Two-Slice Toasters

From Cook's Country | June/July 2013

Overview:

Is good toast really too much to ask? Every few years, we find ourselves hunting for a dependable toaster. Apparently, manufacturers are on the same quest, given how fast they develop and (as in the case of our most recent favorite) discontinue new toasters. So, like Sisyphus, we are starting over.

We set a reasonable limit—$100 or less—and then lined up seven qualifying toasters from major brands. We toasted more than 1,000 slices of sandwich bread. Then we tackled bagels, toaster pastries, English muffins, and frozen waffles.

At the very least, toasters should pop out nicely browned bread in the shade that you select. But that’s just where most fail. Set to “light,” every toaster in our lineup produced dried-out, pale, slightly warm slices. A few couldn’t make medium toast either, unless they were set on “dark.” So what happened on “dark” settings? For some models, the toast burned. Others rendered all three shades across a single slice or toasted only one side properly. Just one toaster out of seven earned perfect marks.

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Is good toast really too much to ask? Every few years, we find ourselves hunting for a dependable toaster. Apparently, manufacturers are on the same quest, given how fast they develop and (as in the case of our most recent favorite) discontinue new toasters. So, like Sisyphus, we are starting over.

We set a reasonable limit—$100 or less—and then lined up seven qualifying toasters from major brands. We toasted more than 1,000 slices of sandwich bread. Then we tackled bagels, toaster pastries, English muffins, and frozen waffles.

At the very least, toasters should pop out nicely browned bread in the shade that you select. But that’s just where most fail. Set to “light,” every toaster in our lineup produced dried-out, pale, slightly warm slices. A few couldn’t make medium toast either, unless they were set on “dark.” So what happened on “dark” settings? For some models, the toast burned. Others rendered all three shades across a single slice or toasted only one side properly. Just one toaster out of seven earned perfect marks.

Could these toasters handle a crowd? We made three batches of toast in rapid succession. The good news is that most of our lineup performed consistently, batch after batch. The bad news is that the quality was not very high.

Next, we tested the toasters’ durability, making 50 slices of toast in each machine using alternating slots. Our lone front-runner fumbled, producing patchy, uneven toast, sometimes barely warming the bread, though we never changed the setting; the problem worsened the longer we used the toaster. Exactly the opposite happened with a different model. Its lackluster performance improved with use...kind of: It still struggled to toast a single slice evenly and would occasionally fail to toast the bread at all.

So where were we? In three years, we’d tested 14 two-slot toasters, and we didn’t love a single one. The only one we’d ever found acceptable had been discontinued. So far, our current testing yielded just one toaster that we liked enough to recommend, and with reservations at that. All the rest were so unreliable that we rated them “not recommended.” For $90 we expected to be able to recommend a toaster without reservations. Maybe the price cap was the problem. If money were no object, could we finally get perfect toast? We bought three models at the opposite end of the price spectrum—between $240 and $300—and repeated our tests.

All three performed better than our favorite reasonably priced toaster. The first had impressive features: It sensed when bread was in the slot and automatically lowered it into the toaster. A pleasing tone announced when toast was ready, a clever “little longer” button let us top off the shade without fear of burning the bread, and the “keep warm” function automatically engaged if the toast was not removed within 45 seconds. Unfortunately, all those luxury features were beside the point: On “medium,” the bread emerged too light overall and much darker on one side than on the other. After we flipped the slice and hit the “little longer” button, it was perfect, but wouldn’t our patience for fiddling run out after paying $300?

On the other end of the spectrum was a minimalist model. Two dials let you control the heating elements, depending on whether you are toasting one or two slices of bread or one side of a bagel. A manual toast ejector lets you remove toast mid-cycle or preheat the toaster before adding the bread (which improved toasting performance significantly). You must remember what position on the dial makes your favorite toast, resetting the dial every time—no presets here. This model produced nicelooking toast, but again, only with active fiddling.

The third toaster was the best of the three. Its controls are simple, and it produced flawless single slices of toast time after time, which we could view through a clear window, and we could hit a central “stop” button if we wanted to arrest the browning. However, when we tried to toast two slices of our favorite (slightly oversize) sandwich bread, the edges were lighter than the rest of the slice. Toward the end of our “50 slices” test, this toaster sometimes produced unevenly browned toast. Still, for simplicity and the most consistent overall performance, this one was our winner. In the end, all three higher-end toasters delivered better results than their less expensive counterparts.

Why were some toasters better than others? The heating elements—their material, number, design, and placement—all affect performance. Most toasters have heating elements made of Nichrome wires (the trade name for an alloy of nickel and chromium), which are wrapped across a flameproof mica sheet. As electricity flows through the wires, they radiate heat. Toasters with abundant, evenly spaced Nichrome wires heated most evenly. One of the worst performers had eight wires on one side of the slot and four on the other; another had 10 wires on one side, seven of which were concentrated on the bottom half of the mica sheet.

Our favorite high-end toaster was the only model with quartz heating elements. Large quartz rods are placed along the top and bottom of each side of a single long slot. Quartz is highly responsive, cooling and heating rapidly, and it emits intense heat to toast the exterior of the slice while leaving the inside moist. Better performing toasters also featured baskets inside the slots that centered the bread, keeping each slice equidistant from heating elements; otherwise, bread tended to lean closer to one set of elements and become darker on that side of the slice.

In the end, we liked the toaster with the quartz heating elements best. If you think $250 is just too much to pay for excellent toast, we recommend (with reservations) our best buy, a model which costs $89.99.

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