Editor's Note: All prices given here are accurate as of the time of publication.
These days, an electric kettle can do so much more than boil water. Of course, you can still pay $20 or $30 and get a mediocre-to-decent basic version. And maybe that's all you want: the convenience of a machine that boils water a bit faster than the stove, and shuts off automatically. But for a little more money, it's now possible to find a perfectly good variable-temperature electric kettle—one that can heat water to a range of specific temperatures, and also keep it at a specific temperature for up to an hour. For anyone who likes drinking tea or coffee and occasionally buys good-quality leaves or beans, this is a good thing, because temperature matters. Different varieties of tea can benefit from brewing at different temperatures—green and white teas at lower temperatures, black teas near boiling. Coffee, also, is considered by many pros to be best when brewed at between 195 and 205°F, below the boiling point (212°F).
But if you're going to invest the extra bucks in a variable-temperature machine, you want to know it's going to do what it says it will: heat water quickly and accurately, with minimal effort on your part. So, to find out which models do that best, I tested an array of highly rated kettles, in a range of prices and designs.
Before I get into the testing details, here are my favorites: For ease of use, the Cuisinart CPK-17 is the best variable-temperature kettle I found. It has six temperature settings, each indicated by a button labeled with both the temperature and the corresponding beverage—green tea, black tea, et cetera. It boils fast and accurately, and can maintain the water temperature for up to 30 minutes.
For range, no model beat the Chefman RJ11-17-GP Precision Electric Kettle. It can be set to temperatures in increments of five degrees between 120 and 212°F, while the Cuisinart goes down only to 160. It will also maintain the water temperature for up to an hour, and it comes with a strainer attachment that allows you to brew tea directly in the kettle.
If you'd rather spend under $30 and get a simple boiling kettle, go for the Hamilton Beach 40893 Stainless Steel Electric Kettle. It's well made for the price, and boils a full pot in about seven minutes.
Here are the criteria I used when deciding which models performed best.
Any good electric kettle should boil water fast, certainly faster than a kettle would boil water on the stove. Otherwise, why take up the counter space? To test this, I timed how long it took to boil 1.7 liters of water—the maximum capacity for most models I tested—in each kettle. Before doing so, I used an instant-read thermometer to make sure the starting temperature was always the same (give or take a degree). I also boiled the same amount of water on the stove, to give me a baseline comparison. That took about 10 minutes, while most kettles I tested were in the six- to seven-minute range.
If you're spending the extra money on a variable-temperature kettle, you of course want it to be accurate. When it says it's heated your water to 185°F, that water should be 185°, not 175 or 190. To test each kettle's accuracy, I heated water to five different temperatures besides boiling: 160, 175, 185, 190, and 200°F. (These were the only temperature settings offered by one of the kettles, so it made sense to use these as benchmarks when testing other kettles that can be programmed in increments of one or five degrees.) As soon as the water was ready, I measured its temperature with an instant-read thermometer. A difference of one or two degrees was often inevitable, and likely won't make a difference to whatever you are brewing. But a discrepancy of five degrees or more could be the difference between one setting and the next, so this is something to look out for.
If the kettle has a keep-warm feature—and all the variable-temperature kettles I tested do—it should be able to maintain that set temperature without too much fluctuation. Since most of the kettles promise to keep the water warm for 30 minutes, I tested the temperature of the water in each at 15 minutes and at 30 minutes, and also checked at the hour mark for those that claim to keep water warm for an hour.
Beyond basic functioning, there are a number of features to look out for in a good electric kettle. As mentioned above, the standard capacity for most kettles is 1.7 liters, or a little over seven cups. A smaller, one-liter kettle might be better for some small households, or for those with limited kitchen space. But the larger size can often come in handy, whether you want to brew coffee in an eight-cup French press or speed up the process when boiling water for pasta, so I think it's the best size for most people. Anything bigger is a bonus for those with a little more kitchen space to spare.
No matter its size, the kettle should be easy to use. That means having a handle that is comfortable to hold and stays cool to the touch. It means having a spout that pours a controlled stream of water, even from a full kettle—no dribbling or glugging, which could be dangerous with hot water. It should be easy to see from the outside exactly how much water is in the kettle. So if the kettle isn't made of glass (some models use thermal-shock-resistant borosilicate glass, the same thing Pyrex used to be made out of), it should have a window that allows you to see the water level. Either way, clear markings should show measurements in liters, if not fluid ounces as well. A kettle should also shut off automatically or switch to keep-warm mode when it reaches the desired temperature, and you should know when it does, from either a light, a beep, or both.
These days, most kettles are "cordless" models: The kettle itself is freestanding, with a heating element inside that's activated when the kettle is resting on its base, which is plugged into the wall. Cordless kettles are easy to pick up and pour or carry across the room, while their corded counterparts can be awkward to pour, and impossible to move unless they're unplugged every time. At this point, no corded kettle seems worth getting, and I tested only cordless models.
That heating element inside the kettle should also be concealed in the base. Some less expensive models will leave that element (a coil of metal tubing) exposed in the bottom of the kettle, and that can make the whole thing a pain to clean. Unless you're using soft water, scale will build up in the kettle over time, and it can be much harder to remove from the crevices of a heating coil than from a smooth stainless steel bottom.
Other features also make cleaning the kettle easier, which you'll want to do every once in a while to get rid of that scale buildup. No electric kettle can go in the dishwasher, so the opening needs to be wide enough that you can reach a hand in easily to scrub the inside out with soap and water. It's also great if the kettle comes with a removable fine-mesh filter over the spout, to keep scale from making its way into your cup.
Finally, the kettle shouldn't lend any off flavors to the water. A plastic kettle may be more likely to do this—many believe that it will. But even stainless steel or glass kettles usually have plastic components that may lend an unwanted flavor. In fact, when I conducted a blind taste test of water boiled in each kettle (after two rounds of boiling and discarding water, to get rid of any out-of-the-box chemical scent), tasters reacted most strongly to water from a model made mostly of glass. The plastic kettle also gave a faint flavor to the water, but it was less pronounced. Still, I largely avoided plastic kettles because, taste aside, plastic can warp so that the lid doesn't close tightly, allowing water to dribble everywhere when you pour. I've experienced this with kettles in the past, and I noticed it in the one plastic model I tested.
A Quick, Easy Variable-Temperature Kettle: Cuisinart CPK-17
For those who want a variable-temperature kettle, but don't want to get too finicky with different temperatures, the Cuisinart CPK-17 is a great choice. This stainless steel kettle with a 1.7-liter capacity is dead-simple to use, and not too pricey, at around $70. Six buttons on the handle indicate six different temperature settings: 160, 175, 185, 190, and 200°F, plus "Boil." Each button is also labeled with the beverage it's best for: delicate teas, green tea, white tea, oolong, French press, and black tea. Select your temperature and hit "Start," and the kettle begins heating. Once it reaches the right temperature, it'll keep it there for 30 minutes.
That's a simpler mode of operation than any other variable-temperature kettle I tested. Those others offer more control over the temperature, allowing you to set it in increments of five degrees or even one degree, but they often require you to push more buttons (or the same button over and over) to do so. One model defaults to Celsius, so I had to keep resetting it to Fahrenheit, while the Chefman (which I liked for other reasons) requires you to hit a button twice just to turn it on, then another button to put it in "program" mode, then two more buttons to actually program it.
The Cuisinart is also the only kettle I tested that includes such helpful, clear temperature labeling to help keep track of which one goes with what tea. Serious tea enthusiasts may not need that, or may want to use a broader range of temperatures, but for the rest of us, it makes brewing great hot beverages a no-brainer. Only one other kettle I tried includes such labels at all, and they are printed much smaller on the power base, so they're completely hidden when you actually set the kettle down.
Like all the other variable-temperature kettles I tested, the Cuisinart wasn't perfect—its water temperatures were typically a couple of degrees off from the set temperature. But in multiple rounds of testing, they never strayed further than that, even with the kettle filled to its minimum level. That was better than some other models I tested, which tended to overheat smaller amounts of water. And, after half an hour on the keep-warm setting, the temperature of the water in the Cuisinart remained essentially the same, no matter what setting it was on.
This Cuisinart was also one of the fastest to boil of all the models I tested, averaging about six minutes and 40 seconds to reach a boil. Another kettle of the same size and similar shape took around seven minutes and 30 seconds to boil. While the kettle is heating, a blue light flashes behind the selected temperature. When it's finished, the light glows steady, and the kettle lets out a series of beeps, making it easy to tell when your water is ready. The machine then switches automatically to keep-warm mode, but can be turned off with the push of a button. It's a nice step up from simpler electric kettles that just shut off when they're done boiling, because you're less likely to miss when it's ready, and guaranteed to still have hot water even if you do.
The Cuisinart has a handsome stainless steel body, with a lid that pops open with the push of a button—which I much preferred to the tight lids I had to pry off manually from some kettles, while the hot water sloshed dangerously inside. The opening isn't the widest of all I tested, but wide enough for me to fit a hand in easily and reach every inch of the interior. A scale filter over the spout slides out neatly for cleaning, and the heating element is tucked safely away beneath a stainless steel bottom.
The only design element I didn't love was the window that shows how full the kettle is. It's cloudy, and located behind the handle, so it's hard to see where the water line actually is when you're filling the kettle. It's easier to read when the kettle is on the base, because a blue light illuminates the window, but that's not really when you need to see how full your kettle is.
For More Range and Control: Chefman RJ11-17-GP
If you want to be able to heat water to a wider range of temperatures than the Cuisinart can manage, go for the Chefman RJ11-17-GP Precision Electric Kettle. This 1.7-liter borosilicate glass kettle does have a couple of flaws: It's not as easy to use as the Cuisinart, and in certain circumstances, it's not as accurate. But it does offer the widest range of temperatures of any kettle I tried, it boils a full kettle about as fast as the Cuisinart, and it keeps water warm for a whole hour. It's also about $50, which is $20 cheaper than the Cuisinart, and under many circumstances, it is quite accurate.
Temperature settings on the Chefman range from 120°F to boiling, and can be set in increments of five degrees. One other kettle I tested went as low as 122°, but that was the one that took over seven minutes to boil. Another started at 140°, and one only went down to 170°. Now, not everyone will ever need or want such a wide range of temperatures, but some might. Tea fanatics may appreciate the flexibility—certain green teas, for example, are brewed with water as cool as 130 or 140°F. And making bread with instant yeast calls for water that's between 120 and 130°F. It can also be nice not to have to wait for water to cool down enough to drink it—if you're making a hot toddy, say, and want it warm and soothing, not scalding.
Besides the Cuisinart, most other kettles I tested are adjustable in five-degree increments. One allows you to adjust one degree at a time, but I didn't think this was necessary. Most tea-brewing guidelines give you a range of temperatures, or stick to general numbers, like those on the Cuisinart kettle. Plus, no kettle I tested had the precision to heat water to the exact degree every time, so even if I did want my water at exactly 173°, I couldn't count on that kettle to get it there. For that matter, the kettle that allows those minute temperature adjustments is also the kettle that goes down only to 170°. I'd rather have the range of the Chefman.
When you're heating a full kettle, the Chefman has great accuracy. It was never more than one or two degrees off, and multiple times it landed on the nose. But here's the catch: When you're heating a liter of water or less, it tends to overshoot by five or even 10 degrees. That is definitely not ideal, but it's something that can be managed if you really want the range and control that the Chefman offers. For one thing, an LED display does keep track of the actual temperature of the water with relative accuracy, so you know when it's overheated. To avoid the problem in the first place, you can always heat a partially full kettle to a lower temperature than you actually want, or just be sure to heat a full kettle. In keep-warm mode, temperatures also tended to even out.
As I mentioned above, the Chefman is also slightly annoying to operate. It's not hard; it just requires pressing a lot of buttons: one to wake it up, then the same one again to actually turn it on, another to switch to programming mode, then two others to actually adjust the temperature up or down. It would be nice if the temperature could at least continue increasing or decreasing when you hold those buttons down, but instead you have to jab each one over and over again to keep stepping up or down. Still, it's not so bad, especially if you don't plan on changing the temperature every single time. The kettle remembers its last setting, so often all you need to do is turn it on. And, like other kettles, it beeps when ready, and switches to warming mode automatically.
Otherwise, in overall design, the Chefman is easy to use. The lid opens at the push of a button, and the mouth is wide enough to reach a hand into. The glass body means it's super easy to see how full the kettle is, and a removable filter on the spout, plus a stainless steel bottom concealing the heating element, makes scale buildup easy to deal with. And, as a nice bonus, this kettle comes with a tea infuser attachment, so you can brew tea right in the kettle. No other kettle I tried offered anything like that—in fact, for most, the warranty is voided if you put anything in them besides water.
A Simpler, Cheaper Kettle: Hamilton Beach 40893 Stainless Steel Electric Kettle
Maybe you don't want to spend upwards of $50 on a kettle. And maybe you don't mind if all your kettle can do is boil water. If so, go for the Hamilton Beach 40893 Stainless Steel Electric Kettle. It's a sturdy, no-frills stainless steel model with a 1.7-liter capacity, and it sells for under $30.
There are a good number of kettles in that $25-to-$30 price range, but they're often shoddily made. The heating element is sometimes exposed, as is true of the $17 plastic kettle I tested, and the lifespan of cheaper appliances tends to be short. I read a lot of Amazon reviews telling stories of kettles that stopped heating entirely in a matter of months. Only time will tell how the Hamilton Beach fares, but it's reviewed better than most on Amazon, and many users say they've had it for years. It also looks and feels well made, and has a concealed heating element and a removable scale filter over the spout.
The Hamilton Beach kettle boils water fast, though not quite as fast as my favorite variable-temperature kettles: It took around seven minutes to heat the full pot. But that may be the price you pay for an inexpensive model. The one boil-only kettle I tested that was faster cost $60, at which point you might as well go for the Chefman and get more bang for your buck.
This is a squat kettle, about the size and shape of one you'd use on the stove, and that may or may not save you space. It's certainly shorter than any other kettle I tested, but also has a slightly bigger footprint than certain tall, narrow models. The one real design flaw of this shape is that the handle arches over the lid, which you have to pull off manually (and it fits pretty tightly). That means the handle can get in the way when you're trying to yank the lid off, and when you're trying to hold the opening under a faucet. It's also dangerous to try to pull off the mostly metal lid when the kettle is still hot. The solution, which I tend to do out of laziness if nothing else, is to just fill the kettle through the spout.