Make it easier (and more delicious) this season with these countertop workhorses.

By Stacey Ballis
Updated October 26, 2020
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Winter is coming. And it will be like none before. With the pandemic surging in more than half the states, most kids doing at least part of their schooling at home and many folks doing part or all of their work at home, we are looking ahead to a winter that will be one for the ages. So, now is the time to think about how to effectively make some lemonade (or limoncello) out of the season’s lemons.

Whether you are looking for something to make your endless cooking responsibilities easier, or a gift (holiday or otherwise) for the person who has taken on the bulk of their kitchen responsibilities, we have the perfect shopping list.

Here are the 5 top small appliances you should have at home to make your pandemic winter cozy and delicious, and most of all, easy.

Vacuum sealer

Supply chains are always less secure in winter because, weather. When big storms or plummeting temps affect the ability to move product around, you can find the shelves getting a bit bare at your local grocers. So, preventing food waste and being able to stock up a bit while supplies are available is a great thing. A good vacuum sealer can pay for itself in less than six months of use just on reduction of discarding spoiled food. Invest in a good one and use it to freeze meats and meals, reseal pantry goods to prevent both staling and vermin, or to keep fresh things like cheeses and deli meats fresher longer in your fridge. And if you sous vide, it is a gamechanger.

Credit: Courtesy Amazon

Courtesy Amazon

What to buy: NESCO VS-12 Deluxe Vacuum Sealer

My favorite all-around sealer from NESCO does a great job with both delicate items like crackers and hardy stuff like meats. It’s great for families that want to do bulk shopping or anyone who likes sous vide cooking. The bag rolls store in the unit for custom sizes, but it can use any pre-made bag or roll on the market.

Buy it here: NESCO VS-12 Deluxe Vacuum Sealer ($99.99, list price $134.99), amazon.com

Credit: Courtesy Amazon

Courtesy Amazon

What to buy: Anova Precision Vacuum Sealer

If you are a smaller household, the Anova Precision Vacuum sealer takes up very little space. This makes it perfect for smaller kitchens with limited storage; it also uses pre-cut bags that require no extra prep steps.

Buy it here: Anova Precision Vacuum Sealer ($79), amazon.com

Slow cooker

If you haven’t yet embraced the hands-off, don’t-have-to-worry-about-it, endlessly useful slow cooker, now is the time. This appliance is super versatile for at-home cooking, especially with so many of us still working and schooling at home. Stir up overnight oats for hot breakfast, toss in soup or chili after breakfast for an easy hot lunch, or do a cook-all-day stew, braise, or hearty pasta sauce to have dinner covered. Plus, the intersection of COVID-19 and cold and flu season means we should have plenty of homemade stock and bone broth on hand for soups and other elixirs. Nothing makes those easier than a slow cooker!

Credit: Courtesy Amazon

Courtesy Amazon

What to buy: Instant Pot Aura Pro Multi-Use Programmable Slow Cooker with Sous Vide

This is my new favorite slow cooker. Because while I love my slow-cooker-only units, this one has more than 11 functions that include sous vide, rice cooker, and yogurt maker. The sear/sauté function makes your life so much easier, since you can brown right in the cooker and save yourself a pot to wash. Plus, it is programmable, so if you should start that stew at three, but are going to be mid-Zoom, the machine can get dinner going without you. The larger 8-quart capacity means that you can make plenty to feed your whole family, or to have leftovers to freeze for future meals.

Buy it here: Instant Pot Aura Pro Multi-Use Programmable Slow Cooker with Sous Vide ($149.95), amazon.com

Credit: Courtesy Amazon

Courtesy Amazon

What to buy: Crock Pot 8-Quart Programmable Slow Cooker with Digital Countdown Timer

The OG slow cooker, Crock Pot is still around for a reason: The products do exactly what they are supposed to do. This version is the same generous 8-quart size as the Instant Pot along with programmable capability. It also has a countdown timer and is about half the price.

Buy it here: Crock Pot 8-Quart Programmable Slow Cooker with Digital Countdown Timer ($69.99, list price $79.99), amazon.com

Toaster Oven

Pandemic cooking has become as much about convenience and ease as it has joy. Yes, your toaster oven will make toast. But today’s toaster ovens are really just small OVENS, and you can do anything you do in a larger oven in them faster and using less energy. From baking frozen pizzas to roasting a chicken, the right toaster oven heats in minutes, saving between 30-40 minutes on any roasting/baking recipe. And for me, having balls of raw cookie dough in the freezer means I am never more than 15 minutes from a hot, freshly baked cookie or two, which makes indulgences manageable since I should not be alone with two dozen baked cookies.

Credit: Courtesy Amazon

Courtesy Amazon

What to buy: Breville Compact Smart Oven, Countertop Electric Toaster Oven

I own this toaster oven and I love it. It makes great toast, first and foremost, but I have done everything from heating frozen meals to roasting a chicken in it, and it is a terrific piece of equipment.

Buy it here: Breville The Compact Smart Oven, Countertop Electric Toaster Oven ($189.95, list price $229.95), amazon.com

Credit: Courtesy Amazon

Courtesy Amazon

What to buy: Oster Extra Large Digital Countertop Convection Oven

Oster also makes a great version that is larger for big families. It can hold up to six slices of bread or a whole frozen pizza! And it’s a great price, to boot.

Buy it here: Oster Extra Large Digital Countertop Convection Oven ($119.99, list price $129.99), amazon.com

Electric Kettle

The electric kettle is amazing for tea and pour-over or French press coffee but is also a powerhouse tool in my kitchen. You can make instant stock from concentrates for use in recipes, help blanch vegetables without getting out the pots and pans (just slowly pour the boiling water over the vegetables in a colander), pop up the fastest couscous on the planet as the base for any meal (just cover the couscous by an inch with boiling water in a bowl and cover and let sit for 5 minutes and DONE).

And don't forget: Electric kettles are often faster and more energy efficient than boiling water in a teakettle on the stovetop. Further, they have auto shut-off valves, which is a boon when we all have pandemic brain fog and can forget we put the kettle on.

Credit: Courtesy Amazon

Courtesy Amazon

What to buy: Queen Sense Electric Kettle

I am madly in love with my Queen Sense electric kettle. It is faster than any kettle I have ever had by over a minute and half, and its keep-warm feature has been a gamechanger at my house. You can set the kettle to maintain one of five temp settings between 104 (ideal for things like proofing your yeast for breadmaking) to 176 (the preferred temp for green tea steeping) to 195, which will keep your kettle hot enough to come to a boil in about 20 seconds. It will maintain your set temp for up to 12 hours before auto-shutoff. This means my husband, who rises a bit earlier, can leave me a hot kettle ready for my morning tea, and I have hot water at the ready all day long for refills, or for an afternoon hot cocoa indulgence.

Buy it here: Queen Sense Electric Kettle ($49.99), amazon.com

Credit: Courtesy Amazon

Courtesy Amazon

What to buy: Remington Russell Hobbs Retro Style Electric Kettle

I also have this Russell Hobbs kettle, which is charmingly adorable and a fast boiler (the fastest of all my previous kettles). It doesn’t have the keep-warm feature, so it isn’t my top preferred winter kettle, but it does have a handy thermometer on the outside so that you can stop it when it gets to the temp you want. If you don’t need the keep-warm feature, this is the kettle to buy.

Buy it here: Remington Russell Hobbs Retro Style 1.7 L Electric Kettle ($79.99), amazon.com

Ice Cream Maker

Okay, I know this seems like an outlier, BUT. Homemade treats are never more important than when we want and need comforting, and we do not always have the bandwidth or time to be baking. You can keep the insert in the freezer and find a no-cook ice cream base you like (mine comes together in 5 minutes with mostly stuff I usually have in the house) meaning you can always have delicious homemade ice cream or sorbet at your fingertips (plus slushy frozen drinks of either the leaded or virgin variety).

Credit: Courtesy Amazon

Courtesy Amazon

What to buy: Cuisinart Pure Indulgence Ice Cream Maker

I have had this Cuisinart ice cream maker for more than a decade and it is still going strong. This is the perfect first ice cream maker to get you started.

Buy it here: Cuisinart Pure Indulgence 2 Qt Ice Cream Maker ($99.99, list price $165), amazon.com

Credit: Courtesy Amazon

Courtesy Amazon

What to buy: Whynter Automatic Ice Cream Maker

Feeling super into your ice cream? I’ve been coveting this Whynter machine for ages. It is both a churner and has a compressor, so no need to pre-chill your insert, which makes homemade ice cream the work of a whim and ready in minutes instead of hours. It is an indulgence, and pricy, so I have not yet convinced myself to invest, but if we get through the next few months and I’m still making this much ice cream, I am putting it on my birthday list for next year!

Buy it here: Whynter Automatic Ice Cream Maker 2 Quart Capacity ($291.99, list price $335), amazon.com