The Tests

  • Fill each carafe with 161-degree coffee and then check the temperature of the coffee every hour

  • Chill each carafe with ice water for 5 minutes, empty it, and then fill it with 37-degree whole milk; check the milk’s temperature every hour

  • Fill each carafe with hot seafood stock, leave overnight, wash by hand, and then test for lingering odors and flavors in a blind tasting of water stored in each model

  • Assemble a panel of testers to fill, pour from, and empty every carafe

If you like to entertain, insulated pitchers can come in handy. Also called thermal carafes, they keep coffee or tea hot for hours—perfect for brunch or a dessert table at a party. They also insulate cold liquids, so we sometimes use two: one for hot coffee and one for cold cream or milk. We’ve even used them to keep stock warm (and pour it as needed) when making risotto.

Most thermal carafes are double-walled and vacuum-sealed. (In other words, they have two stainless-steel walls, and the air between them has been removed. Without air, heat transfers much more slowly.) Given their similarity in design, does it matter which insulated carafe you buy? To find out, we rounded up eight models, priced from $21.99 to $72.07 and with capacities from 44 to 68 ounces, and spent two weeks putting them through their paces in the test kitchen.

We started with the most important test: heat retention. We filled each carafe with freshly brewed 161-degree coffee and recorded the coffee’s temperature every hour by pouring out a small amount and quickly recording its temperature. After 4 hours—a reasonable amount of time for a carafe to keep things drinkable—the coolest coffee was a lukewarm 138 degrees. Meanwhile, the coffee in the top performers was still quite hot at 152 degrees.

To see how the carafes fared with cold liquids, we chilled them with ice water for 5 minutes (a step most manufacturers recommend). We then emptied them, filled them with 37-degree milk, and left them at room temperature. By the 2-hour mark, all of the milk was at or above 40 degrees. After 4 hours, the samples ranged from 41 to 44 degrees. Bacteria grow more rapidly between 40 and 140 degrees, so the U.S. Department of Agriculture recommends that food be in that range for no longer than 2 hours. We were discouraged that none of the carafes had kept milk below that threshold, but we suspected that they were still an improvement over a standard, noninsulated pitcher. Sure enough, when we performed the same test with a chilled stainless-steel pitcher, the milk climbed to 55 degrees after 1 hour and hit 67 degrees after 4 hours. Even the least effective carafe was a dramatic improvement.

With the temperature tests complete, a panel of testers evaluated how easy the carafes were to use. Four factors mattered most: the pour spout, the handle, the lid, and opening the carafe. Some carafes were hard to control, and liquids poured from them at unpredictable speeds and angles. Worse, liquids that were poured from some carafes continued flowing for an extra beat after we’d released the button—more than enough time to accidentally overfill a coffee mug. We much preferred models that poured with moderate, even streams and had responsive valves that quickly closed the pour spouts.

The spout design of some carafes knocked them out of contention by trapping excess liquid in the lids or allowing contents to escape after releasing the button to stop pouring, both of which can lead to over-pouring and spills.

We also disliked small handles and handles that were set either too close to or too far from the body of the carafe. Wide, sturdy handles set 1½ to 2 inches from the body of the carafes allowed us to pour with ease. Finally, a wider opening and efficient lid were crucial. One carafe had a tiny 1½-inch opening that made it difficult to fill. Most were a more generous 2⅛ to 2½ inches across. That model with a narrow opening also had a hinged lid that sometimes flopped wide open without warning. We preferred lids that snapped or twisted on smoothly, and we especially liked those that fit into place with an audible click and sealed without a visible gap between the lid and body.

We did one final test, filling the carafes with hot seafood stock (a handy way of keeping stock warm when adding it in small increments while making risotto) and leaving them to sit overnight. We came in the next morning, washed each carafe thoroughly by hand, and then filled each with cold water, which we presented to a tasting panel in a blind tasting. Thankfully, none of the carafes held on to the fishy, savory smell, and all of the water tasted clean.

Ultimately, several carafes met all of our criteria. But the Zojirushi Stainless Steel Vacuum Carafe ($57.51) won top marks in temperature tests and for ease of use. It’s the only model with a snap-on lid, which seals with a reassuring click and leaves no doubt that the carafe is closed. We liked that it can be fully disassembled for cleaning. For a slightly lower price but still impressive performance and user-friendliness, we also recommend our Best Buy, the Genuine Thermos Brand 51-Ounce Vacuum Insulated Stainless Steel Carafe ($42.70).

Winning Traits

  • Kept hot coffee above 148 degrees for at least 4 hours

  • Kept cold milk closer to 40 degrees

  • Lids that seal tightly and obviously

  • Responsive buttons that quickly open the carafe pour spout when pressed and seal immediately when released

  • Wide, easy-to-grip handles positioned between 1½ and 2 inches from the carafe

  • Wide openings, at least 2 inches in diameter, that are easier to fill and clean