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Manual Espresso Makers

By Cook's Illustrated Published November 2008
Update: December 2012

The ROK is the newest incarnation of the Presso Espresso Machine.

When we tested hand-powered espresso makers in 2008, we recommended an inexpensive portable device called the AeroPress ($29.95). While the machine is easy to use, the espresso that it produces falls just short of the ideal deep, rich coffeehouse brew. Would the latest manual model, the Presso Espresso Machine, be worth the higher price tag ($150, which is still far lower than that of electric machines)? Like the AeroPress, the Presso is designed for simplicity. The 11-inch tool consists of two long, curved levers attached to a wishbone-shaped body, a clear hot-water chamber with markings for single and double shots, and a portafilter for grounds. Also included are a measuring scoop that doubles as a tamper, an adapter for making two single shots simultaneously, and a syringe-like milk foamer (you simply stick it into milk and pump the plunger to froth). The instructions were clear, and the superb result—rich, full-bodied espresso topped with a nice crema—had test cooks lining up for shots.

How we tested

We tested two hand-powered portable espresso makers to see if they could do the job of an espresso machine. While neither produced the deep, rich brew you might find at a gourmet coffee outlet, both made flavorful espresso quickly and easily. One product requires a coffee pod (ground coffee beans in their own filter), and pressed out brew with a hearty aroma; however, tasters commented on its muddiness and bitter finish. The other entry did better. Using freshly ground beans, it produced smooth espresso that, according to tasters, combined the slightly heavier body of French press coffee and the cleanness of drip coffee. With good reason—it mimics the technology of both. To make a cup, you insert a disk-shaped paper filter, add coffee to the chamber with hot water, mix, and press.

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The Results

Winner
Recommended

Design Trifecta 360 Knife Block

Admittedly expensive, this handsome block certainly seemed to live up to its billing as “the last knife block you ever have to buy.” The heaviest model in our testing, this block was ultrastable, and its durable bamboo exterior was a breeze to clean. Well-placed medium-strength magnets made it easy to attach all our knives, and a rotating base gave us quick access to them. One tiny quibble: The blade of our 12-inch slicing knife stuck out a little.

$248.64*
Recommended

Schmidt Brothers Downtown Block

This roomy block completely sheathed our entire winning knife set using just one of its two sides—and quite securely, thanks to long, medium-strength magnet bars. Heavy, with a grippy base, this block was very stable. An acrylic guard made this model extra-safe but also made it a little trickier to insert knives and to clean; the wood block itself showed some minor cosmetic scratching during use.

$141.90*

Schmidt Brothers Midtown Block

This smaller version of the Downtown Block secured all our knives nicely, though the blade of the slicing knife stuck out a bit. With a base lined with grippy material, this block was very stable. An acrylic guard afforded extra protection against contact with blades but made it a little harder to insert knives and to clean; the wood itself got a little scratched during use.

$67.99*
Recommended with Reservations

Swissmar Bamboo Magnetic Knife Block

This small, scratch-resistant model had a stable, rubber-lined base and could hold all our knives, though the blade of the 12-inch slicing knife stuck out a bit. But inch-long gaps between its small magnets made coverage uneven and forced us to find the magnetic hot spots in order to secure the knives. Its acrylic guard made it safer to use but harder to insert knives and to clean.

$49.93*
Not Recommended

Messermeister Walnut Magnet Block

This handsome block was done in by its shape—a tippy, top-heavy quarter-circle that wasn’t tall or broad enough to keep the blades of three knives from poking out. It lacked a nonslip base, and its extra-strong magnets made it unnerving to attach or remove our heavy cleaver. Finally, it got a bit scratched after extensive use.

$129.95*

Epicurean Standing Knife Rack 12"

This magnetic block sheathed all our knives completely, though with a bit of crowding. But it was hard to insert each knife without hitting the block’s decorative slats on way down, and because the block was light and narrow, it wobbled when bumped. Worse, we couldn’t take it apart, so splatters that hit the interior were there to stay. Additionally, the outside stained easily, and when we wiped it down, the unit smelled like wet dog.

$99.95*

Kapoosh Rondelle Knife Block

This model stabilized knives with a mass of stiff, spaghetti-like bristles that shed and nicked easily after extensive use, covering our knives with plastic debris. While all our knives fit securely, several of the blades stuck out, making this unit feel less safe overall. Finally, though the bristles could be removed and cleaned in the dishwasher, their nooks and crannies made this block hard to wash by hand.

$24.99*

Kuhn Rikon Vision Knife Block, Clear

This plastic block required us to aim each knife into the folds of an accordion-pleated insert that was removable for easy cleaning but got nicked easily with repeated use. Because we could only insert the knives vertically, longer knife blades stuck out; a cleaver was too wide to fit. The lightest model in our lineup, this block was dangerously top-heavy when loaded with knives.

$35.88*