One of the best tools you can have in your kitchen—particularly if you don't have the luxury of a second oven—is a toaster oven. It's worth it to clear some counter space (and ditch your regular toaster) for the appliance, which you can use not only to make perfect toast but also to melt cheese, reheat pizza or cook a frozen one, bake cookies or even roast fish fillets or chicken breasts. We put a slew of models to the test making all of the above; here are our picks for the best toaster ovens at a variety of prices.
Cuisinart Combo Steam + Convection Oven, $300
Why We Like It: The sleek control panel (only one knob and two buttons) belies just how much this toaster oven can do. Functions include toast, convection bake, broil, steam, proof bread and warm. We were blown away by its versatility, particularly the steam function (fueled by a little water reservoir on the side). This oven is a must-have for bread makers: Dough can be proofed using the steamer and a low temperature, and the Bread Baking setting delivers steam at the beginning of the cycle, followed by convection baking, which yields a fantastic, gelatinized crust. The Steam/Bake setting also makes for great roast chicken pieces; they came out crisp skinned but super moist inside. Its interior is around 11 by 10 inches, big enough to hold a 9-inch square baking pan or a round cake pan, or a rimless 7-by-11-inch casserole dish.
The Drawbacks: Perhaps because of the simplified knob controls, there's a lot of button pressing involved to program even the simplest cycles. Also, the default Toast setting tends to burn toast, which means the settings need to be changed every time you want to toast bread.
Panasonic FlashXpress Toaster Oven, $120
Why We Like It: At 13 inches wide by 10 inches tall, this compact toaster oven is great for a small kitchen. The reason it's so petite is because the controls are cleverly situated below the door, rather than on the side, like most toaster ovens. The trade-off is that the interior is small, too—at just shy of 10 by 10 inches, it's big enough to fit a 9-inch square or round pan if it doesn't have a wide rim. For the price, this toaster oven did an excellent job, particularly at heating, baking, toasting and melting. It uses infrared technology for its heating element, which means there's no preheating, and food cooks quickly. In our tests, toast was super crisp and evenly browned (you can fit four pieces at a time, although the back slices will be a tad darker). A small frozen pizza came out crisp on the bottom with perfectly bubbly cheese.
The Drawbacks: The settings are a little too specific—do enough people really cook hash browns to warrant their own setting? Plus, the temperature controls are preprogrammed at odd intervals: 355 degrees instead of the standard 350 degrees, and 460 degrees instead of 450 degrees.
Breville the Smart Oven, $250
Why We Like It: Like many Breville products, this countertop oven is well designed and top-notch quality. The accessories it comes with (a baking pan, broiler insert, 13-inch nonstick pizza pan) are sturdy and better quality than most of the baking pans that come with a countertop oven. It's got a generous interior (11.5 inches deep by 13.5 inches wide), which means you can fit a full-size pizza or an 8-by-11-inch baking pan. This one did the best job of making perfect, evenly browned toast, and you can adjust the settings depending on whether you're making one piece or six. In fact, just about every setting—which include Toast, Bagel, Bake, Roast, Broil, Pizza, Cookies, Reheat and Warm—is adjustable with the dial controls. You can control not just the temperature and cooking time but also the size of whatever you're cooking, whether it's frozen or not and whether you want the convection fan on. The best part is that (and here's where the "Smart" comes in) the oven will remember your settings for next time, so you won't have to futz with it again. Due to its size, versatility and powerful heating element, this toaster really could serve as your second oven.
The Drawbacks: It's surprising that with all its features, this oven doesn't have an interior light to help check on browning or melting.
Why We Like It: For the price, this toaster oven will serve you well. With an interior of 13 inches wide by 10 inches deep (deeper in the middle where there's a bump-out to accommodate a 12-inch frozen pizza), it can hold a small casserole dish or a 9-inch square or round cake pan. It has sensible presets for baking cookies and cooking pizza, frozen snacks and potatoes, plus function settings for baking, broiling, toasting or bagels. A button also turns a convection fan on or off. We found that this oven excelled at baking cookies, rolls and even cakes, making it a great extra oven for entertaining and holidays. Broiled fish came out moist and evenly browned, and pizza was crisp on the underside and nicely melted on top, except that the crust in the back bump-out hung over the edge of the rack.
The Drawbacks: The exterior gets super hot; make sure to allow the recommended space around it and avoid touching it when in use. Also, the display, which doesn't have a backlight, is difficult to read.
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