Toaster ovens do more than brown bread
Toaster ovens are handy for heating sandwiches, reheating leftovers and crisping frozen foods after they've been thawed in the microwave. Many models also work like miniature ovens -- baking, broiling and roasting small amounts of food. Experts and users say toaster ovens heat up fast, don't consume as much energy as a conventional oven or heat up the kitchen during the hot summer months. Pricier models with convection heating have a fan that circulates heated air throughout the oven to cook food faster and more evenly.
Ironically, expert reviews reveal that most toaster ovens are just average at toasting bread. That said, some people like the ability to keep an eye on the bread through the glass door while it browns, which isn't possible with slotted toasters. Larger toaster ovens are also capable of toasting six slices of bread, while most slotted toasters hold only two or four slices. If your main objective is toasting bread, our separate report on toasters discusses highly rated models, which take up less counter space than a toaster oven.
Overall, we found the most credible toaster oven reviews at ConsumerReports.org, where editors evaluate 23 toaster ovens for their performance in even toasting, baking and broiling. Testers also consider user-friendly features, how well each toaster oven performs when toasting or baking a full batch and subsequent batches.
Cook's Illustrated magazine also conducts thorough testing of 10 toaster ovens in a recent roundup. Editors evaluate on toasting ability, first by toasting several consecutive slices on a "medium" setting and then by trying out each oven's "dark" setting. A full batch (six slices) is also toasted, which editors say provides insight into heat distribution. Finally, editors test each toaster oven's full range of claimed baking and broiling capabilities by melting cheese on tuna sandwiches, heating up frozen pizza and macaroni and cheese. Of the 10 toaster ovens tested, two earn recommendations, but only one model excels on all criteria.
Editors at Fine Cooking magazine test 14 medium-size toaster ovens in an older review. These are all basic models without convection heating or touchpad controls. In addition to toasting bread, testers also brown nuts, broil a burger and roast sweet potato fries. The toaster ovens are evaluated for evenness of browning, cooking speed, heat control, construction, size, function and safety. Of the three top models, all but one have been discontinued, although thorough testing methodology and feedback on still-current models makes this review useful.
ElderGadget.com is a blog that provides reviews on products related to the special needs of senior citizens. Editors evaluate eight toaster ovens for elder-friendly features like simple controls, good hand clearance or an auto-eject rack, a crumb tray that pulls out from the front, and automatic shutoff. Although the reviews are based on actual usage, there isn't any information on cooking performance. A few models covered in this 2009 review have been discontinued.
The Washington Post, Food & Wine magazine, Real Simple magazine and the Good Housekeeping Research Institute also review toaster ovens. The Washington Post compares four toaster ovens and ranks them in order of preference. Editors at the three magazines name winners and runners-up, but don't disclose the testing methodology or which models didn't make the cut. Some of the recommended models in these reviews are now discontinued.
A few websites provide insightful reviews of a single model of toaster oven. At the foodie website BiteOfTheBest.com, Bonnie Tandy Leblang and her two sons provide short reviews of the Hamilton Beach Toastation Toaster & Oven based on their own use. ExpoTV.com offers videos of owners using their toaster ovens.
User reviews at Amazon.com and Walmart.com offer the best insight into long-term durability. We found fewer owner-written reviews at Cooking.com, Viewpoints.com, Target.com, Macys.com and Kenmore.com. Although some models hold up better than others, most toaster ovens get extremely hot on exterior surfaces and have trouble producing decent toast.