Aside from cooking lessons and lots of practice, there's little out there that can turn you into a gourmet chef overnight. There are some tools and gadgets that can make cooking and preparation quicker, easier and, in some cases, more fun.
But before you plunk down a hard-earned $19.99 on the latest gadget you've seen on TV, read on.
See what we discovered when the Akron Beacon Journal's consumer columnist Betty Lin-Fisher, home writer Mary Beth Breckenridge and I tested a group of kitchen products to find out, ''Does it work?''
Pasta n' More
This bright, blue plastic oval with snappy yellow handles promises to be ''the most exciting cooking pot to come along in years,'' that will ''cook perfect al dente pasta in your microwave, every time.''
Since not many of us normally think of cooking pots as exciting, this micro-cooker sets pretty high standards for itself.
For $19.99, the pot comes with an extending ring, steam rack, straining lid, storage lid, instruction sheet and recipe book. Just coming out of the box, the five pieces were a concern to Mary Beth. ''I don't like it already; there's too many pieces to store,'' she said.
We tested it using a bag of rigatoni. Following the instructions, we placed two cups of the dry pasta (half a one-pound bag) into the cooker and filled it with water to the appropriate line.
Then we followed the instructions and placed it in the microwave to cook for 23 minutes, a length of time that sur
prised us all. We assumed that as a microwave cooker, the time would be shorter than the traditional method of boiling water on the stovetop. It actually turned out to be longer.
With 23 minutes as our guide, we put a pot of water on to boil. It boiled after 9 minutes and the pasta, cooked according to its package instructions, was done after another 9 minutes. We still had 5 minutes to go with the Pasta n' More.
For those of us who liked our pasta on the softer side, we let the stovetop pasta continue to boil the extra five minutes.
Once the 23 minutes were up, we compared the two pastas and found the one cooked in the Pasta n' More was mushy and starchy, while the batch cooked stovetop was soft, but firm.
The instructions do caution that cooking times will vary depending on the microwave, but even assuming we could have microwaved the pasta for less time, none of us could see any real time savings in using the Pasta n' More.
We also couldn't see that it worked any better than any other microwaveable bowl or container, which most of us already have in our cupboards.
As for cleaning, we had to wash the pot and its straining lid, two pieces, versus a traditional saucepan and strainer, also two pieces.
Bottom line, save your money and time by cooking pasta the old-fashioned way in a pot of boiling water.
Betty: Skip it.
Lisa: Skip it.
Mary Beth: Skip it.
This hand-held slicer promises ''perfect slices every time'' and it delivers.
We tried it out on mushrooms, hard-cooked eggs and strawberries and found that it worked equally well on all three.
It's essentially an egg slicer with a handle. Mary Beth and Betty, who don't own egg slicers, marveled at how well it turned out perfect circles.
''I just thought it was neat and and it was pretty cheap,'' Betty said.
I was less impressed because I own an egg slicer, but I still liked the way it operated. The handle has a spring hinge like a pair of tongs, which made for easy one-handed slicing. The hinge also locks to keep it flat for storing in a drawer.
Unlike many egg slicers, it has nine metal slicing blades, not wires, that do the cutting.
The only time we needed both hands was when slicing an especially large mushroom; it required a two-handed squeeze to pop the slices out.
It's dishwasher safe, and at $7.99, it's not a big investment. We all agreed it was a gadget we'd like to have in our kitchens.
Betty: Snap it up.
Lisa: Snap it up.
Mary Beth: Snap it up.
Chef Tony's Smart Lidz
An instant vacuum seal is the promise of these clear plastic lids, that claim to work on ''any bowl, jar, cup or can'' of ''any size, shape or material.''
They did just that, about half the time.
They worked fine on an open metal can and a ceramic bowl, but on a plastic container, they failed to seal tightly.
I found them frustrating. I sealed the bowl, but by the time I put it in the refrigerator, the seal had popped open and the lid was merely lying on the bowl.
Sometimes they would seal, but 30 seconds later, the seal would give way. Other times the seal held.
Mary Beth thought they gave a nice vacuum seal, but found them awkward. ''I thought they worked well for some applications,'' she said. She didn't like the fact that they hung over the edge of the bowl.
''It seems to me that if it will stick, then it might be better than plastic wrap. It was OK,'' was Betty's take on these toppers.
Mary Beth also liked the fact that they were reusable, unlike plastic wrap that gets thrown away.
They're $9.99 for a set of four lids in three sizes. I say use the money to purchase four reusable plastic containers with lids.
Betty: It depends.
Lisa: Skip it.
Mary Beth: It depends.
Debbie Meyer Green Bags and Bread Bags
Green Bags promise to ''keep fruits and vegetables fresher longer,'' and Bread Bags promise to keep ''bread, bagels and more fresher longer.''
We tested the bread bag on two identical loaves of Italian bread. They were from a bakery, so they didn't contain the high amounts of preservatives that could be found in factory-baked bread.
We took one loaf from its original wrapper and slid it into a Bread Bag, pressing out the excess air and folding the top over according to the package instructions. We didn't open the other loaf, but simply left it on the table next to the loaf in the Bread Bag.
Both loaves sat untouched and undisturbed, and we checked them daily for any signs of decay.
On the fifth day, both loaves were speckled with green mold. We saw no indication that the Debbie Meyer Bread Bag did anything to help prevent mold or keep the bread fresh longer.
We tested the Green Bags with strawberries and iceberg lettuce, two items known for going bad quickly, and are used as examples on the Green Bag box.
We bought two quarts of strawberries. One was left, unopened and unwashed, in its original clamshell plastic container in the refrigerator. The other berries were removed from their box and placed, unwashed, inside a Green Bag.
We checked both at 12 days. The berries in the original box were dried-out and moldy. The berries in the Green Bag were moldy and mushy. Neither was edible and the decay appeared to be equal.
The Green Bag seemed to cause excess moisture on the fruit. The bags come with a caution that if moisture builds up in the bag to wipe it out with a paper towel. However, we all agreed that having to wipe out the bags was a bother, and we'd rather use a plastic container.
For the lettuce, we purchased three heads and left them unwashed.
The first we put into a Green Bag; the second into a new Rubbermaid Produce Saver container; and the third into a plastic container covered with one of Chef Tony's Smart Lidz. The vacuum seal on the Smart Lidz gave way almost instantly, but we left it as a cover over the bowl and left all three undisturbed in the refrigerator.
The Green Bag box claims to keep lettuce fresh for 21 days.
After 12 days, we checked all three heads and found them to be in about the same condition.
Each head was browning on the outside around its core, but all three remained crisp and in good shape on the inside.
While the bag did seem to protect the lettuce, it didn't work any better than the other two methods that we tried. In fact, of all three heads, the one in the Green Bag actually had the most wilted leaves on the outside.
The bags claim to be reusable eight or 10 times. Betty washed one of the bags after using it, but found that it took a long time to dry.
''You would have to air dry it on your faucet head to get it really dry and it was just inconvenient. We didn't see the benefit of it,'' she said.
We all agreed that we preferred the Rubbermaid Produce Saver, which can be reused many times.
Betty: Skip it (both bags).
Lisa: Skip it (both bags).
Mary Beth: Skip it (both bags).
Prices vary. Online or TV orders may incur extra charges for delivery.
Have you seen an advertised product and wondered whether it lives up to its claims? You can suggest items to be reviewed by Lisa Abraham, Mary Beth Breckenridge and Betty Lin-Fisher by sending e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org or calling 330-996-3737, email@example.com or 330-996-3756, or firstname.lastname@example.org or 330-996-3724.