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Breakfast, lunch, dinner, and fresh-baked cookies? That's the promise of today's toaster ovens. Our latest tests of dozens of models found a few able multitaskers. But other ovens botched basic jobs. And if all you want is great toast, buy a toaster; it can pop out evenly browned slices for $35 or less. Here are the details:
Toasters top our toast tests. Though we're still waiting for a model that does the job perfectly every time, toasters continue to brown more evenly and consistently than toaster ovens.
Toasting times depend on volume. Even the fastest toaster ovens take twice as long as toasters. But if you're toasting for a crowd, an oven with a six-slice capacity can quickly make up for lost time. Four-slice toasters combine the best of both worlds.
Convection doesn't pay. There's little proof from our tests that this fan-driven technology enhances baking performance, probably because air circulation is less of a factor in a small oven.
Size can be deceiving. Some of the toaster ovens with the biggest dimensions couldn't fit six slices of toast. If you plan to cook frozen pizza, make sure the rack is at least 12 inches deep. Look for variable or extra-wide slots in toasters.
Toasters and toaster ovens will brown a piece of bread. If that's all you want, go with a basic toaster. Most toaster ovens, on the other hand, will melt a cheese sandwich, broil a hamburger, or roast a 4-pound chicken. But toaster ovens generally don't toast bread as well as toasters do. They leave stripes on one side and take longer--4 to 6 minutes, versus 2 to 3 minutes for a toaster on a medium setting.
Toasters are pretty basic. But even these humblest of appliances are being designed to look at home in custom kitchens. Design gurus seem to have devoted less attention to toaster ovens, which tend to be boxy, though some have fairly sleek trim and details. When deciding what type of toaster you to buy, you might want to consider style as well as substance.
Two-slice models outsell four-slicers by about 3 to 1. Toasters come in a variety of exterior finishes, such as chrome, copper, brushed metal, and colors.
Toasters have morphed beyond the square metal box. Retro and contemporary designs abound, as do models that look perfectly at home in high-end designer kitchens. But great looks don't necessarily equal great mechanics: Many upscale toasters we tested were middling performers.
Toaster ovens come in two types: countertop models that entail a trade-off between counter space and capacity, and models that mount underneath cabinets. The "footprint" a toaster oven leaves on your counter might be a concern if you're tight on space. The smallest toaster oven we tested leaves a 16 x 8-inch footprint; the largest is 20 x 10-inches. But the smaller the toaster oven, the smaller its capacity.
More than 90 percent of toaster ovens sold are equipped with a broiler function--a handy feature if you want to cook burgers.
If speed is of the essence, consider a toaster oven that uses infrared heating, which speeds toasting. For ease of use, select a model with an electronic touchpad and a porcelain interior. Some toaster ovens come with nonstick pans.
Manufacturers are adding more bells and whistles to their toasters and toaster ovens. New electronics include LCD displays and toast shade indicators and countdown timers. On toaster ovens, features include defrosting and frozen pastry toasting, LED function displays, and variable browning.
The best toasters provide a wide range of "doneness," from very light to very dark, They also produce consistent color across all slices in a batch. And if you're toasting multiple batches, toast from the best models will come out the same shade of brown every time.
If you decide on a two-slice toaster, you can choose between two side-by-side slots or one long slot for two slices. A four-slice model is bulkier but can save time if you've got a big family and there's a morning rush in your kitchen.
In the past, toasters with a plastic housing were less likely to retain heat and feel hot to the touch than metal versions. But that's not the case anymore. Automatic shutoff for the heating elements when toast gets stuck is also important. All of our tested toasters have it.
Electronic touchpads and numbered dials are best. A shade dial is less exact, and a dial with unlabeled symbols can be hard to decipher.
If you favor oblong bread, look for deep slots. Some toaster slots are less than 5 inches deep; others are deeper and can accommodate larger slices.
A removable crumb tray is easier to clean than one that's hinged and attached to the toaster.
This is a handy option on many toasters. Once the toast has popped up, you can push the lever from underneath so the toast juts farther out of the slot for easy retrieval.
All the toasters we tested can fit a packaged bagel that is split. If you like big, fat bagels from a bakery, look for wider slots. Some toasters have a "bagel" setting that toasts on one side only, so you can brown the cut side and keep the other side softer.
Some models have retractable cords. Others have indentations into which you can wrap the cord to keep it under control.
Two of the more expensive toasters we tested don't pop your toast up automatically. When the toast is done, the KitchenAid Pro Line dings, and the Dualit simply turns its timer off with a click. With both, you have to push the toast lever up. The toast may stay warm in the slots, as KitchenAid claims, but the extra step is a nuisance.
West Bend's toaster takes a different tack. You insert the bread into a top slot and it moves slowly down and past the heating element. It then emerges in a tray at the bottom. The design works, but no better than many other toasters.
The "footprint" a toaster oven leaves on your counter might be a concern if you're tight on space. But the smaller the toaster oven, the smaller its capacity. Some toaster ovens have a curved bump-out in the back to help accommodate pizzas.
Look for a toaster oven with a nonstick or porcelain interior, which is easy to wipe down. The fewer vents and holes in the housing the better, since they can trap grease and grime.
Some toaster ovens light up from the inside when they're on so you can monitor the cooking.
Toastmaster invented the pop-up toaster in the 1920s and now shares shelf space with other venerable brands of toasters and toaster ovens such as Black & Decker, Hamilton Beach, and Sunbeam, plus players such as Cuisinart, DeLonghi, Kenmore (Sears), KitchenAid, Krups, Rival, T-Fal, Proctor Silex, and West Bend. Dualit makes old-fashioned, commercial-style, heavy-gauge stainless-steel toasters. Most brands manufacture two- and four-slice models and a few now manufacture toasters with one long slot. Use this information to compare toasters and toaster ovens by brand.
Among the leaders in market share, Black & Decker products are available nationally at a wide range of retailers including Target, Wal-Mart, Bed Bath & Beyond, Kohl’s, and Amazon.com. Electronic models include features such as frozen pastry one-touch function button and LCD indicator lighting.
A smaller but well-known and more expensive brand. Cuisinart is sold through department stores and specialty channels. Cuisinart toasters are generally made with a brushed-stainless-steel exterior and have defrost and reheat features along with LED indicators.
Among the market-share leaders, GE offers toasters and toaster ovens that are sold exclusively through Wal-Mart and are manufactured by Hamilton Beach. GE offers upscale-looking products with stainless-steel trim, defrost and reheat features, and "smart" technology at an affordable price.
Among the market-share leaders, Hamilton Beach toasters tend to be more expensive than others. Styles vary from the contemporary look of the Eclectrics line to the retro look of the Classic models and the modern appearance of the long-slot model. Hamilton Beach products are widely available at department stores, Wal-Mart, Target, specialty stores, Bed Bath & Beyond, and regional outlets.
Another small but well-known brand, KitchenAid makes toasters and toaster ovens that are sold through department stores, appliance retailers, national chains (Best Buy, Circuit City) and specialty channels.
Sunbeam offers inexpensive toasters sold at discount stores, Target, and online retailers. Sunbeam offers very basic models in two- and four-slice models.
This company has a small market share for its upscale, contemporary-looking products with the trademark angled design. This look is designed to provide "effortless viewing" while toasting and "easy removal" when finished. Toasters and toaster ovens are sold at Sears, Target, and specialty stores.
Toastmaster is one of the least-expensive brands and is sold through mass-market retailers such as Wal-Mart, regional Ace Hardware, and numerous online retailers.