A Toaster Oven Buyer’s Guide

Toaster ovens appear to be a pretty simple appliance. And, in terms of use, they are. Many offer as close to one-button simplicity as anyone could wish. But choosing one can be a complex affair.

I say “can be”, but that need not mean “must be”. Out of all the many choices of models available today, and weighing all the pros and cons, it is possible to narrow that array down to essentials. That makes the choice much simpler.

Cost is an obvious factor, for sure. But that’s such a varying personal factor that no one can really offer good advice. Who is to say that a $300 toaster oven is too expensive to be worth buying?

It depends on your personal budget, the strength of your desire for the advantages of one, and a host of other individual factors. That thicket is too thick to jump into. I’ll pass on to the objective features of the toaster ovens themselves.

History and Technology

First, a little history. Some people think toaster ovens have been around only about 30 years or so. Certainly, that’s when they started to come into widespread use. But in fact as far back as 1910 – pre-dating pop-up toasters themselves – there were toaster ovens. Even then they were intended for more than toast. That food was most often prepared on the stove or in a small metal mesh device.

Today, of course, you can get a variety of technologies to prepare all kinds of foods. Many use electrically heated metal rods to warm the interior, just as your conventional oven does. But some use infrared radiation. That statement is worth a short diversion, not so much to give a science lesson but to avoid getting dazzled by buzzwords.

In truth, all conventional electric ovens – full-sized or toaster oven – use infrared radiation to cook food. That’s just how ordinary heat is generated most of the time. The conventional oven’s glowing metal rods are producing visible red. But it’s the infrared – the invisible “light” – that supplies the heat.

The difference is: in a conventional oven the heating elements’ infrared radiation heats the air, which in turn heats your food. An infrared toaster oven, by contrast, operates more like a microwave oven. It heats the food directly.

Still, apart from the “coolness” factor enjoyed by techno-geeks like me, you probably care mostly about the results, not the method. That’s certainly a very sensible approach.

But how do you get those results? What are the best power levels? How easy are the controls? And – not least – attributes like size, material, and other external aspects influence how easy or hard it is to use, and whether you’d use it at all.

Size

Toaster ovens come in a range of sizes, if you’ll pardon the pun. Some are tiny like one Cuisinart model whose interior is barely more than four inches high. You won’t be stuffing a big chicken into that one. Others are, while much smaller than your conventional oven, quite spacious. A full cubic foot is not out of the question for the interior capacity.

How much is a cubic foot, though? That’s a space 12 inches by 12 inches by 12 inches. Most toaster ovens are wider than 12 inches and often a little deeper, but rarely so high – on the inside. The outside is of some interest, too, since you have only so much counter space.

On both scores, choose according to personal circumstances. Obviously, on average, a larger one will cost more. But, again, that’s not an aspect anyone can judge for you. Only you can decide if the ability to cook a 12″ pizza in your toaster oven, rather than a mere 9″ one, is worth X more dollars.

Power

Once you’ve narrowed the choices down by eliminating those that are too small or larger than you want to pay for, power is a key factor.

Some toaster ovens are wimpy, as little as 1300 watts. Ok, maybe that’s not really wimpy. A good microwave oven can fall in that range. But when you think that even small models might be rated at 1800 watts, the lower powered model looks less attractive.

Don’t be fooled by the number, though. It doesn’t signal how much power is delivered to your food. It’s a measure of how much power the unit consumes. Still, there’s a rough correlation between the two, and it’s the only number the manufacturers provide.

So, just rank the models in order and don’t worry too much about the absolute figure. After all, what you really care about are pre-heating time, cooking time, and whether the temperature range goes high enough for the dishes you want to make.

By the way, those infrared models are nifty in part because they operate like microwave ovens in one other way. They have essentially zero pre-heat time and they cook much faster. That figure can be as high as 30% using conventional heating technology, though – by including a convection feature.

Controls

Next in line of importance comes the controls. Though the ranking is somewhat subjective, I admit. They can be easy but few, complicated but many, or any mixture thereof. For example, some models offer dials for time, temperature, and pre-set programs.

Personally, that’s a big plus for me. I have a strong dislike for the modern “under the plastic” buttons. They almost give my fingers bruises to push, not to mention not having much tactile feedback. Typically, the sound and visual indicators provide more cues of whether you’ve pressed a button. But, as I said, that’s my preference. You might not care a jot.

All of them have some buttons, and here again my prejudice comes into play. I like ones that are raised and clearly marked. If you prefer touchpad-style buttons – like you find on your phone, for example – no worries. Some models have them. Even I find those units are not so bad as the under-the-cover ones.

It helps if they’re logically grouped. I like to see Bake, Broil, Defrost, and the like bunched together, and separated from Pizza, Waffle, Rolls, Toast, and other specific pre-sets. That, too, is largely a matter of taste, though. You might not care at all.

One thing most people will agree on, I think, is whether you have enough of them. For me, the more the merrier and I suspect most buyers will feel the same. The style of the control counts, too. By style, I mean: do you have to hold one button and tap another sixty-three times to reach the temperature you want to set?

That’s one reason I much prefer dials. I don’t mind tapping a button for Function – Toast, Pizza, Bake, or whatever. But I prefer not to stand at the toaster oven for sixty seconds holding or tapping a button to reach 450F. After all, convenience is supposed to be one of the overall values of a toaster oven. Let your patience be your guide.

Pre-set Program Selections

By the way, most toaster ovens offer those pre-set program selections – Pizza, Toast, and other options – but not all. You might think you could save money by doing without some, but oddly there isn’t any correlation between price and pre-sets. Some inexpensive models offer plenty and a few high-end models offer only a few programs. Go figure.

One thing they all do is make toast. That’s what gives the appliance the name, after all. Personally, a toaster oven is not my preferred appliance for making that food. But to each her own. If it’s yours, be sure you can actually make it the way you want with the toaster oven you select.

You might think that’s always true, but not so.

For example, one very popular infrared model – the Panasonic NB-G110P – works by a quartz heating element that “flashes” periodically to cook the toast. It has plenty of shade options. But there’s no way to monitor the food as it’s being heating. Ditto for any other kind of food it prepares. You can’t watch your casserole brown gradually. Still, lots of users love that Panasonic model, including yours truly.

Any model you would be interested in lets you select the shade. However, some offer only three – Light, Medium, and Dark. I lean toward one that offers a full seven degrees of doneness. That’s my idea of choice. I’ve got a big family with very individual tastes.

Display

Possibly the least important criteria, though one that’s far from trivial in my view, is the display. You’d think that in this day and age they would all be large, clear, and resemble a cell phone. Not so. Most are still pretty basic.

That said, there’s elementary and then there is downright primitive. Some models have displays that appear to have been left over from designs made 30 years ago.

Using crude LED lights, such as those found on high tech clocks from the ’60s, should make it hard for some manufacturers to sleep well at night. If I offered something like that in this day of Retina-display tablet computers I’d be ashamed. But some models do sport them.

Beyond the issue of bare appearance – size and style – it helps if the functions are clearly labeled in the display. You’d be surprised maybe to discover that not all are. One Cuisinart model really makes you squint to see the tiny dots that signal if a certain function has been selected.

Last, but not least, there’s position. Some models have the display on the bottom. That baffles me. Who wants to bend down to see the time or temperature? Unless you slide your toaster oven into an eye-level nook, that type of toaster oven is going to be an annoyance as long as you own it.

Case Design – Maintenance

All toaster ovens require some cleanup. Accumulating the remains of splattered cheese and tomato paste isn’t just unsightly, it can be dangerous. It gets hot inside these babies. Fires are possible.

Some toaster ovens are easier to clean than others, natch. A non-stick interior coating is always nice, as is a stainless steel exterior. But there are other aspects that affect maintenance ease, or lack, even more.

One major differentiator is whether the crumb or drip tray – if present, as is usually but not always the case – pulls out the front or the rear. For my money, the latter type are out of the running at once. Life is too short to be always pulling the toaster oven away from the wall to get at a metal tray.

But there are some models that go beyond just offering a front-side crumb tray. Some actually have a little eject mechanism that pushes the tray out for you. Nice. Not essential, but convenient.

Case Design – Use

A similar feature, not really a maintenance issue but it does help with cleanup – is the ability of rack to jut out when you open the door. Some do, some don’t. It’s not a major issue with me, but a lot of buyers are really ticked that they have to put on an oven mitt to extract toast.

I can’t blame them. It seems a small thing to ask of toaster oven makers to connect the door to the rack. Still, it does make for one more thing to go wrong after a few years of use.

More important to me is whether the rack has multiple positions. I like to make things just so and putting the rack closer to one heating element than another makes a difference. Some models offset fewer rack slots by designing the rack to be inverted. That’s clever.

The Breville Smart toaster oven models, for example, even have “intelligent” heating elements – which I and many others love. Those models direct more or less heat to one element depending on the type of dish being prepared. Sure, your conventional oven (and toaster ovens) have Bake and Broil settings that turn on one or the other or both heating rods. But this lineup goes beyond that to carefully tailor where and how much the elements heat.

Some toaster ovens offer a rotisserie feature. That’s not an important feature to me – I rarely want to cook a big chicken or turkey in a toaster oven – but it might be essential to you. Vive la différence! Larger models can handle a 23-lb turkey. Wow! That would save some time around Christmas, for sure.

Miscellaneous Features

There are other, miscellaneous, features to look for. One is an auto-shutoff, such as the ability to power off at the end of the cooking cycle. It’s also a nice safety feature to include. Some do so after an hour, but some only do so after four hours. That higher figure strikes me as useless, even if only the Keep Warm function is on until the toaster oven shuts off entirely.

Another is the loudness of the beep at the end of the cooking cycle. It’s not a life-changing thing but some are horrendous, loud enough to be heard in the laundry room standing in front of the dryer. Yikes!

Then there is overall appearance. There’s nothing to say here but: Hey, get what you like! I like it when appliances fit in with my overall kitchen décor. Still, function comes first with this busy chef.

Conclusion

Toaster ovens come in a variety of sizes, power levels, and materials. They offer different style controls and convenience features. Even so, it’s usually easy to narrow the field. Get as much power as you can in as big a toaster oven as you have room for with the most controls that are easy to use. Hey, that would be the ideal, wouldn’t it? To find your ideal toaster use our selection tool.

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