The uses for a toaster oven go way beyond making toast. A good toaster oven functions as a small second oven, and can even take the place of your big oven—it can handle a 4-pound chicken or bake potatoes or a batch of cookies, and it preheats faster, uses less energy, and is easy to clean. Toaster ovens make quick work of toasting nuts or bread crumbs, and are ideal for roasting a vegetable side dish, baking an 8-inch square cake, or broiling a few fillets of fish. They’re even handy for holidays or parties when you need more cooking space, and they won’t heat up your kitchen as your full-size oven would on hot days. But which toaster oven is best?
Toaster ovens come in a variety of sizes, but we narrowed our lineup by looking at those that were big enough to function as mini ovens—spacious enough to fit 6 slices of bread and tall enough to accommodate a 4-pound chicken. Ultimately we ended up with a lineup of 10 toaster ovens priced from about $45 to about $270.
We started out by running slices of sandwich bread through the toasters, first by toasting single slices on light, medium, and dark settings, and then toasting four and six slices at a time. Here, we were looking for ovens that were well calibrated; a low setting that just barely kissed the slices with color, a medium setting that resulted in evenly browned, golden slices, and a dark setting that gave us well-toasted, but not burnt, slices. Many toasters’ dark settings ticked on for 8 or 9 minutes, and the toast was scorched by the time the cycle ended. One model toasted for more than 12 minutes on its highest setting, ultimately delivering toast that smoked like a chunk of charcoal. While toast time and color can vary based on the size, thickness, and moisture content of your bread, 12 minutes is simply too long to wait for a slice of toast, especially a burnt one.
We also looked at how evenly the machines toasted. After some fiddling with settings, we were able to make single slices that were relatively well-browned on both sides in most of the toasters. However, when we toasted four or six slices, many browned the slices unevenly; some even left whole slices practically blond, indicating that the heat wasn’t dispersing evenly throughout the oven. Only a few ovens evenly browned all the slices from edge-to-edge on both sides; we rated them higher. We also preferred toaster ovens with a range of doneness settings—our top-rated machines offered seven different shades—enough flexibility to tweak the toaster to work with your bread and toasting preferences.
Beyond toast, we put the ovens through a battery of cooking tests: baking potatoes, heating frozen pizza, baking sugar cookies, broiling asparagus, melting cheese onto tuna sandwiches, and roasting whole chickens. Surprisingly, despite their small size and convection settings, which purportedly can be used to cook foods faster (see “What’s the Deal with Convection?”), many toaster ovens actually cooked food more slowly than our traditional wall ovens.
To find out why, we wired up thermocouples to the ovens and tracked how well they could hold a 350-degree temperature over a period of 2 hours. The higher-ranked toaster ovens, which produced fully cooked, evenly browned food within our recipe times, varied from the target temperature only by an average of 1 or 2 degrees. By contrast, lower-ranked ovens averaged as much as 60 degrees lower than the target temperature and usually took 20 percent to 30 percent longer to fully cook most recipes. All ovens (including wall ovens and toaster ovens) operate by cycling the heat on and off, so some fluctuation in temperature is normal and expected (we found most home ovens fluctuate about plus or minus 25 degrees from the target temperature). However, the difference of 60 degrees in some toaster ovens produced an unacceptable lag in cooking time. These lower-ranked models were not as carefully calibrated as our top-ranked toaster ovens, which nailed their target temperatures.
When we charted the temperature data, we also noticed that many products had large ebbs and flows in temperature as the heating elements cycled on and off during cooking. By contrast, our top four products had much smaller dips and spikes in temperature. While most manufacturers use nichrome (a mixture of chromium and nickel) in their heating elements, some manufacturers use quartz heating elements, which heat up and cool down faster than nichrome. This means they’re remarkably consistent and responsive; and we found they produced incredibly even and well-browned food.
Given enough time, most of the ovens were able to bake; potatoes, pizza, and cookies eventually turned out fine in all but one machine. Broiling and roasting proved more arduous. Some models took almost 20 minutes to broil a batch of asparagus—a task that usually takes 8 to 10 minutes in a conventional oven. Here, the issue was the distance between the broiler element and the top rack. Since toaster oven heating elements aren’t as powerful as those in traditional ovens, foods need to sit close to the broiling element to roast fully. One toaster oven had only 2 rack positions; the highest, at 3.75 inches from the broiling element, was still pretty far away. This oven took double the time of any other oven to broil asparagus and melt cheese onto sandwiches. Racks that sat too close weren’t much better—we wanted to be able to see food as it broiled, and models that offered about 1.5 inches of space between the top rack and the broiler were hard to keep an eye on. The best toaster ovens had a range of rack positions.
The toughest task for the toaster ovens was roasting whole chickens. While all were able to accommodate a 4-pound chicken on their lowest rack, for some it was a tight squeeze. A few grazed the top of the upper heating elements, which produced burnt spots during cooking. Most chickens emerged over-browned on top and pale and flabby on the sides, a sign that the heat wasn’t circulating well enough in the cramped space to evenly brown the chicken. The best toaster ovens were bigger—about 18 by 12 inches inside—so they were better able to comfortably fit the bird with room for heat to circulate and turn out chicken that was beautifully browned and crispy all over. Our top ovens also had dedicated roast settings that employ both the top and bottom heating elements.
Some toaster ovens were also very fussy to use. We liked models with large, clear displays with straightforward dials and buttons. Instead of “bake” and “broil” labels, one model used a confusing series of symbols for each of its settings. We had to look up the symbol in the key every single time we wanted to cook. Others were confusingly designed; one toaster had a “power” button that was the same size and shape as the “start” button. After getting all of our settings just right, we often mistakenly pressed the power button, turning the unit off and resetting all our preferences. We preferred digital dial controls that were easy to set; no repeated tapping on buttons required. We also liked models that remembered our previous settings and allowed us to adjust the settings during cooking. Finally, we liked toaster ovens that were easy to clean: crumb trays that slid out effortlessly, nonstick interiors that were easy to wipe down, and dark-colored or nonstick accessories that didn’t stain.
Our top-rated toaster oven was once again The Smart Oven by Breville, which costs about $250. This oven had very accurate temperature control, varying just 1 degree from our target temperature over a 2-hour period. The results of our cooking tests were remarkably consistent: toast was evenly browned, chicken was bronzed and crispy, cheese melted easily, and cookies were perfectly golden and chewy. Its heating elements, which are made of quartz, heated up and cooled down quickly. It’s a fairly large oven, and can accommodate a 13 by 9-inch metal baking dish (with no handles) or our winning small rimmed baking sheet. We also loved its intuitive dials, nonstick interior, and black enamel pans that provided good browning but were still easy to clean.
While our top four picks all cost about $200 or more, we were also able to name a Best Buy: the Krups 6 Slice Convection Toaster Oven With Digital Controls, which costs about $100. It’s smaller than other ovens, so it can’t accommodate a 13 by 9-inch pan or our favorite small baking sheet (though it does come with its own), but it still produced well-browned, evenly cooked food and was relatively easy to use.