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Smart Ovens

Published July 2021

How we tested

Smart ovens promise to make cooking easier and more foolproof. We tested several, and while we liked features of each, we found two smart ovens that stood out. Both were easy to use and worked like highly enhanced countertop toaster ovens, with a variety of clever abilities that we found hard to give up when testing was done. 

We highly recommend the June Smart Oven (3rd Generation). We tested and liked the “previous generation” model—and this new model improves on an already great oven. Using artificial intelligence, it can recognize both fresh foods and many brand-name packaged foods, initiate cooking programs, and guide you through its library of recipes. Its display and controls could not be simpler, whether you’re relying on its smart functions or using it like a regular oven. It can toast, broil, bake, roast, air-fry, dehydrate, and slow-cook, and it also offers accessories for grilling and baking pizza. Every recipe we prepared came out perfectly. 

We also recommend the Tovala Smart Oven, which can automatically switch between baking, broiling, and steaming as it cooks and will notify you when your food is done. Like the June model, it also functions as a regular oven, and it uses “scan-to-cook” technology for many packaged meals and snacks. Its app guides cooks through its own recipes; the results were very good. Tovala also sells meal kits. These turned out to be fresh, palatable, and easy to prepare. Tovala would be ideal for someone who lives alone and doesn’t cook much but would be equally useful for a skilled home cook, though its compact size is best for small households. 

What You Need to Know

Over the past few years, smart countertop ovens have been arriving with a splash. This appliance category still has only a handful of players and remains a bit amorphous, since each company promises that its oven can accomplish a range of cooking tasks with very different technologies. All smart ovens claim to produce expertly cooked food with hands-off convenience, so you can kick your old toaster oven to the curb—and maybe your standard oven, your microwave, and a few other appliances, too. 

What Makes These Ovens “Smart”? 

Typically, smart ovens have apps that let you control cooking, peruse a library of built-in recipes, and purchase accessories; some also allow you to order meal kits. The ovens use sophisticated software in a variety of ways, whether to identify foods you put in them or run cooking programs that incorporate traditional and innovative cooking technologies, alone or in combination, to optimize results. 

While you can operate them exactly like a standard oven, smart ovens offer many more functions. They also guide you step by step as you prepare recipes: They monitor and adjust cooking time and temperature (some via built-in temperature probes), offer helpful videos and tips, transmit images or graphs of your cooking progress on their apps or oven displays, and scan packaged retail foods or the company’s own meal kits for one-step preparation. Some offer access to a community of users who share recipes and tips. All the ovens periodically update software and add features, just like your phone or laptop does. Most also link to Siri, Alexa, or Google Assistant, so you can operate them by voice.

During testing, not every oven lived up to its promises. Some of the programming didn’t quite work. For instance, even after we’d entered the exact weight of our whole chicken in ounces, as requested, one oven roasted it until the exterior leg and wing meat was as hard as plastic. Another took 8 minutes (and went through three separate cooking stages) to toast a slice of bread and still failed. It also took 3 hours to roast a small (4-pound) chicken. A third suddenly and unpredictably burned toast after previously completing a successful toasting session. To earn its place in our kitchen, we expected each smart oven to cook competently in every mode—and hopefully with less effort or time than conventional appliances. 

What to Look For

  • Simple, Intuitive Controls: Whether you’re using an app or the display on the oven, the controls should be easy to operate and clearly tell you what’s happening in the oven. 
  • Food-Temperature Probe: Ovens with attached food-temperature probes make checking and worrying about doneness a thing of the past. Our favorite models adjusted heat accordingly, shut off when food was done, and let us know when the food was ready. 
  • Convection Capability: In small ovens, it’s common to find hot spots, but our favorite smart ovens overcame this with convection capability—using fans to circulate heat—combined with well-controlled, responsive heating elements that gave us remarkably uniform, predictably excellent cooking results. 
  • Compact Profile: Your countertop oven shouldn’t dominate the kitchen and eat up all the counter space. 
  • Makes Good Toast: It seems simple, but since this oven will replace your toaster or toaster oven, it had better be able to make crisp, evenly golden toast without any fuss. 
  • Easy to Clean: We preferred models that were easy to maintain, featuring an interior and accessories that easily washed clean of splatters, a removable crumb tray, and an exterior finish that resisted smearing and stayed neat.
  • Sturdy Pans and Accessories: We preferred pans with polytetrafluoroethylene-free nonstick or enamel coating that cleaned up quickly and pans and racks with sturdy construction that didn’t warp or bend under heavy food.

Nice to Have

  • Large, Clear Window: We were surprised by how much we appreciated being able to check on food without opening the door. 
  • Meal Kit Option: We’re not huge fans of meal kits, but it’s a nice perk when you don’t feel like cooking.

What to Avoid

  • Confusing Controls: Anyone should be able to walk up to the device and get it going. 
  • Excessively Complicated Preparation: One model demanded that you prep and lay out food in a very particular way or else it would not work. Another required gallons of distilled water. It also had confusing multistep programs for even the simplest foods; these took much longer than conventional cooking and produced mediocre results. 
  • Scary Technology: It was alarming to read that one oven could cause eye damage if you opened it while it was cooking. We don’t want to have to police guests and children while making dinner.

Other Considerations

  • Steam Options: Two ovens in our lineup can add steam, usually in combination with conventional baking and roasting. Steam adds moisture and transmits heat to food faster than the dry hot air of regular ovens. In theory, this preserves the moisture in foods, speeds up cooking, and helps batters and doughs rise taller; since their exteriors remain soft and moist much longer, they won’t set into a firm outer crust that limits height. It’s helpful to revive leftovers, too. In practice, we didn’t necessarily notice a big improvement in foods’ flavor or texture when steam was involved, with the exception of a tall, moist chocolate cake and slightly taller biscuits.

Other Tools You Might Want

  • Pot Holders: Flexible, protective hand coverings will come in handy for pulling hot baking pans out of your smart oven. 
  • Kitchen Tongs: A good pair of tongs feels like an extension of your hands, helping you manipulate food without getting your hands near the heating elements. 
  • Parchment Paper and Aluminum Foil: Recipes from the ovens and their apps often called for lining baking pans, which helped make cleanup easier. 

Some Recipes to Get You Started

Methodology

  • Test the performance, ease of use, cleanup, and durability of each oven while preparing a range of foods using both the manufacturer’s recipes and our own
  • Make whole roast chicken, biscuits, barbecued ribs, and toast using the same recipe or method for oven-to-oven comparison 
  • Test the accuracy of the temperature settings 
  • Test the extra capabilities of each oven by preparing additional recipes, including meal kits, if any

Rating Criteria

Performance: We rated each oven on the texture, flavor, and visual appeal of the food that we cooked in it. We assessed whether the oven delivered on such claims as identifying foods, competently achieving success with various cooking methods, or running effective preset cooking programs. 

Accuracy: We tested the internal temperature of each oven cavity using a separate thermometer. 

Ease of Use: We evaluated the difficulty of setting up and using the oven to prepare a wide variety of foods and recipes, including any built-in recipes and programs as well as conventional cooking. We also considered the ergonomics and overall size of the ovens. 

Cleanup and Durability: After each use we cleaned the ovens’ interiors as well as their cookware and accessories, giving the highest ratings to the ovens that were easy to maintain in good condition. We also evaluated the sturdiness of each model’s construction.

The Results

Winner
Recommended

Design Trifecta 360 Knife Block

Admittedly expensive, this handsome block certainly seemed to live up to its billing as “the last knife block you ever have to buy.” The heaviest model in our testing, this block was ultrastable, and its durable bamboo exterior was a breeze to clean. Well-placed medium-strength magnets made it easy to attach all our knives, and a rotating base gave us quick access to them. One tiny quibble: The blade of our 12-inch slicing knife stuck out a little.

$248.64*
Recommended

Schmidt Brothers Downtown Block

This roomy block completely sheathed our entire winning knife set using just one of its two sides—and quite securely, thanks to long, medium-strength magnet bars. Heavy, with a grippy base, this block was very stable. An acrylic guard made this model extra-safe but also made it a little trickier to insert knives and to clean; the wood block itself showed some minor cosmetic scratching during use.

$141.90*

Schmidt Brothers Midtown Block

This smaller version of the Downtown Block secured all our knives nicely, though the blade of the slicing knife stuck out a bit. With a base lined with grippy material, this block was very stable. An acrylic guard afforded extra protection against contact with blades but made it a little harder to insert knives and to clean; the wood itself got a little scratched during use.

$67.99*
Recommended with Reservations

Swissmar Bamboo Magnetic Knife Block

This small, scratch-resistant model had a stable, rubber-lined base and could hold all our knives, though the blade of the 12-inch slicing knife stuck out a bit. But inch-long gaps between its small magnets made coverage uneven and forced us to find the magnetic hot spots in order to secure the knives. Its acrylic guard made it safer to use but harder to insert knives and to clean.

$49.93*
Not Recommended

Messermeister Walnut Magnet Block

This handsome block was done in by its shape—a tippy, top-heavy quarter-circle that wasn’t tall or broad enough to keep the blades of three knives from poking out. It lacked a nonslip base, and its extra-strong magnets made it unnerving to attach or remove our heavy cleaver. Finally, it got a bit scratched after extensive use.

$129.95*

Epicurean Standing Knife Rack 12"

This magnetic block sheathed all our knives completely, though with a bit of crowding. But it was hard to insert each knife without hitting the block’s decorative slats on way down, and because the block was light and narrow, it wobbled when bumped. Worse, we couldn’t take it apart, so splatters that hit the interior were there to stay. Additionally, the outside stained easily, and when we wiped it down, the unit smelled like wet dog.

$99.95*

Kapoosh Rondelle Knife Block

This model stabilized knives with a mass of stiff, spaghetti-like bristles that shed and nicked easily after extensive use, covering our knives with plastic debris. While all our knives fit securely, several of the blades stuck out, making this unit feel less safe overall. Finally, though the bristles could be removed and cleaned in the dishwasher, their nooks and crannies made this block hard to wash by hand.

$24.99*

Kuhn Rikon Vision Knife Block, Clear

This plastic block required us to aim each knife into the folds of an accordion-pleated insert that was removable for easy cleaning but got nicked easily with repeated use. Because we could only insert the knives vertically, longer knife blades stuck out; a cleaver was too wide to fit. The lightest model in our lineup, this block was dangerously top-heavy when loaded with knives.

$35.88*