees. It also aced our tough ice crush and durability tests, meaning it should hold up over time. For good measure, it's backed by a generous 7-year warranty. The Vitamix 7500 and the Vitamix Professional Series 300 should perform similarly, based on our evaluations, and they're priced a bit lower, at $530. That's still a lot to pay for a blender, but we've been very impressed by Vitamix's versatility, whether it's cranking out smoothies, whole-fruit juices, or hot soup.  

    Other notables. The Blendtec Designer 725, $650, also gets high marks in our new Ratings, and it features several innovations, including preprogrammed settings that are very intuitive. The machine will even record how many completed recipes you make in it, then display a code that can be redeemed on the Blendtec website for kitchen utensils, recipe books, and other gifts.

    One caveat: two other Blendtec blenders struggled in our durability test, a stress test in which we crush seven large ice cubes 45 times to simulate rigorous use. With the Blendtec Designer Series Wildside, $460, one of two containers leaked due to a failure involving the blade assembly’s bearing and seal—where the spinning shaft passes through the container. With the Blendtec Total Blender TB-621-20, both samples we tested failed for the same reason. We did not experience this issue with the Blendtec Designer 725, but its blade assembly is similarly designed. We will continue to monitor user reviews closely for any related issues.              

    Good options for less. If you're looking to spend less on a top-rated blender, consider the $200 Dash Chef Series Digital blender, which was excellent in our smoothie and puree tests. It comes in bright red and green finishes, along with the standard black or white, in case you want to add a pop of color to your countertop. 

    One low-priced blender that we used to recommend, the $60 Ninja Master Prep Professional QB1004, struggled in our new tests. It's still a good machine, but you're better off with its slightly higher-priced brand mate, the $100 Ninja Professional NJ600. Though it narrowly missed our recommended list, it performed very well overall, especially when it comes to smoothies and convenience.

    —Daniel DiClerico (@dandiclerico on Twitter)

    Consumer Reports has no relationship with any advertisers on this website. Copyright © 2006-2014 Consumers Union of U.S.

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    How to keep your old stove going

    Cooking season is heating up, but if your range isn’t, try these tips from Consumer Reports' experts. They can help you keep your old—or new—range cooking and even looking good. Of course, if you need a new one before the holidays check out our range Ratings and recommendations.  

    On the cooktop

    • Gently place heavy pans on electric smoothtop ranges to prevent breaking the cooktop. Lift pots, rather than sliding them, to avoid scratches.

    • Clean up smoothtop spills promptly to prevent stains, but wait until the surface has cooled and is safe to touch.

    • Don’t cover a coil-top range’s drip pans and bowls with foil; it can short-circuit the burner.

    • If a gas burner’s flame is uneven, food could be clogging the burner ports. Consult your manual for cleaning advice.

    In the oven

    • Put away the foil. Lining the bottom of the oven to catch drips may permanently damage the interior finish and void the warranty.

    • Foiled again? Covering oven racks with foil blocks airflow, so food might not cook properly or evenly.

    • Check your manual for self-cleaning tips, but the usual advice you’ll find says that you should remove racks from the oven before pushing the self-clean button. The process can discolor racks and make them harder to glide. Too late? Apply a coating of vegetable oil to the sides of racks to improve sliding.

    • Remove loose debris coating the oven cavity before starting the self-cleaning cycle.

    Budget-friendly ranges from our tests

    If your range has seen better days but you're on a tight budget as the holiday approaches, consider these four budget buys from our tests. They were good performers and have features that make cooking faster and cleanup easier.

    Electric smoothtops. These impressive smoothtop ranges performed similarly in our tests but were so-so at broiling.

    Gas ranges. These two ranges were better overall than gas ranges that cost thousands more but were also mediocre at broilling.

    For more choices, see our full range Ratings and recommendations. And check our buying guide if you're new to the market.

    —Kimberly Janeway

    Consumer Reports has no relationship with any advertisers on this website. Copyright © 2006-2014 Consumers Union of U.S.

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    How to remove white haze from your good dishes

    Soon it’ll be time to get out the good dishes and glassware for holiday entertaining. If you have hard water in your home, chances are your dishware is hazy or covered with a whitish film. If so, don’t despair, there are some dishwasher detergent additives on the market that can make your glasses and dishes sparkle again. And switching to a top-performing dishwasher detergent will keep them that way.

    Consumers started seeing residue on their dishes and inside the dishwasher after polluting phosphates were banned from dishwasher detergents a few years ago. Manufacturers responded by reformulating their dishwasher detergents to prevent such hard-water buildup and also developed additives to get rid of it. Consumer Reports tested three additives and, after some trial and error, all removed the haze from dishes and glassware and cleaned the dishwasher too.

    We tested Finish Power Up Booster Agent, Glisten Dishwasher Cleaner & Hard Water Spot Remover, and Lemi Shine Original. When we used the same amount of each product—about 50 grams—all three worked splendidly. But when we followed Finish’s directions for machines with a prewash-detergent dispenser, the product didn’t work nearly as well. It did get the job done when we placed two tablespoons directly into the bottom of the dishwasher (following instructions for machines without a prewash dispenser). Glisten and Lemi Shine did their job as directed, though you may need a second wash cycle to completely eliminate buildup.

    The best dishwasher detergents

    Choosing the right dishwasher detergent can also help. In our dishwasher detergent tests, we found that Cascade Complete With Dawn ActionPacs was excellent at resisting mineral buildup while getting dishes and pots clean. And a rinse agent can help eliminate water spots, a less severe condition than white haze. We also recommend three detergents from Finish, including Finish Powerball Tabs, Finish Gelpacs, and Finish Quantum Powerball Capsules. Of the four, the Finish tabs and gelpacs cost less and are CR Best Buys.

    Keep in mind that not every glass or dish on your holiday table can be put in the dishwasher, including the following.

    • Gold-plated dishes or dishes or flatware with gold trim can become discolored or the trim may even wash away.
    • Fine crystal is sensitive to heat and may crack. The detergent may also etch the glasses, causing them to lose their brilliance.
    • Expensive china, especially pieces with a pattern, may become worn with repeated washings.
    • Keep anything made of pewter, brass, or bronze out of the dishwasher as it will tarnish.

    For more information on how to treat your best dishes with a little TLC read, "Don't put Granny's glassware in the dishwasher."

    —Mary H.J. Farrell (@mhjfarrell on Twitter)

    Consumer Reports has no relationship with any advertisers on this website. Copyright © 2006-2014 Consumers Union of U.S.

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    Best refrigerators for people who love to entertain

    If you do a lot of entertaining at home—hosting for the holidays, throwing backyard barbecues—you want a refrigerator with plenty of storage capacity. Thanks to thinner insulation, slimmed-down ice makers, and other space-saving innovations, most refrigerators these days are pretty roomy inside. But there are a bunch of other features that can make your gatherings run more smoothly. Here are five biggies, based on Consumer Reports' latest refrigerator tests, as well as recommended models that contain them.     

    Convertible compartments. More new refrigerators let you control the ratio between refrigerator and freezer space. That can be helpful before a party, when you might need extra fresh-food storage for trays of food. The best example of this is the Samsung Chef Collection RF34H9960S4, $5,400, a true four-door refrigerators with two side-by-side bottom freezer compartments, one of which can convert to an additional refrigerator chamber. The less expensive Samsung T9000 RF32FMQDBSR, $3,500, is similarly designed. 

    Other four-door refrigerators feature a convertible middle drawer. For example, the Whirlpool WRX988SIBM, $2,600, has a "FreshStor" drawer whose temperature can be turned down when you're chilling drinks and up when you're temporarily storing party platters.

    One other convertible refrigerator to note is the Frigidaire FKCH17F7HW, $770, a unique product in that it can be used as a stand-alone freezer or an extra refrigerator—but not at the same time. Temperature inside its single compartment adjusts with the flip of a switch. That means when it's in freezer mode, there's no refrigerator space, and vice versa. In this sense, the Frigidaire is not meant to serve as a home's primary refrigerator. But it's handy if you need a stand-alone freezer that can also double as an extra refrigerator on occasion.

    Dual ice makers. If your kitchen is party central, the ice maker probably gets a workout, especially during warmer weather. Some newer refrigerators, including the LG LFX29927ST, $2,350, and the Samsung RFG297HD, $2,500, have one ice maker hooked up to the in-door water dispenser and a second one in the freezer. The ice output for these refrigerators was much better in our tests than that of a typical single-ice-maker model.        

    Advanced dispensers. The latest through-the-door ice and water dispensers make it easier to fill oversize containers, such as water pitchers to put out with a big holiday meal. The GE Cafe CFE29TSDSS, $3,000, goes one better, dispensing hot water as well as cold, say if one of your dinner guests requests a cup of tea, instead of the coffee you're brewing. And the dispensers on the Samsung Chef Collection RF34H9960S4 and Samsung T9000 RF32FMQDBSR have a built-in sparking water maker, perfect for wine spritzers or carbonated cocktails.   

    Split shelves. This feature comes in handy when you need to store a lot of tall bottles in the refrigerator, maybe a case of wine or champagne before the big New Year's Eve bash. The shelves might fold under their back half or slide to the side. They're common on French-door models, including the LG LFX33975ST, $3,000 and the Kenmore 7160[3], $1,700.  

    Door-in-door compartments. We're also seeing this feature on more French-door bottom-freezers, and a handful of side-by-sides. It's basically a shallow compartment in the door of the refrigerator that opens with the press of a button. It provides quick access to beverages, condiments, and other often reached-for items. During a party, it's a great place to stash beer, soda, and the like, so that your guests can grab them without making a mess of the main refrigerator compartment. Recommended models with this feature include the LG LFX32945ST French-door bottom-freezer, $3,330 and the Samsung RH29H9000SR, $2,000.

    —Daniel DiClerico (@dandiclerico on Twitter) 

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    Don't waste time and money prerinsing your dishes

    Let's face it, routines are hard to break even if they continue well past their expiration date. Take prerinsing your dishes before putting them in the dishwasher. If you still do it you're in good company. Industry data consistently show that about 60 percent of dishwasher owners prerinse their dishes no matter how loudly manufacturers and government regulators instruct otherwise. But here's a news alert: Today’s dishwashers don’t need your help. To prove it, why not give it a try the next time you load your dishwasher.

    In addition to your time, an added benefit of not prerinsing is saving money. Depending on its age, a kitchen faucet delivers 1.5 to 7 gallons of water a minute when run full blast. (At the high end, a minute at that rate uses more water than a dishwasher’s entire regular cycle.) The energy required to heat the water costs money too. So ask yourself whether, having spent $700 or more for a top-performing dishwasher, you deserve to get what you paid for.

    So here’s our challenge: Go cold turkey. Scrape off larger bits of food and put absolutely everything in the dishwasher without first rinsing it. Double-check the manual to make sure you’re loading items properly. Run the proper cycle for what you’re washing. Any items that don’t get perfectly clean are the only ones you should prerinse next time.

    Need a new dishwasher before Thanksgiving? Consumer Reports' Ratings of more than 180 dishwashers include such winners as the KitchenAid KDTM354DSS, $1,200, Kenmore Elite 12793, $1,050, and the Bosch Ascenta SHX3AR7[5]UC, $730. Be sure to check out our dishwasher buying guide before shopping.

    —Ed Perratore (@EdPerratore on Twitter)

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    Baking equipment that hits the sweet spot—or not

    With holiday feasts featured in food magazines, newspaper supplements, and on your favoriite food channels, you know it's time to dust off your old recipes or find new ones to try. No matter what you decide to cook this season, you’ll want equipment that puts your best food forward. As Consumer Reports found in its tests of baking supplies, some newfangled tools aren’t always an improvement over your tried-and-true bakeware. And some classic cookware is still worth considering.

    A brownie pan that makes individual portions, a silicone pan insert that promises to release the grease, and ceramic cookie sheets that claim even browning. Before you replace your old pans with these new ones, see the results of Consumer Reports’ tests.

    Slow-baking ceramic cookie sheets. We tested two ceramic cookie sheets, from the Pampered Chef, $34, and Hartstone Pottery, $40. They browned cookies about as evenly as air-bake cookie sheets and more evenly than coated sheets, and cookies didn't stick. But in addition to costing more, they're heavy, break when dropped, and baked a bit slower than metal baking sheets. The ceramic sheets also retain heat, making it difficult to quickly cook successive batches.

    No point to the Pyramid Pan. The infomercial for the Pyramid Pan claims that the silicone insert will prevent “dining disasters” because food rests on the points of the pyramids instead of the pan’s surface. That supposedly allows air to circulate under the food and fats to drip away, leaving food crisp, juicy, and evenly baked. In our tests we cooked a variety of foods including puff pastry appetizers on baking sheets with and without the Pyramid Pan liner. It was nonstick but because the food didn’t make contact with the pan, the tops of the appetizers were golden brown and the bottoms pale and undercooked. Save the $19.95 plus shipping and use nonstick cooking spray instead.

    The not-so-perfect brownie pan. The Perfect Brownie Pan Set promises to be "the nonstick way to bake, slice, and serve perfect brownies." Using an insert that resembles an ice-cube tray, the pan bakes each brownie separately. Because the bottom of the pan is not attached to the sides. the instructions say you can line the pan with foil or support it with a baking sheet to prevent leaking. A set cost $20 plus $8 shipping and handling. We baked fudge brownies four ways: in an unlined, Perfect Brownie pan; in the pan lined with foil; in the pan on a baking sheet; and in a regular 9x13-inch pan. Our trained taste testers found that brownies baked in a regular pan had better texture and flavor than the Perfect Brownies, which were all underdone to varying degrees, though we baked them 2 to 9 minutes longer.

    Although the classic KitchenAid stand mixer was overtaken in our tests by another brand, we still highly recommend it. Here are the mixers and ranges that were best for baking in Consumer Reports tests and a handy new item to help spread holiday cheer.

    Stand mixers to stand by. The Breville BEM800XL, $300, was excellent at whipping cream, mixing large batches of cookie dough, and kneading bread dough. It beat out favorites from KitchenAid and other brands thanks to a bevy of convenience features, including a leaf beater with a flexible edge that scrapes the bowl as it turns and a timer that lets you set your desired mixing time. We also recommend the more familiar KitchenAid Classic, $200, the KitchenAid Professional, $550, the KitchenAid Artisan, $300, and the Hamilton Beach Eclectics, $180. All four were excellent at mixing cookie dough.

    Handy hand mixers. The KitchenAid KHM926, $100, combines very good mixing power with very good whipping time. Unlike a lot of lesser mixers, it's strong enough to fold chips into stiff cookie dough. It’s also one of the quieter hand mixers we tested, which you’ll appreciate if you’re cooking at odd hours when others may be sleeping. We also recommend the KitchenAid Architect Series KHM920A[CS], $80, which is even quieter, and a $40 Cuisinart Power Advantage HM-50 that gets excellent mixing scores.

    Best ranges for baking. Surprisingly, not all ranges get excellent marks for baking in our range tests. Two electric double oven ranges, the LG LDE3037ST, $1,300, and the Maytag MET8885XS, $1,700, were excellent at turning out evenly baked cakes and cookies and had large oven capacities. And the two ovens allow you to bake a dessert and a roast simultaneously. If you prefer gas, the KitchenAid KDRS505XSS double oven, $2,000, had very good baking performance and impressive capacity, with a smaller oven on top and larger oven below. For more choices, including pro-style ranges, see our full range Ratings and recommendations.

    A decorative, disposable dish. Chinet Bakeware nonstick paper pans are “the first disposable baking dishes that let you take your food from oven to table to freezer to microwave,” the product’s website says. The pans, along with plastic lids, come in square, rectangular, and oval shapes, in various sizes. We paid $4.95 per pack, consisting of two or three pans. Our food experts cooked casseroles and brownies in Chinet and in similar-size metal and aluminum-foil pans. Chinet panned out. It’s disposable yet tough and was more rigid than disposable aluminum pans. And you won’t need pot holders when you pick up the heated dish. That said, because the paper bakeware is flexible, the lids may pop off; and the paper seems to extend baking time. Brownies in a metal pan were done in 40 minutes; those in Chinet required 55.

    More holiday gift ideas and tips

    Visit our Holiday Gift Ideas page throughout the season to find the best deals, time-saving advice, and much more.

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    Trust a meat thermometer over a pop-up timer for your turkey

    It’s a problem that probably goes back all the way to the Pilgrims: How the heck do you know when your Thanksgiving turkey is done? Getting the right answer is important—undercook it, and you risk sickening your guests with food poisoning; overcook it, and the meat ends up tough and dry.

    For decades, one popular solution to this culinary conundrum has been the pop-up timer, a device invented to take the uncertainty out of poultry cooking times, especially for Thanksgiving turkeys.

    But are these timers safe and reliable? To find out, we recently tested 21 pop-up thermometers in whole turkeys and turkey breasts. Our testing covered pop-up timers bought online and put into place by cooks before cooking, and models pre-inserted in the meat at the processing plant. To determine the pop-ups’ accuracy, we also measured the internal temperature of the meat with a calibrated reference thermometer. Our findings may make a few eyebrows pop:

    • Self-inserted and manufacturer-inserted timers generally “popped” in our tests at internal temperatures above 165° F—the minimum safe temperature for all poultry. But three timers popped up when meat was still below that safe zone, one as low as 139.5° F.
    • These low readings are a concern. Cooking poultry to 165° F helps ensure potentially harmful bacteria that can cause food poisoning—such as campylobacter and salmonella—are destroyed. Serving undercooked turkey means you risk sending your guests home with a nasty case of food poisoning. Our food safety experts recommend that cooks do not rely on these timers to tell whether their holiday bird is done. Instead, use a conventional meat thermometer to check the internal temperature in the thickest part of the breast and in the thigh between the drumstick and the body, and take several readings.

    Get more advice on choosing a meat thermometer in our buying guide. Keep everyone at your holiday table healthy by following our cooking do's and don'ts.

    Meat thermometers: Our recommendations

    In a separate round of testing, our experts assessed instant-read and leave-in analog and digital meat thermometers for temperature accuracy, repeatability, response time, and product features.

    Based on this testing our experts recommend home cooks purchase a digital meat thermometer. Overall, compared with analog models, instant-read and leave-in digitals are more accurate, easier to read, and have faster response times. Testing found analog thermometers are also not suitable for use in thinner cuts of meat such as most steaks and boneless chicken breasts.

    Among instant-read thermometers we tested, the CDN ProAccurate TCT572 was the top model. Accurate and consistent, it also features a foldaway probe. But at $85, it’s also the most expensive recommended instant-read digital. Another highly rated model, the Polder Stable Read THM-379, performed nearly as well as the CDN, yet costs just $20.

    Leave-in digitals that remain in the meat while it cooks offer more features—such as audible alerts and the ability to transmit temperature readings to a wireless unit or smart phone—but generally cost more than instant reads. Williams-Sonoma’s Smart Thermometer 87072 was the top-rated model of all those tested; at $200 it was also the most expensive. When connected to Wi-Fi and paired with a free app, the Smart Thermometer sends temperature readings and other alerts to any Apple mobile device. Two less costly leave-in wireless models are Oregon Scientific’s Wireless BBQ/Oven AW131 ($50) and iGrill’s mini Bluetooth ($40). The Oregon Scientific doesn’t  offer as many features as the Williams-Sonoma thermometer, but performed very well in testing.

    —Ian Landau

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    The best humidifiers for combating dry winter air

    An unfortunate byproduct of heating your home in cold weather is that it dries out the air. Dry air can irritate nasal passages and increase your risk of getting a respiratory infection. The good news: Today’s humidifiers are better than ever at adding moisture to the air with designs that claim to address concerns about hard water and possible bacteria contamination. Here are some findings from Consumer Reports' humidifier tests:

    Antimicrobial features. Humidifiers process a lot of water—the better room models have an output of 1.3 to more than 3 gallons a day—to cover 100 to 650 square feet. Yet some water tends to collect in the base and tank, where bacteria and other microbes can grow. Not all humidifier manufacturers suggest daily cleaning of their products, but you’ll need to replace the water at least once a day. Wondering how harmful that standing water might be? So are we, and we’re now running tests for bacteria in both the water that remains in the unit and the mist the humidifier adds to the air. The small-room HoMedics UHE-CM25, $60, and the medium-room Honeywell HUT-300, $70, are among models that claim to inhibit bacterial growth.

    Hard-water resistance. Several models we tested, including the child-styled Crane Owl, an ultrasonic unit selling for $45, accept optional demineralization cartridges that manufacturers claim reduce or eliminate scaling. In homes with hard water, the buildup of minerals dissolved in the water can result in the dispersal of a white, powdery dust that coats surfaces in the room—and can be inhaled. Ultrasonic models, which use a vibrating nebulizer to emit mist, are most prone to mineral buildup and release. But using distilled water avoids the problem without the need to buy cartridges at an extra cost.

    Energy savings. Humidifiers aren’t known as energy hogs, with some using as little as 25 watts. Vaporizers, however, are in a class by themselves. The single vaporizer that made our picks, the large-room Honeywell HWM-340, $55, is a warm-mist model rated for 400 watts. If you need a major-league tabletop model that can add lots of moisture to the air, though, you might want to swallow the extra energy cost. The Honeywell outputs 3.3 gallons a day for a claimed 600-square-foot space.

    Choosing the right humidifier is a balance of mist output, convenient features, noise, and other criteria—all of which we test for in our humidifier Ratings of three dozen models. Before shopping, check our humidifier buying guide.

    The best humidifiers from our tests

    Looking for a humidifier? Keep in mind that you should size it to the room where you'll be using it. You'll probably need more than one. Here are the top picks from our tests.

    For more choices see our full humidifier Ratings and recommendations.

    —Ed Perratore (@EdPerratore on Twitter)

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    How to rid your workout clothes of 'permastink'

    As the weather turns cold, chances are you're exercising at the gym or health club more often. And that means your workout clothes are probably spending long days in the locker between washes. Especially if you use synthetic workout gear with wicking fibers, you may be noticing some particularly rank odors—even after you do finally run the clothing through the wash. The condition is known as "permastink," and if left unchecked, it can definitely make you less welcome in the workout room. Fortunately, there are ways to combat the stink.

    Consumer Reports' laundry detergent tests, as well as separate industry studies, have shown that soaking smelly workout gear in water with detergent and sodium percarbonate (aka OxiClean) can help reduce odors. Several products marketed as sports detergents are specially formulated with these ingredients to tackle tough odors. We tested one of them several years back—WIN High Performance Sport Detergent—and found it to be most effective when clothes were soaked for two hours in a half cap of the detergent and 2 gallons of warm water before washing.

    Soaking helps eliminate permastink because it gives the detergent time to separate body oils from the fabric while the sodium percarbonate tackles the foul odors. Most washing machines have a soak cycle intended for this type of pretreatment. Any detergent that contains Oxi should give you results. One very good option from our current laundry detergent Ratings is OxiClean Laundry Detergent, 14 cents per load, which was also tough on grass stains and blood in our laundry detergent tests. You might also try the All Free Clear Oxi Active, 14 cents per load. It scored a bit lower overall, but it was particularly tough on sweat stains, which of course is where permastink begins. 

    —Daniel DiClerico (@dandiclerico on Twitter)

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    Can a pro-style steam oven make you a top chef?

    The trend of adapting restaurant appliances for home cooks continues with built-in convection steam ovens that promise speedy, automated cooking and gourmet results. Whether they can deliver is another matter, as Consumer Reports discovered in its kitchen range tests.

    The Thermador PSO301M and Wolf CS024 each cost around $4,000, but we were underwhelmed by their performance. They were good at steaming fish and quickly cooking tasty ribs. And the steam yielded crispier-than-usual top crusts when we baked bread, though the improve­ment was more subtle than we expected.

    But the briskets we made in these pricey ovens turned out tough or looked unappetizing. Certainly, adapting a favorite recipe will take some trial and error. In fact, these devices are designed to supplement your regular range or wall oven; both have a much smaller capacity. And neither steam oven is self-cleaning. You have to wipe the interiors, which get moist, dirty, and greasy.

    Another option. But let's face it, $4,000 is a lot to pay for a second oven. If you're willing to pay that much, you may want to consider our top-rated 36-inch pro-style range, the KitchenAid KDRU763VSS, $6,000, which comes with a steam option and scored very well overall in our range tests. The oven is large and the self-cleaning cycle works like a charm.

    —Kimberly Janeway (@CRJaneway on Twiter)

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    Consumer Reports brings out the best mayonnaise

    Mayonnaise is in the news after Unilever, maker of Hellmann's, filed suit against Hampton Creek, accusing the San Francisco startup of false advertising on the grounds that its Just Mayo sandwich spread isn't actually mayonnaise. According to the Food & Drug Administration, any product that calls itself mayo must include at least one egg-yolk containing ingredient. Just Mayo is made with pressed Canola oil, water, lemon juice, vinegar, and several other non-dairy ingredients. Consumer Reports hasn't tested Just Mayo, but we have evaluated several egg-based mayos. Turns out, Hellmann's is right to be concerned about the competition.      

    In blind taste tests, our sensory panelists found Target's Market Pantry mayonnaise to be just as creamy and well-balanced as Hellmann's. For Costco members, the Kirkland Signature real mayonnaise was judged to be about as good as Hellmann's. The same goes for Walmart's Great Value real mayonnaise, with its Hellmann's-like taste and texture. Store brands typically sell for about 20 percent less than name brands, so you could save a few bucks each month, depending on your household's mayo consumption.  

    We also tested mayo products from Trader Joe's and Whole Foods. The Trader Joe's mayonnaise was more sour than Hellmann's and not as tasty. Whole Foods' 365 Everyday Value mayonnaise was similar to Hellmann's though a bit saltier. However, this product has been reformulated since our last taste test.  

    Or make your own. If you really want to save on mayonnaise, and have total control over the ingredients, consider making your own. A blender or food processor can both do the job. In our blender tests we found that blenders with variable-speed settings, like Vitamix Professional Series 750, $650, and the Waring Xtreme MX1000R, $350, are particularly good at emulsifying ingredients on their lower settings. The advantage with food processors is they often have feed tubes with a small hole in the bottom, which allows you to add in the oil slowly and consistently. In our food processor Ratings, the Cuisinart DLC-2011CHB Prep 11 Plus, $180, is one highly-rated food processor with this feature.

    More condiment comparisons. To see how Heinz ketchup and other foods fared in our national vs. store brand match-ups read, "Store brands to savor."

    —Daniel DiClerico (@dandiclerico on Twitter)    

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    Why consumers prefer top-loading agitator washers

    Do you know any laundry enthusiasts? Have you ever seen a reality TV show where fun-seeking young people spend nights doing laundry rather than partying at the Jersey Shore? Washing and folding laundry isn’t fun, but front-loaders and high-efficiency top-loaders have raised the performance bar and offer advantages over top-loaders with agitators. And yet agitator washers are still the best sellers.

    That’s because they’re typically cheaper and faster. Most agitator top-loaders tested by Consumer Reports are less than $600 and do a normal wash in 40 to 50 minutes using the heavy-soil setting. “But they score lower in our tests as they generally don’t wash as well, have smaller capacities, use a lot more water, and extract less of it so dryer time is longer,” says Emilio Gonzalez, the engineer who runs our tests of washers and dryers. Vibration isn’t a problem for agitator washers, but noise is and most aren't so gentle on fabrics.

    The best from our tests. If you’re set on buying an agitator washer check our washing machine ratings. The $580 Whirlpool WTW4850BW is the only top-loader agitator washer to make our top picks. It was one of the few to deliver impressive cleaning, used the least water, and cycle time was 50 minutes on the heavy-soil setting. Our ratings include agitator washers from Amana, Frigidaire, GE, Hotpoint, Kenmore, Maytag, Roper, and Speed Queen. Most scored good in capacity, meaning the washer held about 15 to 19 pounds of laundry. Very good indicates that the washer fit about 20 to 24 pounds.

    You may be able to improve cleaning by using a more aggressive cycle, such as a heavy-duty cycle, but that can extend wash time. A good detergent helps. Tide Plus Ultra Stain Release was the best we tested, but expensive, and Member’s Mark Ultimate Clean from Sam’s Club and Wisk Deep Clean cost less and are top picks from our laundry detergent Ratings

    If you're considering an HE washer. If you're interested in taking an HE top-loader for a spin, the LG WT1001CW, $650 is worth considering. We named it a CR Best Buy. Washing performance and water efficiency were excellent in our washer tests and energy efficiency was very good. Normal wash time, on heavy soil setting, is 70 minutes.

    The only front-loader on our top picks list that costs under $1,000 is the Maytag Maxima MHW5100DW, which sneaks in under that price tag at $950. Washing performance and energy and water efficiency were top-notch in our tests and cycle time is 75 minutes. For more choices see our full washer Ratings and recommendations and consider the best matching washers and dryers in our tests.

    Kimberly Janeway

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    The best washing machines for $800 or less

    Life is humming along and then your 12-year-old washer breaks, and as the dirty laundry piles up you find out that the repairs will cost more than half the price of a new washer. Next thing you know you’re standing in some store and wondering if your vision is suddenly blurred or does the sticker on that front-loader really say $1,600? Sadly it does. But you can get clean laundry for half that. Here’s a look at six impressive washers from Consumer Reports’ washing machine tests that cost $800 or less.
     
    Top-loaders
    These high-efficiency (HE) washers use a lot less water than conventional top-loaders—the kind with the center agitator—and spin faster, cutting dryer time and saving energy. Use an HE detergent. Regular detergents are too sudsy for HE washers and can extend wash time as more rinsing may be needed. Our top-rated HE detergent is Tide Plus Ultra Stain Release. Here are four top-loaders to consider most of which fell just shy of our top picks list.

    Front-loaders
    Front-loaders usually cost more than HE top-loaders. The best front-loaders clean better and use even less water than the best HE top-loaders. Front-loaders spin faster than HE top-loaders so more water is typically extracted, reducing drying time but front-loaders generally have longer wash cycles. And of course, use HE detergents. Here are two models to consider that were impressive in our tests.  

    For all the details on test results and features, see the results of our washing machine tests. Be sure to note the capacity scores. Manufacturers keep increasing capacities so that you can do more laundry at one time so we updated our capacity scores. A machine now needs to hold about 25 or more pounds of laundry to earn an excellent capacity score. Most families can get by with a machine that’s rated very good or even good in capacity. Very good indicates that the washer fits about 20 to 24 pounds of laundry. A good score means the washer holds about 15 to 19 pounds.

    —Kimberly Janeway (@CRJaneway on Twitter)

    The best matching washers and dryers

    Find a laundry pair that fits all your dirty laundry. The quietest duos tend to cost more but if your machines live in the basement you can spend less and still get top performance. Here are the best matching washers and dryers from Consumer Reports' tests.

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    How to clean up common holiday messes

    Dealing with dusty decorations, polishing Grandma’s beloved silver platter, getting last year’s candle wax off menorahs and candlesticks, cleaning stained tablecloths—there’s always plenty to do around the holidays. So we asked our cleaning and textile experts how to make the prep work easier and faster. They offered advice about what to do before company arrives and after the last guest has left but their stains remain.

    Removing wax from candlesticks and menorahs
    Place silver or other metals in the freezer until the wax hardens, then gently scrape it off with a plastic spatula. If wax remains, pour boiling water over the item or immerse it in a pot of boiling water, making sure any felt covering on the base remains dry. For glass or wood, point a blow-dryer at the wax and then blot the melting wax with a paper towel, but be careful not to overheat wood because it can crack.

    Freshening up sheets, towels, and linens
    There’s no need to rewash clean guest room sheets and towels that haven’t been used in months. Just toss them in the dryer on low heat for 15 minutes. And if you don’t want fold lines on your freshly ironed tablecloths, roll them up on empty wrapping-paper tubes.

    Dusting an artificial Christmas tree
    Set up the tree and spread out a sheet at its base to catch debris. Cover the vacuum’s upholstery attachment with a piece of hosiery or mesh netting fastened with a rubber band. Starting from the top of the tree and moving down, gently vacuum on the lowest setting, holding the attachment about an inch away from the branches to remove dust and cobwebs. Still dingy? Check the manufacturer’s website for any wipe-down tips.

    Dusting artificial wreaths
    Hold a blow-dryer, set on a low speed and the cool setting, about 10 inches from the wreath and then fluff. A soft feather duster may also work, or try the Christmas tree dusting tip.

    Cleaning glass ornaments
    Surface decorations are usually applied with water-soluble paint, so avoid treating them with soap, water, and cleaning solutions. Use a soft feather duster instead.

    Caring for silver
    Remove tarnish with a polishing mitt or by applying silver cleaner with a damp sponge; buff dry. Washing by hand is usually recommended, but there are lots of no-nos to keep in mind.

    • Don’t soak silver for long periods because non-silver parts can rust. And the salt and acids in leftover food particles can stain or pit the silver.
    • Never wash silver and stainless together because a chemical reaction between the metals can cause pitting.
    • Avoid lemon-scented detergents because they can damage silver.
    • Never pour detergent directly on silver. Instead, add a mild detergent to water, wash and rinse thoroughly, and dry right away with a soft cloth to prevent spots.
    • Don’t leave silver out; air accelerates tarnishing. Instead, store silver in a clear, heavy, sealable plastic bag

    Once the guests are gone and all the dust has settled, it’s time to survey the damage. It pays to act quickly, even with messes that have been there for a while. Another rule of thumb: Always blot stains on carpets, napkins, clothing, and the like, because scrubbing can damage their surfaces. Below are specific treatments for seven common problems. Whatever the recommended cleaning solution, try it first on an inconspicuous spot, and follow any care-label instructions that apply.

    Headache: Wine and soda on fabrics or carpet
    Cure: For white wines and clear sodas, launder washable items as soon as possible. Blot carpet with water, apply our homemade detergent solution (1 teaspoon of a mild clear or  white dishwashing liquid without bleach in 1 cup of warm water), and blot again with water. For red wine, follow the same instructions and then dab with 3 percent-strength hydrogen peroxide. For colas on carpet or fabrics, blot with our detergent solution and, if needed, then try our vinegar solution (⅓ cup of white vinegar with ⅔ cup of water). Blot with warm water, and if a trace remains, dab with 3 percent-strength hydrogen peroxide.

    Headache: Christmas tree sap on carpet or upholstery
    Cure: Whether your tree is a pine, fir, or spruce, the sticky sap is basically the same, according to a tree expert at Cornell University. Blot sap with isopropyl rubbing alcohol to dissolve it and then use our detergent solution. Blot carpet or upholstery with the solution, then blot with clean water. Dry with a white cloth.

    Headache: Chocolate on carpet or fabrics
    Cure:  Scrape off excess. blot carpet with our detergent solution. If the stain remains, try the vinegar solution. Dry with a white cloth. For washable items, use your washer’s soak cycle and one of our top-rated detergents that’s tough on chocolate, such as Wisk Deep Clean, then wash.

    Headache: Cranberry sauce on fabrics or carpet
    Cure: Scrape away excess. Pretreat washable tablecloths and other fabrics with Resolve stain remover, launder, and line dry. If the stain persists, dab with 3 percent-strength hydrogen peroxide and line dry. For carpet and upholstery, blot with our detergent solution. If the stain remains, use 3 percent-strength hydrogen peroxide. Repeat with clean white cloths until none of the stain transfers to the cloth. Then blot with water to remove cleaning solution. Dry with a white cloth weighted down with a stack of books.

    Headache: Gravy on table linens
    Cure: Scrape off excess with a spoon. Pretreat with a Fels-Naptha paste or Resolve stain remover and wash. Do not put items in the dryer until the stain is gone or it will be even harder to remove it.

    Headache: Lipstick on cloth napkins
    Cure: Blot with acetone-based nail polish remover. If the stain remains, apply our homemade detergent solution, then rinse.

    Headache: Candle wax on tablecloths
    Cure: Pour boiling water through the washable fabric from a height of  12 inches (the height increases the velocity of the water, helping separate the wax from the fibers). For fabric that can’t be washed, sandwich it between paper towels and apply a warm iron; repeat with a clean towel until the wax is lifted.

    2014 Holiday Guide

    For more tips as well as dozens of gift guides see our Holiday Gift Guide. You'll also find the results of Consumer Reports tests of hundred of holiday items.

    This article appeared in the December 2013 issue of Consumer Reports magazine.

    Consumer Reports has no relationship with any advertisers on this website. Copyright © 2006-2014 Consumers Union of U.S.

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