Toaster Ovens

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

Do you really need to spend $250 to get a good piece of toast?

Overview:

UPDATE: July 2014

Our top-rated toaster oven, the Smart Oven by Breville, sports simple, intuitive controls and five highly responsive quartz heating elements, which helped it out-toast, -roast, -bake, and -broil the nine other machines in our most recent testing. Nothing about it could be beat—except maybe the $249.95 price and its countertop-hogging size. For tighter spaces and budgets, Breville offers the roughly 25 percent smaller Mini Smart Oven with Element IQ, which features similar easy controls and the same quartz technology (in four elements) for $149.95. We used it to toast four slices of bread, roast two bone-in split chicken breasts, bake eight cookies, and heat a personal-size frozen pizza. In every case, the Mini Smart Oven aced our tests, preheating in 5 minutes or less and baking evenly. We also liked that this oven includes a button labeled “A Bit More,” which lets you broil or toast food for just a few extra seconds or minutes. The Mini Smart Oven by Breville is a terrific choice for smaller spaces.


First,… read more

UPDATE: July 2014

Our top-rated toaster oven, the Smart Oven by Breville, sports simple, intuitive controls and five highly responsive quartz heating elements, which helped it out-toast, -roast, -bake, and -broil the nine other machines in our most recent testing. Nothing about it could be beat—except maybe the $249.95 price and its countertop-hogging size. For tighter spaces and budgets, Breville offers the roughly 25 percent smaller Mini Smart Oven with Element IQ, which features similar easy controls and the same quartz technology (in four elements) for $149.95. We used it to toast four slices of bread, roast two bone-in split chicken breasts, bake eight cookies, and heat a personal-size frozen pizza. In every case, the Mini Smart Oven aced our tests, preheating in 5 minutes or less and baking evenly. We also liked that this oven includes a button labeled “A Bit More,” which lets you broil or toast food for just a few extra seconds or minutes. The Mini Smart Oven by Breville is a terrific choice for smaller spaces.


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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  • Product Tested

    Results Key:

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

    The Smart Oven by Breville

    While the price makes us wince, this well-designed oven aced every test and was simple to use. Food browned and cooked uniformly, whether we were roasting chicken, toasting bread, or melting cheese. Five quartz elements consistently cooled and reheated, producing steady, controlled heat.

    • Cooking ★★★
    • Accuracy ★★★
    • Toasting ★★★
    • User-Friendliness ★★★

    $249.95

    BUY NOW Amazon
  • Highly Recommended - Winner (Compact Choice)

    Breville Mini Smart Oven with Element IQ

    With four highly responsive quartz heating elements for even, consistent browning; an easy-to-use dial for selecting from eight cooking functions (including bake, roast, broil, and toast); three baking rack positions; and a front slide-out crumb tray that simplifies cleanup, this mini version (it’s about 25 percent smaller) of our favorite toaster oven, the Smart Oven by Breville, is well designed and a solid performer. The Mini Smart Oven holds four slices of toast, compared with the full-size oven’s six. When we made single toast slices and tuna melts in a cold oven, they did sometimes require extra time to brown well, but the clever “A Bit More” button took care of that problem, automatically extending cooking time proportionally to the original cooking time. This oven’s real hallmark was baking: Two bone-in, skin-on split chicken breasts emerged golden brown and evenly roasted, and a batch of eight cookies baked perfectly evenly. Its temperature settings were steady and accurate, and it preheated in 5 minutes or less. For smaller spaces and budgets, this oven is a great choice.

    • Cooking ★★★
    • Accuracy ★★★
    • Toasting ★★½
    • User-Friendliness ★★★

    $149.95

    BUY NOW Amazon
  • Recommended - Best Buy

    Hamilton Beach Set & Forget Toaster Oven with Convection Cooking

    Clearly designed control buttons, a helpful electronic display, and an easy-to-understand manual made using this oven a snap. Not quite as accurate as our winner, it still produced golden-brown toast and crisp-skinned roast chicken. Pizza and cookies baked a tiny bit unevenly. We liked its meat probe.

    • Cooking ★★
    • Accuracy ★★
    • Toasting ★★★
    • User-Friendliness ★★★

    $99.99

    BUY NOW Amazon
  • Recommended with Reservations

    Black & Decker Digital Convection Oven

    This oven’s performance was acceptable but a little uneven. Its elements cycled far lower when we set it for 350 degrees. Cookies and chicken browned unevenly, though mac and cheese and pizza were fine; toast was terrific with one slice but a little patchy in multiple batches.

    • Cooking ★★
    • Accuracy
    • Toasting ★★★
    • User-Friendliness ★★★

    $89.99

  • Recommended with Reservations

    Krups 6-Slice Convection Toaster Oven

    A more pared-down version of our previous winner from Krups, which was discontinued, this oven just doesn’t measure up to new competition. Ironically, the earlier Krups made decent toast. This time, single slices of toast were its biggest downfall, coloring too much or barely at all.

    • Cooking ★★
    • Accuracy ★★
    • Toasting
    • User-Friendliness ★★★

    $149.99

  • Recommended with Reservations

    Dualit Professional Mini Oven

    Solidly built and simple to set, this pricey oven was well lit with a large window—a good thing, since testing confirmed that it ran so hot (cycling as high as 428 degrees when we wanted 350) that we usually had to stand by, ready to yank out the food early, before it overcooked. Still, it cooked evenly and well.

    • Cooking ★★★
    • Accuracy
    • Toasting ★★
    • User-Friendliness ★★

    $249.95

  • Recommended with Reservations

    Oster 6081 Channel 6-Slice Toaster Oven

    This was the cheapest model in the lineup, and its slightly tinny feel and badly designed controls made that clear: Knobs are labeled underneath and hard to set without stooping; settings are printed in low-contrast color. But its heat was relatively accurate and the cooking, including toast, was surprisingly above par.

    • Cooking ★★
    • Accuracy ★★
    • Toasting ★★★
    • User-Friendliness

    $58.01

  • Not Recommended

    Cuisinart Convection Toaster Oven

    Toast turned out light when we wanted it medium or dark, plus it always colored unevenly. Cookies, pizza, and tuna melts also came out with darker patches where they’d been under the elements. Chicken cooked well but made a smoky, greasy mess. Its controls (with 16 buttons!) required multiple steps.

    • Cooking ★★
    • Accuracy
    • Toasting ★★
    • User-Friendliness ★★

    $179

  • Not Recommended

    De'longhi Esclusivo Convection Toaster Oven

    Though it was relatively accurate, baked perfect cookies, and heated a casserole thoroughly, this oven took forever to cook. Toast was perfect on top, but pale on bottom. Its ridiculously confusing controls gave us a headache. We didn’t even bother trying its food-dehydrator setting.

    • Cooking ★★★
    • Accuracy ★★
    • Toasting
    • User-Friendliness

    $149.95

  • Not Recommended

    T-fal Avante Elite Toaster Oven

    This oven (and a backup copy) started out strong but failed halfway through cooking. Roast chicken was still only half-cooked after nearly two hours. When pizza cheese failed to bubble long after the recommended cooking time, we gave up. We hated the design.

    • Cooking
    • Accuracy ★★
    • Toasting ★★
    • User-Friendliness

    $89.99

  • Not Recommended

    West Bend Countertop Oven with Rotisserie

    The only thing we liked about this cheaply made, poorly designed oven was its rotisserie, which helped produce a juicy golden bird despite its temperature being way off the mark, dipping as low as 226 degrees when set to 350 in our accuracy test. Toast stayed white on the bottom; pizza cheese never fully melted.

    • Cooking ★★
    • Accuracy
    • Toasting
    • User-Friendliness

    $97.37

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