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A panini maker is a specialized grill press which is designed to be used to make paninis, Italian grilled sandwiches which are especially popular at casual cafes and bistros. In addition to being used to make a panini, a panini maker can be utilized for a variety of other grilled sandwiches and foods, making it a somewhat useful thing to have around in some households. Many kitchen supply stores carry panini makers, and they can also be ordered from specialty purveyors.
In Italy, a panini is simply a sandwich, but in other regions of the world, the term has come to refer specifically to the grilled panini, a hot sandwich which is made by pressing the sandwich in a grill for a few minutes before serving. The bread is typically oiled or buttered before grilling, so it develops a crusty, crunchy flavor which some people find quite enjoyable.
Although a panini can be prepared on a flat grill, a panini maker greatly simplifies the process, and speeds it up. A panini maker is essentially a hinged grill; to use it, people place a sandwich on one part, and then fold the other part of the grill over the sandwich, pressing the sandwich between the two heated sides of the grill. After a few moments, the sandwich is grilled and warmed through, and it can be served immediately.
Most panini makers are electric, working much like a waffle iron. The heating elements in the grill heat the metal grill halves through, providing a continuous, radiant heat throughout the grilling process. Typically the heat cannot be adjusted, although some panini makers have high and low settings. The heat is typically calibrated to be effective for most grilling tasks.
As you might imagine, a panini maker can be used to grill just about anything, from tofu to hamburgers, in addition to the panini it is designed for. Depending on the design, the grill may be made from a nonstick material, or it may be made from cast iron, which will need to be seasoned before use. In either case, the grill is usually cleaned with a light, dry wiping, rather than being washed.
When purchasing a panini maker, you may want to think about how it will be used. If you intend to grill other things in addition to panini, variable heat is a nice option, and size is also something to think about, as some panini makers are quite large, designed to accommodate sandwiches for a crowd, while others can only handle one or two sandwiches. You may also want to consider ease of cleaning; look for nooks and crannies which could collect gunk, and check to see if the grill can be removed for an occasional deep scrubbing.