A countertop toaster can be an indispensable kitchen appliance if you’re serious about cooking. But it’s important to understand how these toaster ovens are categorized, which cooking technologies they use, and which features you should look for, depending on your budget or cooking style.
Choosing a countertop toaster oven is a hard task, whether you’re buying one for yourself or as a gift for someone else. The following guide may help you figure out what you are looking for.
Types of Countertop Ovens
Toaster ovens can be separated into four categories, depending on the way your meal gets cooked, and the distinctions are important.
Conventional Toaster Ovens
Conventional toaster ovens are among the most affordable countertop ovens on the market. They come in a wide variety of models and with various features depending on the brand, price, size, and other considerations.
This type of oven uses heating elements in order to heat up the air in the oven, as well as the baking pan or tray. Because of this, food gets cooked more evenly and from all sides.
As with any other type of oven, conventional toaster ovens will require some warmup time before you can start preparing your meal.
The main uses of conventional toaster ovens often depend on the size and settings. Small toaster ovens can be used to reheat leftovers, make toast or snacks, and you can also bake small amounts of pastries or doughy delights.
Convection Toaster Ovens
Convection toaster ovens add another feature to conventional toaster ovens in the form of convection heating technology. This involves using a fan of fixed or variable speeds which moves the air around the oven.
Air circulation eliminates most problems that conventional toaster ovens have — the most important issue being hot spot formation.
Hot spots occur in regular toaster ovens because of the average heat distribution from the heating elements. The fan resolves this problem, as it moves the hot air around so that all areas of the oven are equally hot.
This all makes convection toaster ovens more versatile, more efficient at cooking, but also more expensive.
Infrared Toaster Ovens
The infrared toaster oven is the new kid on the block. This type of oven uses a new cooking technology which makes use of light as a heating source. For the time being, infrared toaster ovens aren’t as widespread as the previous two categories. You may have trouble finding a model you like.
That being said, they have some very interesting features and benefits. For one, infrared heating is known to be more energy efficient than conventional heating elements. Secondly, the oven will warm up more quickly.
Because of the faster heating process, infrared toaster ovens are regarded as better when it comes to cooking frozen foods. Both traditional and convection toaster ovens are ill-equipped to handle this task.
Rotisserie ovens are another class of countertop ovens. These have a very specific function — cooking meat. Unlike the other options, these ovens come with a rotating spit which turns the meat slowly and ensures that each side gets equal exposure to heat.
They tend to be quite large in comparison to other countertop ovens, especially if you want to be able to fit a whole chicken. It’s also important to note that not all rotisserie ovens use convection technology or infrared technology. In terms of energy efficiency, they aren’t the best choice.
Before you start browsing countertop toaster ovens and comparing settings and accessories, it’s important to decide what you’ll be using the oven for. Are you planning on making pizza, baked goods, or slow-cooked dishes?
Depending on the answer, specific ovens will suit you better than others. If you just want to make toast, maybe cook small batches of leftover dough, or cook some healthy snacks without firing up the large oven, any small oven will do. For more complex meals, you’ll have to pay more.
Remember, if you’re looking for perfectly prepared meals, ovens that come without a convection fan will probably disappoint you.
If you just want to reheat, defrost, or melt some ingredients, then you might be better off with a microwave oven. It heats food up much faster, and it’s more energy-efficient as well.
Depending on the type of dishes you like preparing most and how much countertop space you have, some toaster ovens will be better suited for you than others.
Most countertop toaster ovens are sized by the number of toast slices they can fit inside. E.g. you can get 4-slice ovens, 6-slice ovens, 8-slice ovens, etc. The more slices it can hold, the larger the oven will be, but the additional features impact the size as well. For example, convection toaster ovens are typically bigger than conventional ones.
The temperature range will depend on the brand, size, power, and design of the toaster oven, and there is a lot of variation.
In all but very few models, you can adjust the temperature range between low, medium, high, and everything in between. To make sure you can prepare your meals according to the recipe, choose a toaster oven with clear gradations and visual indicators which make it easy to determine where to turn the knob to get the temperature necessary for any particular recipe.
When it comes to settings, things can get really complicated. Most countertop toaster ovens have a few basic features, such as: toast, broil, cookies, pizza, bake, reheat, bagel, and warm. This is what you start with, and it tells you what you can prepare in your toaster oven.
In some ovens, these preprogrammed settings are fixed. Others will let you adjust them in various ways. You could reduce or increase the temperature, change the time limit, or change the fan speed.
Generally speaking, the more cooking modes a toaster oven has, the more expensive it will be.
Having more settings is obviously better if you have a larger toaster oven. Getting a small toaster oven means you have fewer cooking modes, as you probably won’t need slow cooking anyway.
Unless you’re a foodie with a very refined palate, you probably won’t notice the difference between a meal prepared in a conventional, convection, or infrared toaster oven. The heating elements don’t have much impact on the quality of your meals.
However, they are still an important factor.
Infrared heating elements, for example, come in two types: near and far elements. Far elements are responsible for giving out the heat necessary to cook the outside of the food. Near heating elements make your toaster oven strong enough to cook food on the inside.
What do you need to pay attention when it comes to heating elements? A basic toaster oven may have only two heating elements, one at the top and one at the bottom. More advanced toaster ovens use three heating elements, adding one at the middle.
Models with three heating elements create fewer hot spots and they heat the oven faster. But you could also have multiple heating elements for each section of the oven. Extra heating elements at the top help you with broiling. More heating elements usually means there are more cooking modes to choose from.
When it comes to safety features, almost every toaster oven these days will have a timer. Once the timer runs out, the cooking process will stop so that your food doesn’t burn.
Regardless of which materials the oven is made of, the outside will get very hot the longer the oven works. Some toaster ovens may come with safe-to-touch door handles but that’s about it.
It’s crucial to use oven mitts whenever working with countertop toaster ovens. Additionally, you should avoid moving any other appliances too close to either side of your oven. But if absolute safety is your top concern, microwave ovens might be the better choice for you.
Some toaster ovens come with multiple accessories. Standard packaging would contain a regular tray and a baking pan. If the oven is not too compact, it may also contain a pizza tray or even a pizza stone.
The larger the oven, the more versatile it is. Big models are usually equipped with more cooking functions, and chances are that you could also get a few extra accessories with your toaster oven. For example, there may be a rack for air frying food. You might also receive a deeper, larger tray for slow-cooking whole birds.
Some brands offer a rotating spit for countertop toaster ovens, as an optional accessory. This is one of the reasons why rotisserie toaster ovens are less popular than the other three types. They are simply not versatile enough to keep up.
Of course, in order to make use of a rotating spit, you need to make sure that the toaster oven model you’re looking at has the mechanism to support it.
User Interface, Ease of Use, and Maintenance
When it comes to ease of use, everything depends on your personal preferences. You can find toaster ovens with LCD displays or with basic buttons and text descriptions on the side panel. LCD displays are easier to read and you’ll find it more convenient to make temperature adjustments. Changing the fan speed is a lot easier too.
On the other hand, LCD displays tend to get cloudy over time, even if everything else about your toaster oven remains in top condition. So, although a digital user interface seems intriguing at first, it might cause difficulties down the road.
It’s also worth pointing out that not all LCD displays are equally good. Some have great readability but only when you are looking at them from the front. Once you look at them from an angle, it becomes almost impossible to see the readouts. Before you make your purchase, take these details into consideration.
Newer toaster oven models come with complex cooking functions and advanced settings, and this usually means they have complicated displays and digital interfaces. This means that eventually, you might start struggling with making quick adjustments or cleaning the outside of the oven.
In terms of maintenance, no matter what type of toaster oven you have, it will be easy to clean. Apart from the removable trays, there are no other interior components which need removing. There are various commercial cleaning sprays you can use to quickly dispose of grease.
Because of how diverse toaster ovens are, you can expect to find something interesting in any budget range. Obviously, smaller, less versatile toaster ovens will be easily affordable. But if you’re looking for something that could complement or even replace your traditional oven, you may have to spend a few hundred dollars.
If you are undecided and looking at both countertop toaster ovens and microwave ovens, the pricing shouldn’t be a major consideration. Microwave ovens may be slightly cheaper, but the extra few dollars spent on a toaster oven are more than justified by the cooking versatility of these devices.
If you aren't sold on the idea of toaster ovens, induction cooktops are an interesting option. Even high-quality single induction burners are affordably priced.
There are quite a few brands that you can always trust to make high-quality countertop toaster ovens. Breville, Cuisinart, Hamilton Beach, KitchenAid — these are all reputable brands that offer top-quality manual devices and electronic appliances.
However, when it comes to toaster ovens, Panasonic is quickly becoming the brand to look out for. Panasonic has achieved a lot when it comes to infrared heating technology for countertop ovens. While their products may be slightly pricier, they are surprisingly good in terms of energy efficiency and cooking speed.
How to Prioritize Features in Countertop Toaster Ovens
Most people use pricing and size to settle on a particular model. Others just buy the newest model available from the brand they prefer. But it’s important not to rush the decision.
The size of the countertop oven is obviously the most important factor for buyers. Following that, you should think about the number of preset cooking modes. Lastly, consider the heating technology and the amount of control you have over the temperature settings and air circulation.
Once you’ve found the perfect combination of the previously mentioned features, you can weigh in the other perks according to your budget or personal preference.