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Could we find a thermal carafe that excelled with both hot and cold liquids?
If you like to entertain, insulated pitchers can come in handy. Also called thermal carafes, they keep coffee or tea hot for hours—perfect for brunch or a dessert table at a party. They also insulate cold liquids, so we sometimes use two: one for hot coffee and one for cold cream or milk. We’ve even used them to keep stock warm (and pour it as needed) when making risotto.
Most thermal carafes are double-walled and vacuum-sealed. (In other words, they have two stainless-steel walls, and the air between them has been removed. Without air, heat transfers much more slowly.) Given their similarity in design, does it matter which insulated carafe you buy? To find out, we rounded up eight models, priced from $21.99 to $72.07 and with capacities from 44 to 68 ounces, and spent two weeks putting them through their paces in the test kitchen.
We started with the most important test: heat retention. We filled each carafe with freshly brewed 161-degree coffee and recorded the coffee’s temperature every hour by pouring out a small amount and quickly recording its temperature. After 4 hours—a reasonable amount of time for a carafe to keep things drinkable—the coolest coffee was a lukewarm 138 degrees. Meanwhile, the coffee in the top performers was still quite hot at 152 degrees.
To see how the carafes fared with cold liquids, we chilled them with ice water for 5 minutes (a step most manufacturers recommend). We then emptied them, filled them with 37-degree milk, and left them at room temperature. By the 2-hour mark, all of the milk was at or above 40 degrees. After 4 hours, the samples ranged from 41 to 44 degrees. Bacteria grow more rapidly between 40 and 140 degrees, so the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) recommends that food be in that range for no longer than 2 hours. We were discouraged that none of the carafes had kept milk below that threshold, but we suspected that they were still an improvement over a standard, noninsulated pitcher. Sure enough, when we performed the same test with a chilled stainless-steel pitcher, the milk climbed to 55 degrees after 1 hour and hit 67 degrees after 4 hours. Even the least effective carafe was a dramatic improvement.
With the temperature tests complete, a panel of testers evaluated how easy the carafes were to use. Four factors mattered most: the pour spout, the handle, the lid, and opening the carafe. Some carafes were hard to control, and liquids poured from them at unpredictable speeds and angles. Worse, liquids that were poured from some carafes continued flowing for an extra beat after we’d released the button—more than enough time to accidentally overfill a coffee mug. We much preferred models that poured with moderate, even streams and had responsive valves that quickly closed the pour spouts.
We also disliked small handles and handles that were set either too close to or too far from the body of the carafe. Wide, sturdy handles set 1 1/2 to 2 inches from the body of the carafes allowed us to pour with ease. Finally, a wider opening and efficient lid were crucial. One carafe had a tiny 1½-inch opening that made it difficult to fill. Most were a more generous 2⅛ to 2½ inches across. That model with a narrow opening also had a hinged lid that sometimes flopped wide open without warning. We preferred lids that snapped or twisted on smoothly, and we especially liked those that fit into place with an audible click and sealed without a visible gap between the lid and body.
We did one final test, filling the carafes with hot seafood stock (a handy way of keeping stock warm when adding it in small increments while making risotto) and leaving them to sit overnight. We came in the next morning, washed each carafe thoroughly by hand, and then filled each with cold water, which we presented to a tasting panel in a blind tasting. Thankfully, none of the carafes held on to the fishy, savory smell, and all of the water tasted clean.
Ultimately, several carafes met all of our criteria. But the Zojirushi Stainless Steel Vacuum Carafe ($57.51) won top marks in temperature tests and for ease of use. It’s the only model with a snap-on lid, which seals with a reassuring click and leaves no doubt that the carafe is closed. We liked that it can be fully disassembled for cleaning. For a slightly lower price but still impressive performance and user-friendliness, we also recommend our Best Buy, the Genuine Thermos Brand 51-Ounce Vacuum Insulated Stainless Steel Carafe ($42.70).
We tested eight thermal carafes with capacities from 44 to 68 ounces (roughly 5½ to 8½ cups), rating them on their heat and cold retention. A panel of testers evaluated how easy they were to fill and use. We also rated them on ease of cleaning. All models were purchased online and appear in order of preference.
Heat Retention: We filled each carafe with freshly brewed 161-degree coffee, sealed it tight, and then recorded the coffee’s temperature every hour. The best carafes kept the coffee above 150 degrees for at least 4 hours—the longest we’d want to wait before brewing a fresh pot.
Cold Retention: After chilling the carafes with ice water for 5 minutes, we filled each with 37-degree whole milk and checked the milk’s temperature every hour. A chilled stainless-steel pitcher served as a point of comparison. Although no carafe was able to keep milk below 40 degrees for 2 hours (recommended by the USDA for food-safety reasons), we preferred carafes that kept milk closest to that temperature.
Lids and Pour Spouts: The best models had lids that attached easily and offered an audible or visual signal that they were on securely. Carafes lost points if they were slow to respond when we opened and closed their pour spouts.
Handles: We rated each model on the comfort and control of its handle. The best handles stayed cool to the touch. We also liked handles that were large and sturdy enough to comfortably support the weight of a full carafe.
Cleanup: Some models were easier to clean than others. Carafes lost points if their openings were less than 2 inches in diameter, as they were especially difficult to clean. We preferred carafes with lids that could be disassembled or easily scrubbed for thorough cleaning.
Our winner is the only carafe that has extra insulation in addition to the standard double-wall vacuum seal. The thin sheets of copper and aluminum foil worked: After 4 hours, coffee was still piping hot at 152 degrees. Milk was 40 degrees after 2 hours and just 41 degrees after 4 hours. Testers loved its snap-on lid, which sealed with an audible (and reassuring) click and can be completely disassembled for cleaning. It also boasts a comfortable handle and a responsive button and pours with a steady, even stream that cuts off without dribbling.
This carafe nearly kept pace with our favorite in both the heat- and cold-retention tests. Its handle is wide and comfortable, so testers felt in control when using it. Minor quibbles: The twist-on lid was a bit tricky to attach, especially when it was wet, and it sometimes took an extra try to close the carafe properly.
After 4 hours, coffee in this affordable carafe was still drinkable at 148 degrees. It also performed well in the cold-retention test; milk was just 40 degrees after 2 hours and 42 degrees after 4 hours. Testers also liked using this sleek, minimalist carafe. The sturdy handle offers good control, and liquids poured from it neatly and at an appropriate speed. Its lid screws on tightly and easily, but some testers noted that the edges of its long rectangular button dug into their thumbs uncomfortably.
Coffee stayed hot and milk stayed cool for acceptable lengths of time in this bargain-priced carafe. Unfortunately, it wasn’t quite as easy or comfortable to use as other models. Even when it’s tightly sealed, there’s a narrow gap between the lid and the pitcher that had us wondering if we’d closed it properly. Smaller testers disliked the wide curve of the handle, which put their hands too far from the button.
Milk stayed at a relatively cool 41 degrees after 2 hours, but the carafe didn’t perform as well with hot coffee. After 4 hours, coffee was drinkable but noticeably cooler at 144 degrees. Although the closure is responsive, the flow of liquid was less predictable. It tended to pour further from the carafe than we expected, so we had to adjust our pour or risk missing our coffee mug.
Although it passed our heat-retention temperature test (coffee was 148 degrees after 4 hours) and did fairly well with cold retention (milk was 41 degrees after 2 hours), testers didn’t like using this carafe. For starters, the button on the lid sat slightly off-kilter instead of lining up neatly with the handle, so we were never sure that it was firmly attached. The edges of the ridged handle dug uncomfortably into our hands, and the carafe poured liquids in a slow, unpredictable trickle.
Although this carafe fared well in cold-retention tests (milk was 41 degrees after 2 hours), coffee sank to a tepid 138 degrees after 4 hours. The body of the carafe is large, but it has a tiny handle that’s much too small to offer good control. Even petite testers bumped their knuckles against the carafe. The built-in thermometer on the carafe’s lid could come in handy, but its sharp probe juts out from the underside of the lid, and we worried about sticking ourselves on it.
After 4 hours, coffee was acceptable at 146 degrees; after 2 hours, milk still held steady at 41 degrees. But it was the ease-of-use evaluations that brought down this pricey carafe. Its narrow 1 1/2-inch opening makes it difficult to fill the carafe and clean its interior. The handle became hot to the touch when the carafe was filled with hot liquid. Worse, its hinged lid was unintuitive and, even when we figured out how to operate it, occasionally swung wide open without warning.