For some reason, I'm fascinated by the number of appliances these days that cook and stir for you automatically. But I guess it makes sense—the one thing people object to most about cooking is "standing at the stove and stirring." People don't object to a simmering pot of soup on the stove or a roast in the oven, but stirring something constantly for 20 minutes is a lot less appealing.
The Ball FreshTECH Automatic Jam & Jelly Maker ($90) is one of those devices. It heats and stirs jam or jelly for you.
On the pro side, it heats to a precise temperature and stays there, which can be tricky on the stove, and it does all the stirring for you, taking the guesswork out of making jam or jelly. The machine came with a limited number of recipes, but I also tried a recipe from a package of pectin, and it worked just fine.
On the con side, this makes very small batches of jam or jelly—about four cups at a time—so if you're planning on canning the overabundance of fruit from your garden, you're going to be at it for a long time with this machine. It also needs time to cool down between batches, so you couldn't make continuous cycles of jam or jelly.
Since it does the cooking and stirring, the only thing you need to do is add ingredients, and the machine beeps at intervals to tell you when to add things. I'll admit that I mis-read the instructions on one batch, and it still came out fine.
Dedicated jam-and-jelly makers may scoff at this machine because of the small batches, but folks who want to make a few foolproof jars at a time will love the simplicity. People who don't want to stand and stir will love it too, and I can imagine that moms who want to get their kids involved in cooking might be more comfortable letting them watch this machine do the work, rather than having them stirring a bubbling hot pot on the stove.
Although I haven't tried it, you could probably use this for cooking and stirring other things, like tomato sauce or applesauce, with a little fiddling to figure out which settings to use.
About the author: Resident yeast whisperer and bread baking columnist Donna Currie also has a serious gadget habit. When her father-in-law heard about this column, he upgraded the nickname for her kitchen from "gadget world" to "gadget heaven." You can find her on her blog, Cookistry or follow her on Twitter at @dbcurrie.
Disclaimer: Testing samples were provided to Serious Eats.