Dan goes inside Consumer Reports, the independent nonprofit that tests and rates everything from toaster ovens to frozen pizzas to luxury cars. CR takes testing very seriously, and Dan gets to see their process in action. It all starts with an undercover shopper who goes by the pseudonym Jim. Then Dan visits the labs at HQ, where he sees how a gas range is poked, prodded, and brought to its limits. This includes testing the oven’s self-cleaning feature against a mixture so foul, it’s legendary.
The Sporkful production team includes Dan Pashman, Emma Morgenstern, Andres O'Hara, Tracey Samuelson, and Jared O'Connell, with editing help this week from Devon DiComo.
Interstitial music in this episode by Black Label Music:
- “One Night Tango” by Steve Pierson
- "Brute Force" by Lance Conrad
- “Lowtown” by Jack Ventimiglia
- "Dilly Dally" by Hayley Briasco
- "Silhouette" by Erick Anderson
- "New Old" by J.T. Bates
Photo courtesy of Dan Pashman.
Jim: Before we get started here, I have to remain completely anonymous.
Dan Pashman: Okay. Should we have a code name for you?
Jim: Uh, call me Jim.
Dan Pashman: Jim. All right. They'll never guess now.
Dan Pashman: All right. So, Jim, what is your job exactly?
Jim: I am known as an acquisition agent.
Dan Pashman: Jim works for a highly specialized and sometimes secretive organization, one that gathers intelligence on a range of pressing subjects. He’s part of an elite task force that consists of only three full-time agents. Right now we’re in his car, in the parking lot of a Bed Bath & Beyond, somewhere in the New York area. I can’t say exactly where, because we’re on a secret mission.
Jim: We're shopping for toaster ovens.
Dan Pashman: Why are we undercover? Well, the more common term for Jim’s job is secret shopper. He works for Consumer Reports, which is known for testing everything from toaster ovens to frozen pizzas to luxury cars, to tell you which ones are best. He doesn’t want people to know he's buying for Consumer Reports, because he doesn’t want manufacturers to have any chance to tamper with a product, so they can score better. Jim needs to be absolutely certain he’s getting the same model that you or I would get.
Dan Pashman: Of course, nowadays a lot of secret shopping is done online. But still, there are times when he needs boots on the ground, acquiring his targets in person so he gets the right ones.
Jim: There are times where we'll have to buy, say nine of an item, all of the same date and the same lot code. So, you'll go into a supermarket and try to secretly remove all the Campbell's chicken noodle soup cans off the shelf, turning them over, looking at the bottoms of the cans to try to find identical date codes.
Dan Pashman: To avoid attracting attention, Jim shops at busy times, and tries not to mess up the store displays. If someone asks what he’s doing, he comes up with a cover story. But still, his shopping habits make him stand out.
Jim: I recall an event where I had to go to Home Depot. We were testing LED light bulbs, and I had to buy, you know, 60-watt, a 100-watt and 40-watt, a dozen each of GE and a dozen each of Phillips and a dozen each of the store brand. And I got up to the register and a lady behind me looks at me and she says, "Afraid of the dark?"
Dan Pashman: So what's on our list here, Jim? What are we buying today?
Jim: We've got four different toaster ovens that I'm looking at.
Dan Pashman: Can I take a quick look at this?
Dan Pashman: So you're getting the [BLEEP].
Dan Pashman: The [BLEEP], the [BLEEP] and the [BLEEP].
Jim: That is correct.
Dan Pashman: So, if someone comes up and asks you why you're buying all these toaster ovens, what's the cover story gonna?
Jim: I am in charge of a raffle for my local church.
Dan Pashman: Did you just come up with that just now?
Jim: Yeah. Yeah. Whatever.
Dan Pashman: You're getting a little too good at making up these stories, Jim.
Jim: Well, you gotta be able to think on the fly and not hesitate when somebody comes up to you and asks you.
Dan Pashman: Right. Okay. A raffle for the local church. That's good. All right. [LAUGHS] And who am I? I'm one of the altar boys?
Jim: There you go.
Dan Pashman: This is The Sporkful, it's not for foodies, it's for eaters. I'm Dan Pashman. Each week on our show we obsess about food to learn more about people. Today, we go behind the scenes at Consumer Reports. It’s a nonprofit that tests and rates products and services. They’ve been around since 1936, first putting out a print magazine, now with a flagship website. In a world where anyone with a smartphone can post a product review, Consumer Reports has remained a trusted source for their 6 million members. They never get paid to test or advertise specific products. From identifying the things they test, to the actual testing, to writing up their evaluations, we’re gonna get an inside look at how they conduct some of the most rigorous reviews around.
Dan Pashman: But first, back to Acquisition Agent Jim in the Bed Bath & Beyond parking lot. I used my phone to record him. I didn't want my regular recording setup to raise any suspicion. I was buzzing with the thrill of my first acquisition.
Dan Pashman: Is there any sort of like special like initiate mission sequence?
Jim: That's it. Just go. Lock and load.
Dan Pashman: [LAUGHS] All right.
Dan Pashman: When you first walk into the store, did your heart start pounding a little bit? Do you get amped up for the mission?
Jim: No, not anymore.
Dan Pashman: Not anymore.
Jim: I do this in — I do this in my sleep.
Dan Pashman: Right. [LAUGHS]
Jim: Here we go.
Dan Pashman: All right, I see [BLEEP] over here. Oh, here's the [BLEEP] 6-slice toaster ovens.
Jim: Okay. So that's — we were looking for the [BLEEP] 4-slice.
Dan Pashman: Oh.
Jim: So this is not the item that we're looking for ...
Dan Pashman: That might be four?
Jim: This could be it.
Dan Pashman: It's labeled in — oh, 4-slice!
Jim: 4-slice. Okay. Now the next thing we're gonna test is since they gave us a model number on this, we're going to try to locate that exact model number on the box. So this is [BLEEP]. That's an item we don't want.
Dan Pashman: Should we check the — I assume the other one will be the same should check. Yeah, same.
Jim: Okay, that's ...
[SAD TROMBONE SOUND EFFECT]
Dan Pashman: After looking around the store for 15 minutes, Jim and I have struck out. None of the toaster ovens are here. But I’m confident he’ll complete his mission eventually. You don’t get into an elite squad of secret shoppers by being a quitter.
Dan Pashman: When there's a specific product with a specific model number and you're looking in the stores and you can't — you're really struggling with this one. And then you get to a store and you finally lay eyes on it and the model number matches, how does that feel?
Jim: It feels great. It feels great, but then you gotta kind of give yourself a dope slap in the back of the head say, you know what, but in the grand scope of things, I just drove 150 miles for a chocolate chip energy bar.
Dan Pashman: [LAUGHS]
Dan Pashman: Even though Jim and I failed to complete our mission, there’s still plenty of testing to do at Consumer Reports, or CR.
Paul Hope: This is our main facility. It's more than 20 acres of space …
Dan Pashman: So I head up to CR headquarters, just north of New York City where I meet Paul Hope.
Paul Hope: my name is Paul Hope and I'm a home and appliances editor here at Consumer Reports.
Dan Pashman: Paul’s main focus is kitchen appliances and cooking gear.
Paul Hope: So I cover the five different kinds of grills that we test here, as well as ranges, cooktops, and wall ovens.
Dan Pashman: Paul went to culinary school and worked in professional kitchens before getting into writing about kitchen gear. The pivot suited him.
Paul Hope: I just loved sort of getting to the bottom of the best stuff and what makes, you know, a great range or a great chef's knife or whatever else.
Dan Pashman: Paul sometimes tries a product he’s writing about, but he doesn't usually do the official testing himself. There are experienced lab techs who do that. Instead ...
Paul Hope: I take all the ratings from the hard work that our testers do. And I turn that into stories about, you know, more or less what you should get for your own home.
Dan Pashman: But a lot has to happen before Paul writes up those recommendations. First, a team of market analysts does a bunch of research to determine which products they should actually test. What are the new models that major players are putting out? What are people buying? The analysts make lists for the secret shoppers, who get the goods and bring them back here to HQ. And this is where almost all of CR’s testing happens. Paul walks me through the building.
Dan Pashman: Where are we?
Paul Hope: So right now we're in what we call the atrium here at Consumer Reports. So it's the main walkway. It connects a lot of our lab space and office space.
Dan Pashman: There's skylights. It's very pretty. There's glass walls.
Paul Hope: And you're seeing one of the telltale signs that we're in the middle of testing ranges, which is, there's just sort of a pile of cake and pre-wrapped cookies on the table here.
Dan Pashman: These sugar cookies ...
Paul Hope: Mm-hmm.
Dan Pashman: That are sitting out here, these are just like out where employees will just like grab cookies.
Paul Hope: Exactly. So we bake hundreds of cakes and thousands of cookies every year.
Dan Pashman: So this is a good a good place to work.
Paul Hope: It is a good …
Dan Pashman: There's a lot of free food here. [LAUGHS]
Paul Hope: There's an enormous amount of free food here. You do get tired of it because it's, it's very standardized. We bake a totally standardized batch of sugar cookies in every single oven that we test. We also do butter cakes on multiple racks at the same time. We're looking for how consistent each cake is from one to the next. So it is a lot of sugar cookie and butter cake. But…
Dan Pashman: [LAUGHS] Right. So like how old is the sugar cookie recipe?
Paul Hope: It's gotta be the same formula that we've been using for decades, and we try to keep things as consistent as possible over time.
Dan Pashman: Makes a more valid test.
Paul Hope: Exactly. And you know, if somebody's going to our ratings and we've tested a brand new model and there's one that's still on the market from 15 years ago, we want those scores to be comparable to one another. So we don't like to rush to change any of our testing.
Dan Pashman: So these — have you ever released the recipe?
Paul Hope: I have not. And I, in fact, I don't know it myself.
Dan Pashman: Is that because you could get kidnapped?
Paul Hope: It's honestly, cause I've never asked.
Dan Pashman: There are differences in these different batches.
Paul Hope: There are for sure. So right now we're looking at a cookie with a pretty dark outer ring, and a pretty pale top. That's not typically an ideal result, you know, you want …
Dan Pashman: It's not an ideal result?
Paul Hope: Well, you typically want — we're looking for uniformity. That's reflective, not only of how well it's gonna bake, you know, sugar cookies, but how well it's gonna do every task that you could imagine. So if you’re baking chicken thighs, you know ...
Dan Pashman: Right. You don’t want them burned on the edges and raw in the center.
Paul Hope: Exactly.
Dan Pashman: Right. I get that for chicken thighs, so I guess for your purposes, for testing, maybe this is valid. But I gotta say, Paul, the cookies I would gravitate towards from these different piles would be the ones with the crispy edges and the raw center.
Paul Hope: Yeah, that’s totally fair.
Dan Pashman: I stuff a few of the cookies that I think look best in my bag and we move on. As Paul said, these cookies are sitting out because they’re testing ranges today in the lab, so they’re looking at both the stoves on top of the ranges and the ovens below. It can take three technicians a week to do the full battery of tests on each model. Those tests include …
Paul Hope: How fast range can heat water, how steadily it can simmer, things like melting chocolate, even baking, even and high temperature broiling, and a particular favorite is the self clean test, which, as you'll see, is a just disgusting mixture of stuff that we bake onto the walls of every oven cavity.
Dan Pashman: Is there a standard mixture?
Paul Hope: Oh yeah.
Dan Pashman: [LAUGHS]
Paul Hope: And it's — it is the most disgusting stuff on earth.
Dan Pashman: All right, I wanna see that.
Paul Hope: Yeah. I won't spoil all the fun.
Dan Pashman: Every detail of every test is standardized, in ways I never would have thought of.
Paul Hope: We're starting with water that is the same temperature at the beginning of every test, poured into the same pot, assigned to the highest output burner on whatever range is being assessed. And then hooked up to thermometers that really can't be cheated or manipulated in any way.
Dan Pashman: Paul promises that we'll go see all of this testing in action. But first: I have to get some things off my chest.
Dan Pashman: So, here's an issue that I have with my range.
Paul Hope: Mm-hmm?
Dan Pashman: It's one of these 5-burner ranges where the center range is kind of like an oval.
Paul Hope: Yes.
Dan Pashman: That could fit like a large Dutch oven.
Paul Hope: Mm-hmm.
Dan Pashman: But it also came with this flat top griddle thing that you can put on top of the big oval burner.
Paul Hope: mm-hmm
Dan Pashman: And the problem is that I think ...
Dan Pashman: I explain to Paul that even though this middle oval burner is about twice as big as a regular burner, it’s still operating with the same amount of gas as the regular burners. So the griddle doesn’t actually get that hot.
Dan Pashman: Even when you put it on high, it's really only like medium-low.
Paul Hope: Yeah.
Dan Pashman: First, I gotta let it heat for 10 minutes before it's hot. And then if even then, it's still not hot enough to do anything you need real heat for.
Paul Hope: For sure. I mean, those griddle burners are really best for things like grilled cheese or sort of like low temperature deglazing of a roasting pan. It's definitely not like a high heat flat top, like you would find in a professional kitchen.
Dan Pashman: What's your range pet peeve?
Paul Hope: I would say, uh — oof. That's a tough one. I have a lot. I think …
Dan Pashman: [LAUGHS] Let me hear 'em all.
Paul Hope: Yeah.
Dan Pashman: Let it all out.
Paul Hope: I mean, yeah. I've been waiting years to unload this.
Paul Hope: So I would say my number one pet peeve is a range with an uneven oven because there really isn't a great fix for that. And I don't just mean for baking, but I mean, if you're roasting a chicken, or cooking, you know, a strip loin or something, I mean, an uneven oven, there's not a ton you can do. On top of the stove, if it takes a long time to boil water, you know, you get over it. So, you know to preheat your water five minutes earlier than you think you need to for dinner. Or even with a simmer, you know, if a range can't hold a steady simmer, you can stir it more frequently. You can turn the heat down a little bit. With an oven, I mean, you can try to rotate the food in an uneven oven, but you're gonna let the heat out every time you do that. And it's really a big pet peeve when a range, you know, doesn't heat evenly.
Dan Pashman: What else? Hit me with one more big pet peeve. Let it all out, Paul.
Paul Hope: Sure. So, the last one is the pro style ranges.
Dan Pashman: Pro-style ranges are the ones designed to look like restaurant ranges. They're stainless steel, with hefty knobs, and heavy burner grates made of cast iron. Viking and Wolf are the big pro-style brands, and now Thermador and GE’s Monogram line are coming onto the scene. And of course, with that upgraded look and feel, pro-style ranges are pricey. A basic range can go for as little as $500, but most pro-style ranges are upwards of $4,000.
Paul Hope: But our testing really finds time and time again, they are hands down the worst performers, as a group, of any of the range types that we test.
Dan Pashman: Worst when you take into account their cost or just flat out period worst?
Paul Hope: We're talking they'll often come up short of a range that costs a thousand dollars or less, you know, and we're working at models that cost anywhere from $5,000 to $8,000 in the pro-style world. And they're getting whooped by, you know, entry level, $600 or $700 electric or gas ranges.
Dan Pashman: Wow. Why?
Paul Hope: When they first came on the market, they did have a few advantages. One of which was obviously they had these really high BTU burners. And at that time you couldn't really get a regular gas range with a high BTU burner. Now, a Samsung or an LG or GE range, they're all coming with at least one high output gas burner like that. And they've got, you know, tens of millions of dollars for R & D that frankly, a lot of these smaller pro-style range brands don't. So they can really put a lot of money into developing a super high output burner that is gonna boil water, you know, in some cases, twice as fast as the burner on a Viking.
Dan Pashman: So how fast the water boils is not just about BTUs.
Paul Hope: It's not a raw BTU count. BTU really only measures how much gas it's using at its highest output setting. But the actual design of a burner plays a big part of that.
Dan Pashman: So empirically, the pro-style ranges aren’t any better than cheaper models, and a lot of times they’re worse. But Paul does say, these high end ranges are beautiful. And their thick knobs and hefty construction make using them feel awesome. Paul experienced that himself when he tried cooking on CR’s top-rated pro-style range.
Paul Hope: So I came in, I sauteed some peppers, I fried some eggs, I broiled some lamb kebabs just to sort of get a feel for some of the different things. And I have to say, experientially, it's really fun to cook on. I mean, just the first thing you notice is just the sort of sheer heft of the product. You know, a typical range might weigh anywhere from 60 to 85 pounds, but a pro-style range of the same size might weigh 200 pounds or more, just from the vast quantity of stainless steel. That's not gonna obviously translate into water boiling any faster, but when you're home cooking and you know, feeling good about yourself and listening to music and prepping dinner for your family, it is a sort of nice thing to have experientially. And it does sort of make you feel like a pro chef. That doesn't necessarily get captured numerically in our testing.
Dan Pashman: How many people are buying them because they're serious home cooks who use their range all the time and who really think that they just need this to be able to cook well? And how many — for how people is it just sort of like a show piece and a status symbol?
Paul Hope: I think a lot of it tends to be status. I think a lot of it is sort of aspirational for people who want to become great home cooks and feel like this may something that helps embolden them or makes them feel like a pro.
Dan Pashman: Right. It’s like buying pants that are a little too small.
Paul Hope: Yeah!
Dan Pashman: You're like, I'll lose the weight. [LAUGHS]
Paul Hope: Exactly. Exactly.
Dan Pashman: Right.
Paul Hope: And you're just, you know, where ...
Dan Pashman: And then like a year later you donate the pants. [LAUGHS]
Paul Hope: Yeah, exactly. Exactly. Yeah, totally. Totally. Yeah, so it’s a very similar phenomenon to that, I think.
Dan Pashman: Have you ever been in a position where you get invited to someone else's house and they know what you do living ...
Paul Hope: Oh, yeah.
Dan Pashman: Okay. [LAUGHS]
Paul Hope: Yeah. I, I, I have — yeah, I'm picturing it already.
Dan Pashman: And they just bought a new range.
Paul Hope: Mm-hmm.
Dan Pashman: And they're like, Hey Paul, look what I got. I got this new fancy, super amazing one. They didn't read the Consumer Reports rating. So they didn't know in advance what you think.
Paul Hope: Uh-huh.
Dan Pashman: And now they're like, well, check it out!
Paul Hope: Yeah. It's um ... It like when your friend has an ugly baby. You know?
Paul Hope: It's like, you have that initial moment of panic, and then you sort of do something to buy yourself time and regroup and you find something very specific to compliment. Like, look at that — oh wow, they went — you know, they built in an analog clock. That's really, you know, nice.
Dan Pashman: [LAUGHING]
Dan Pashman: Coming up, Paul takes me inside the Consumer Reports testing lab. And remember that gross mixture that they use to stress-test the ovens’ self-clean function? I ask to taste it. Stick around.
Dan Pashman: Welcome back to The Sporkful, I'm Dan Pashman. In last week’s show I talk with best selling author and podcast host Malcolm Gladwell. I gotta say, I did not have him pegged for someone prone to ranting about food and drink, but he got wound up and just kept going. He called flavored seltzer an abomination, Earl Grey tea a bridge too far, and McDonald’s fries “sodden also-rans.” He’s also got a lot to say about people who can’t figure out what they want for dinner.
CLIP (MALCOM GLADWELL): So you go out to dinner. Maybe you're one of these people to do this? I don't know. You go out to some restaurant. The waiter comes around and someone at the table is agonizing about what to order. And I — if you can't decode a menu in an acceptable period of time, how do you fare with life?
CLIP (DAN PASHMAN): [LAUGHING]
CLIP (MALCOM GLADWELL): Where the choices are infinite. So years and years and years of observing this just left me really filled with a kind of quiet rage.
CLIP (DAN PASHMAN): [LAUGHING]
CLIP (MALCOM GLADWELL): Why can't you make up your mind?
Dan Pashman: So Malcolm and I don’t agree on that, but that aside, his way of thinking has led him to create a framework for drinking: he will only ever consume liquids. We analyze his list and much more, and discuss the difference between cultural appropriation and evolution in food. That one's up now, check it out.
Dan Pashman: Back to Consumer Reports Headquarters.
Paul Hope: We've got 63 labs here now …
Dan Pashman: Paul and I leave the conference room where we were chatting, head through the atrium and down a hallway to those 63 labs. After the market analysts decide which products should be tested, and the shoppers acquire those items, the products arrive here in the testing facility.
Paul Hope: I'm gonna peek in here and see if we can just sneak in for a second. So this is our refrigeration lab. And ironically, we test refrigerators inside of refrigerators here, because you have to be able to perfectly account for the outside temperatures to make sure that ...
Dan Pashman: Oh, so like, if one fridge is in a room that's 80 degrees and another fridge is in a room that's 50 degrees, then one's gonna have to work harder than the other to get the same results.
Paul Hope: Exactly. Exactly. So we wanna make sure ...
Dan Pashman: Gosh, you've thought of everything.
Paul Hope: We have. I mean, it's — I realize it's a little bit ridiculous to put a fridge in a fridge, but I — you know, we don't know a better way yet.
Dan Pashman: So there's like this gigantic steel door and there's a little window. This looks like a — honestly, this looks like a maximum security prison for refrigerators.
Paul Hope: [LAUGHS] It does.
Dan Pashman: But is there a windshield wiper on the window into room? What is ...
Paul Hope: That? There is. That is so that people can see into the room just to check on the testing without having to break the seal of this chamber door. And then you can see on the other side of things here, on the other side of the chamber, you see this enormous cluster of blue wires running into the chamber ...
Dan Pashman: Yep.
Paul Hope: And then hooked up to a computer here.
Dan Pashman: Oh, I see. So — and also all those wires are connected to the refrigerators inside there and they're sending out data and this computer is gathering the data.
Paul Hope: Exactly. So these wires are called thermocouples, and they're very precise thermometers that we use. And we use them in a lot of our testing, actually. We use them to test, you know, how evenly a grill heats across the surface, but we also use them to check the uniformity of temperatures within a fridge. And many of them are actually buried in boxes of frozen spinach inside the freezer compartments. We drill into packages of frozen spinach to set the thermocouple at the exact same depth in each box.
Dan Pashman: Cooking appliance lab. Please knock before entering. [KNOCKING] Okay, good. We knocked. After you.
Paul Hope: Sure. Hi guys.
Dan Pashman: Hey.
Dan Pashman: So we’ve left the place where the frozen spinach was getting its temperature taken and moved on to the cooking appliance lab, where all the ranges and other appliances get tested.
Dan Pashman: This room feels like a hybrid between like a school cafeteria and a high school chemistry lab. It's big and open and there's ovens, big ovens and stoves and ranges everywhere. But then there's also sort of an area that looks like metal cabinets and I could very easily picture like bunsen burners.
Dan Pashman: As I said Paul doesn’t do the testing himself, but he’s still my tour guide. So he shows me the GE Cafe range they’re testing today.
Dan Pashman: So what's going on here, Paul?
Paul Hope: Sure. So right now, we are assessing a GE cafe double oven range and it's got two ovens here, a smaller one up top, a larger one on the bottom. Looks like some brushed brass or bronze finishes and six burners, which is pretty impressive on a standard 30-inch wide range like that. This GE Cafe brand is sort of a sweet spot between mass market and pro-looking. So it's got some of these nicer pro style finishes, like these sort of chunky knobs here, continuous cast iron cooking grates. This is what allows you to, you know, start a pot of water …
Dan Pashman: Though, if you have a big pot of water, you have to pick it up ...
Paul Hope: Yes.
Dan Pashman: And move it to a separate burner. You have to go get pot holders. You have to ...
Paul Hope: Exactly.
Dan Pashman: If it’s more of a production, you might spill some of the water.
Paul Hope: Exactly. And that was one of those features that originated on pro-style ranges.
Dan Pashman: How much does this Cafe range cost?
Paul Hope: This guy's the pricey one. Looks like about $3,100 all the way up to $3,600, depending upon where you buy it. It’s got every feature you could imagine. It has wifi. It has two ovens. It's a slide in with no back panel. So it has front mounted controls. So it really does have pretty much every bell and whistle.
Dan Pashman: This Cafe range has nice finishes and a double oven, which could explain why it’s so pricey, even though it’s not technically pro-style. Now, for the testing. The first person I meet is the test project leader, Tara Casaregola.
Tara Casaregola: Well, I work in the ranges lab. I mostly handle the data analysis part of things.
Dan Pashman: Okay.
Tara Casaregola: So we collect a lot of information on these ranges, a lot of test information, temperature information.
Dan Pashman: What's this thing here? Digitizer calibration chart.
Tara Casaregola: Oh, that's for our color measuring ...
Dan Pashman: Color measuring?
Tara Casaregola: Yes.
Dan Pashman: You measure colors?
Tara Casaregola: Yes. Yes. It's a instrument that captures the color of something and then takes the color and it gives it a coordinate and 3D space, so a value basically.
Dan Pashman: You’re looking at the color of what?
Tara Casaregola: Oh well, this instrument could do anything, but for our purposes, we're just using it to look at cakes and cookies.
Dan Pashman: You see, they don’t want to leave it up to the human eye to determine how evenly browned the cakes from different ovens are. So instead the technicians put the cakes into a machine called a Digieye. It essentially takes a photo and assigns a numerical value to the brownness of each cake. This thing is practically the size of an MRI machine, it looks like you could use it to launch satellites, and they’re using it to see if the cakes are baked evenly. But I can kinda understand why …
Tara Casaregola: It could be exhausting trying to look at these things and, oh, is this brown or is this browner? Was this browner than yesterday's cake?
Dan Pashman: Right, right.
Tara Casaregola: Or you know? So ...
Dan Pashman: After you look at a hundred of 'em, you can't tell the difference.
Tara:. We really can't. You just become — everything's a blur. Everything's a blur.
Dan Pashman: So this machine helps to quantify.
Tara Casaregola: Yeah.
Dan Pashman: But they don’t just check the color of the cakes. Two other technicians, Sue Collomb and Li Wang are taking the cakes’ temperatures.
Sue Collomb: All our cakes get the temperatures taken on here.
Dan Pashman: Oh my gosh.
Sue Collomb: And then once it's cooled a little after the pictures, we're also gonna cut them and measure the heights.
Li Wang: 189.9.
Sue Collomb: 199.9?
Li Wang: 189.9.
Sue Collomb: I was gonna say, that was high. [LAUGHS]
Dan Pashman: I know, that could have totally swayed the ranking. It's good thing we clarified that.
Dan Pashman: I know it’s my first day in the lab, and just an hour ago I was extolling the virtues of unevenly browned cookies. But I’m feeling bold, so I offer Paul my take on how the Cafe double oven is performing.
Dan Pashman: I mean, there were some inconsistencies.
Paul Hope: Uh-huh.
Dan Pashman: The ones from the bottom rack had a nice golden brown. The ones from the top rack looked kind of pale.
Paul Hope: Yeah. Yeah. Our tests are fairly torturous in some cases. I mean, these are oftentimes sort of the hardest scenario. We're not deliberately misusing anything obviously, but we are doing sort of the most that you should ask any given range to do. So we're baking the maximum number of cakes or cookies at once, and we're also doing it in this case, in both ovens. Because, you know, ideally you obviously want to be able to use them interchangeably.
Dan Pashman: Next Li, one of the technicians, moves on to the stovetop performance tests. There’s a pot with a jerry-rigged lid on it. The underside has thermometers sticking out of it, so they go into whatever liquid is in the pot. Wires come from the thermometers through the top of the lid and connect to a computer, just like the thermocouples I saw in the fridge prison.
Li Wang: This one is we do speed of heat. So this is all the thermocouple. We have five different thermocouple in all different spots.
Dan Pashman: Okay.
Li Wang: So we put four liters of water in the highest burner and put this lid on top of it. And then we start the test and see how fast the water will go up to like 195 degrees on average, for five points.
Dan Pashman: And so when those five spots average to 195 degrees, then you say it's done?
Li Wang: Yes.
Dan Pashman: Now, I know what you're thinking. Why do they heat it to 195? Why not 212, boiling? Well, CR really just wants to know how well the burner works, how fast it can heat the pot. But when water approaches boiling, the burner is also expending energy to turn some of that water into steam, so the relationship between burner output and temp increase is less clear. They’ve thought of everything! Next, we move onto the final test I'm going to see today.
Dan Pashman: Can you show me the, the self cleaning testing section?
Paul Hope: Sure. So we're — we can't look too much because we're actually in the middle of a self clean cycle as we speak.
Dan Pashman: Okay. So there there's a range sitting here with sort of like a very makeshift looking hood above it.
Paul Hope: It is. It's sort of sequestered over here quite deliberately on the side of the range lab, because usually this test really stinks.
Dan Pashman: It stinks because what the self clean does is heat your oven to 850 or 900 degrees, in the hopes of burning off whatever junk has built up inside. So it can get smoky and smelly.
Paul Hope: This one looks to be mid-cycle. This is an induction range from Ikea, and we'll know soon enough, how effective the self clean cycle is. You can see a little note here that says for self bake mash at 425 for one hour, but I won't spoil what mash is.
Dan Pashman: Mash. I gotta find out. Should I ask them what the mash is?
Paul Hope: I think so.
Dan Pashman: Okay. So I understand that the stuff that you put inside the oven for when you test the self clean is called the mash.
Sue Collomb: [LAUGHS] It's the monster mash.
Dan Pashman: What is inside that mixture?
Sue Collomb: Oh my gosh. I'll show you. It's over here. How our recipe ... I just wanna tell you, this does not smell good. So mash consists of cherry pie filling, tomato puree, egg yolks, mozzarella cheese, Velveeta cheese, tapioca, and lard.
Dan Pashman: [LAUGHS]
Sue Collomb: And it all goes into the food processor. And it comes out, kind of like, um, like soft — it reminds me of soft sand. Remember when you’re a kid and you could pick it up in a drop it and it makes little castles?
Dan Pashman: Right. Or it looks — or, I don't know, my first thought was, it looks like a child's vomit.
Sue Collomb: [LAUGHS] Well, it is orange. And we paint this with a paint brush inside the ovens. But we weigh it out as a certain amount. You have to weigh out for each oven. We have a regular paint brush.
Dan Pashman: You have the ... [LAUGHS]
Sue Collomb: It gets painted on. Then we bake it on for an hour. Once it's cooled, then we can self clean it. So now the self clean will be done in an hour, and we're hoping it'll all turn to ash and then it wipes out nice and clean. That is the goal.
Dan Pashman: Has anyone ever tasted it?
Sue Collomb: Oh God. No.
Dan Pashman: In all these years, you've never been tempted? Come on?
Sue Collomb: Would you like to smell it?
Dan Pashman: I'll smell it. Let me smell it.
Li Wang: Do you want to be the first one?
Sue Collomb: Doesn’t smell good.
Dan Pashman: It doesn't smell great.
Sue Collomb: Do you want to taste it?
Dan Pashman: Not as bad as I thought.
Sue Collomb: You heard what was in it. Right?
Dan Pashman: I mean, I ... I'm ... yes. I wanna taste it.
Sue Collomb: Okay, sure.
Dan Pashman: I'm curious. I'm legitimately —
Li Wang: No!
Sue Collomb: no? Don't let him taste it?
Dan Pashman: No?
Li Wang: No. You know why? You know why? The only thing is because they may not be …
Sue Collomb: Fresh?
Li Wang: Fresh. Yeah.
Dan Pashman: It’s gonna give me food poisoning?
Li Wang: Yes.
Dan Pashman: All right. Fine, Li, I won't eat the mash. I was ready. I mean like in decades, how many decades of Consumer Reports have been — people have been baking that same mixture on to ovens and no one — you never at the holiday party, someone had a few too many drinks and chased you with the mash. Come on. It must have happened. No?
Sue Collomb: Well, you've been here 30 years. Has it happened?
Dan Pashman: Li?
Li Wang: No, I never .. I never taste it.
Dan Pashman: [LAUGHS]
Li Wang: And I don't ... I don't remember I heard somebody taste it.
Dan Pashman: [LAUGHING]
Dan Pashman: I leave the lab so that Li, Sue, and Tara can finish their work. The Cafe range has to go through a total of 10-15 tests which, as I said, take about a week total. Then we get to the final step of the Consumer Reports process: writing up the results. That's Paul's job.
Dan Pashman: A few weeks after my visit, Paul has finished his report on the GE Cafe range that I saw them testing, so we connect on Zoom.
Dan Pashman: All right, the results are in.
Paul Hope: The results are in.
Dan Pashman: Why don't you tell us, Paul, how did the cafe range do?
Paul Hope: So the Cafe range is now our number three rated range of double oven gas ranges. And it earned an overall score of 78, which may not sound, you know, totally stellar to everybody. But as you saw, we're pretty exacting in how we test. And just for some reference, the very best overall score of any range of that type is an 86.
Dan Pashman: In the few weeks since I spoke to Paul, the overall score for this range actually dropped from 78 to 76. That's cause CR doesn't only look at their own testing, they also check survey data that helps them predict the reliability of each product. That reliability score went down, so the overall score did too. But this range still tied for third place for double oven gas ranges.
Dan Pashman: Now, double oven gas ranges tend to be more expensive, but they offer convenience for people who are making two dishes at once at different temperatures. Right? Still, that convenience comes with a price tag. The lowest price for this model right now is $3,600.
Dan Pashman: I remember on the day that I saw you testing the Cafe, one or two of the cakes that came out of the oven looked a little uneven. The browning ...
Paul Hope: Mm-hmm.
Dan Pashman: Looked a little uneven. How did the range do on that test?
Paul Hope: So of all of the performance tests we did on this Cafe range, baking was definitely the lowest. It earned a rating of three out of five, which we call a good. You know, not as strong as some of the competition and also not as well as it did on some of the other performance tests. It was really good at maintaining a simmer, it heated water very quickly, it broiled well. And the oven capacity was really stellar in both cavities. So it was really sort of the baking test that held this oven back. So it's totally possible that if you're the type of person who bakes, you know, one cake at a time or one cake a year, you're gonna get great results. We're not going in and rotating them, but that's certainly something people can do, if they have an oven that doesn't heat evenly at home.
Dan Pashman: Right. But if you're paying 3,500 bucks for your oven, you shouldn't have to rotate a cake.
Paul Hope: I would agree. And so, you know, if you are a serious baker, this is not the range that I would steer you towards.
Dan Pashman: Bottom line: If your top priorities are aesthetics and convenience, and you can afford it, this double oven range is a good option for you. But if you’re on a budget, or if your top priority is baking precision, this isn’t the one you want.
Paul Hope: It's not uncommon in the course of our testing for us to find a five or $600 range that outperforms a five or $6,000 range. And in this case with the Cafe, you know, you are paying a little bit of a premium for some of the features, double ovens, for sure. The slide in design, but yeah, you could absolutely spend thousands less and get a range that cooks every bit as well.
Dan Pashman: That's Paul Hope, home and appliances editor at Consumer Reports, along with test project leader Tara Casaregola, and lab techs Li Wang, and Sue Collomb. You can see some of Consumer Reports' advice for free on their website. Or become a paying member to access all of their detailed reviews and ratings, including the ones for toaster ovens and ranges, at ConsumerReports.org.
Dan Pashman: Next week on the show we’ll hear the incredible story of Mokhtar Alkhanshali, who was determined to show the world how special Yemeni coffee is. All he had to do was get farmers, specialty coffee buyers, and investors to believe in him, and then to get tons of coffee out of the country during the middle of a civil war. That’s next week.
Dan Pashman: While you're waiting for that one, don't forget to listen to my chat with Malcolm Gladwell, author of books like The Tipping Point and host of the Revisionist History podcast. Which five liquids does he drink? And does he ever make an exception? Tune in to find out. That one's up now.
Dan Pashman: Special thanks to Lisa Chow and Doug Love for their help with this episode.