Toaster Ovens

Published March 1, 2011. From Cook's Illustrated.

Overview:

First, the good news: Toaster ovens have improved—a little. In 2007, we were hard-pressed to find one that could eke out a decent piece of toast. Today, testing 10 new models, including a makeover of our former winner, a slice of golden-brown toast is no longer quite so hard to get. The bad news? Toaster ovens aren’t cheap. The least expensive model we tested was $60; a good half of them were $150 or more. Manufacturers justify these prices by offering a slew of different features, including some that we never imagined desirable in a toaster oven: a food dehydrator, a chicken rotisserie, a bun warmer, and even a built-in meat probe. Assumptions about what a toaster oven should do have changed, too: More are called countertop ovens, leaving “toast” right out of the equation.

Daily Bread

As cooks, we appreciate the merits of a small second oven, which is handy for preparing single portions and side dishes, melting cheese on sandwiches, and keeping the kitchen cool in hot weather. A toaster oven takes half the time of a full-size… read more

First, the good news: Toaster ovens have improved—a little. In 2007, we were hard-pressed to find one that could eke out a decent piece of toast. Today, testing 10 new models, including a makeover of our former winner, a slice of golden-brown toast is no longer quite so hard to get. The bad news? Toaster ovens aren’t cheap. The least expensive model we tested was $60; a good half of them were $150 or more. Manufacturers justify these prices by offering a slew of different features, including some that we never imagined desirable in a toaster oven: a food dehydrator, a chicken rotisserie, a bun warmer, and even a built-in meat probe. Assumptions about what a toaster oven should do have changed, too: More are called countertop ovens, leaving “toast” right out of the equation.

Daily Bread

As cooks, we appreciate the merits of a small second oven, which is handy for preparing single portions and side dishes, melting cheese on sandwiches, and keeping the kitchen cool in hot weather. A toaster oven takes half the time of a full-size oven to preheat, and it’s more energy-efficient for small tasks. Toasting is still important, though: If these ovens can’t toast a simple slice of bread, what are the chances that they can handle cookies, chicken, or pizza?

We began our tests simply by making toast, buying dozens of loaves of our favorite white bread and toasting slice after slice on each oven’s “medium” toast setting. Five of the 10 models easily surpassed the performance of their 2007 counterparts. Two were a total disappointment, doing little more than heating up the slices: After several minutes, their “toast” was almost as white as it was before going in.

A good toaster oven should radiate intense heat for broiling and browning. To test for this ability, we made dark toast. A few brands failed miserably: One model’s darkest setting (out of nine choices) produced black smoke and a chunk of inedible charcoal. Another’s dial ticked away as it burned the bread to a crisp. Only two models ended up capable of producing both deeply browned toast and good medium toast.

Toasting six slices of bread at a time gave us an excellent snapshot of heating patterns. The best performers—including the two models that excelled in our other toasting tests—browned evenly across both sides of the six slices, while lesser ovens had hot and cold spots, yielding mottled results.

Roast and Bake

If we’re paying top dollar for a toaster oven claiming it can perform a wide range of functions, it better be able to carry them out. So we set up these ovens with a range of bigger cooking challenges, from melting cheese on tuna sandwiches and thin-crust pizzas to heating dense casseroles of frozen macaroni and cheese. We tried baking crisp lemon cookies and roasting 4-pound chickens. Those ovens that failed to toast evenly, we found, also did poor work melting cheese uniformly across sandwiches and pizza, leaving some areas still solid and others overly browned. Instead of becoming shapely disks with light golden edges, cookies baked in these models emerged as blobs with randomly browned surfaces. Macaroni and cheese was still cool in the center after more than an hour of baking, with the edges drying out. And a few ovens always seemed to take longer to get the job done—we actually gave up on one after it failed to melt cheese on pizza in a reasonable amount of time, or fully cook a chicken after two hours. (A backup copy of this oven performed just as poorly.)

Interior space was also an issue. Squeezing a whole chicken into the narrow confines of a few of the ovens was nearly impossible. The most cramped was horizontally divided, with a bun-warming chamber on top that left little room in the oven beneath. Unsurprisingly, perhaps, the ovens tall enough to easily accommodate a whole chicken—including one with a rotisserie—failed to cook anything else especially well, because foods less voluminous than chicken sat too far away from their heating elements.

After compiling the results of each test, it was clear that the ovens that aced our toasting tests were also the best at general cooking. But why were they so successful? We did one last trial, setting all the ovens to 350 degrees and hooking up each one to a thermocouple to gauge accuracy. True to form, the wimpy ovens barely reached 315 degrees; others varied wildly, hitting far above and below the mark; and the best climbed closest to the 350-degree target and stayed there.

Top Choice

Two ovens distinguished themselves with consistently good performance, but only one was truly exemplary and achieved a perfect score. Toast browned evenly on every setting, whether we wanted one slice or six. Cookies, a tuna melt, pizza, mac and cheese, and chicken were thoroughly and uniformly cooked. This oven was big enough for chicken but sufficiently compact for browning toast and baking smaller foods. Its five heating elements (most models had four)—three rods on top, two below—cycle on and off keyed to preset programs for different foods, directing heat where needed (though we found the presets easy to customize, and the oven “remembers” your adjustments). Its heating elements are quartz, which heats and cools faster than the nickel and chromium heating apparatus found in most toaster ovens. It is thus more responsive, provides steadier heat, and eliminates the usual toaster oven pitfall: the hot spots that form directly under the elements.

Interestingly, our other favorite oven has an unusual mechanism for maintaining its rock-steady heating. Most toaster ovens operate with an “on/off” switch—they get hotter until they literally switch off, and then cool gradually until they switch back on, maintaining an average temperature close to what you want. By contrast, this one operates with a sort of “dimmer” switch, staying on but varying the intensity to sustain the desired temperature.

We also discovered a Best Buy option. At less than half the price of the perfect oven, it is similarly proportioned, striking the balance between adequate interior space and concentrated heating. Its elements are not as sophisticated, but it was one of the most accurate ovens and produced consistently acceptable food. Both ovens were also remarkably simple to use, unlike others with thick manuals and confusing buttons. Our winners required no learning curve.

Methodology:

Toasting:

We made single slices of toast (using white bread) on medium and dark settings, preferring models that produced evenly golden-brown medium toast, with crisp exteriors and moist interiors; and dark toast that was a deep, appealing brown, not burned. We also toasted multiple batches of six slices to evaluate the heating patterns in the ovens, rating highly those that produced uniformly browned batches. Scores on these tasks were averaged.

Cooking:

We baked lemon cookies, melted cheese on tuna sandwiches, heated frozen pizzas and macaroni and cheese casseroles, and roasted whole chickens, averaging the scores from each test.

User-friendliness:

We looked for solid construction, easy cleanup, and straightforward controls that didn’t constantly send us back to the manual.

Accuracy:

Using a thermocouple to gauge accuracy, we tested how well empty ovens held the standard temperature of 350 degrees.

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