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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  • Product Tested

    Results Key:

    Good ★ ★ ★ Fair ★ ★ Poor
  • Prices are subject to change.
  • Recommended - Winner

    Magimix by Robot-Coupe Vision Toaster

    The most reliable and efficient toaster in the lineup has quartz elements for even heating and one long slot that can fit two pieces of sandwich bread or a long slice of artisanal bread. We loved its clear windows, which let us keep track of browning, and its “stop” button. Our only quibble: The heat seems to concentrate in the middle of the slot, so single slices of bread placed in the middle brown perfectly but two slices side by side come out lighter at the outer edges.

    • Design ★★★
    • Consistency ★★½
    • Evenness of Color ★★★

    $249.95

  • Recommended with Reservations

    Dualit 2-Slice NewGen Classic Toaster

    If you’re hands-on, this is the toaster for you. You decide how long to set the timer and when to lower the bread and remove it. (This becomes easy after a few uses.) The manual even instructs you on how to replace elements if they burn out. Too bad the toasting consistency was not that great.

    • Design ★★½
    • Consistency ★★
    • Evenness of Color ★★

    $239.99

  • Recommended with Reservations

    KitchenAid Pro Line Toaster

    This handsome machine was a joy to use and has just about every feature you could want—if only it would toast bread evenly. Every time we used it, the results were (literally) spotty. When we flipped the bread over and hit the “little longer” button, we did get lovely toast, but having to do so is a deal breaker.

    • Design ★★★
    • Consistency ★½
    • Evenness of Color ★½

    $299.95

  • Recommended with Reservations - Best Buy

    KitchenAid 2 Slice Manual High-Lift Lever Toaster with LCD Display

    Spotty heating and unevenness side to side was an issue when we started using this toaster. To our surprise, the toaster improved with time. Still, on occasion it failed to toast or else burned the odd piece of bread.

    • Design ★½
    • Consistency ★★
    • Evenness of Color ★★

    $89.99

    BUY NOW Amazon
  • Not Recommended

    Cuisinart Touch to Toast Leverless 2-Slice Toaster

    This toaster has nice features and is easy to use and clean. It produced perfect toast at first, making ideal light, medium, and dark shades. Unfortunately, the longer we used the toaster the more the toast quality suffered.

    • Design ★★
    • Consistency
    • Evenness of Color ★½

    $79.95

  • Not Recommended

    Breville Ikon 2-Slice Toaster

    This toaster was consistently inconsistent, making spotty, uneven toast and struggling to get both sides of the toast the same shade. The “lift and look” lever allows users to check the progress of the toast midcycle so that they can adjust the slice or cancel the cycle, but we still didn’t get reliable results.

    • Design ★★
    • Consistency
    • Evenness of Color

    $69.99

  • Not Recommended

    Proctor Silex Cool-Wall Toaster

    You will get no bells and whistles with this inexpensive model, but you will get what you pay for: not much. This toaster struggled to get bread the right shade, and it had to be set to the darkest setting to produce medium toast. Its one redeeming quality, aside from its price, was that it made the most evenly toasted single slices in our lineup. Its crumb tray swings open to empty but (unlike those in the rest of the lineup) can’t be removed for cleaning.

    • Design ½
    • Consistency ★½
    • Evenness of Color ★½

    $15.99

  • Not Recommended

    Bodum Bistro Toaster

    The slots on this model were too shallow to fit our favorite sandwich bread, and it repeatedly browned the bottom of the toast more than the top. Not surprisingly, we found that the heating elements were concentrated toward the bottom of the machine.

    • Design
    • Consistency ½
    • Evenness of Color ½

    $50.00

  • Not Recommended

    Dualit 2-Slot Lite Toaster

    This toaster was intuitive to use, and we appreciated the “lift and look” feature, but it produced uneven toast: darker on the bottom and with one side a different shade than the other. The heating element wires were unevenly distributed and the resulting unevenness of toasting became worse with use.

    • Design
    • Consistency ½
    • Evenness of Color ½

    $89.99

  • Not Recommended

    Hamilton Beach 2-Slice Toaster

    While it was easy to use and clean, this toaster failed just about every other test. On its darkest setting, the toast ranged from light to medium brown. The more we used this toaster the worse it got, struggling to get any color on the bread toward the end of testing.

    • Design
    • Consistency ½
    • Evenness of Color ½

    $30.00

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