Gadget of the Year: The Toaster Oven

Many of us won’t hesitate to spend more than $600 on a cellphone. Here’s another device to spend that money on: a toaster oven.

Yes, you read that right.

Like a smartphone, a good toaster oven can be an everyday workhorse. Apart from heating up toast, this underrated kitchen gadget can handle many other foods, like roast chicken, steak, fresh bread, crispy potatoes and even cake.

A good countertop oven often outperforms a full-size one because its smaller cavity enables it to heat up faster and maintain consistent temperatures more easily. Your electricity bill will probably drop, too, if you have an electric full-size range.

Last but not least, the countertop oven recently became an interesting tech product category. Over the last two years, tech companies like June and Tovala and household brands like Whirlpool have invested in software-powered heating methods that cook foods more efficiently, requiring less culinary know-how.

That means we now have more options than ever. For around $500 to $1,000, we can get a smart oven, equipped with advanced heat tech and programmed recipes to automate the cooking process. Or you could spend around $150 to $700 for a high-quality old-school toaster oven.

So should you go for a techie oven or a traditional one? I tested two high-end countertop ovens — the $1,095 Brava smart oven, which relies on light bulbs to generate heat, and a $680 Wolf Gourmet countertop oven, which uses traditional heat methods — side by side to understand their benefits and downsides.

My wife and I used both ovens to cook several dinners and compared the results. Then we brought baked goods to our offices to let a panel of judges (O.K., our colleagues) decide which oven baked the best cookies and bagels. Here’s how that went.

First, a primer on the two ovens.

The Brava smart oven, which was released last year, looks like a bulky laser printer with a handle and touch-screen. A system of light bulbs transfers infrared energy directly into the food; the lamps can heat up to 500 degrees within a second, meaning there is no need to preheat.

To make cooking a mindless task, the device has a catalog of preset recipes including roast chicken, baby broccoli and bacon. You just tap a few buttons and follow the on-screen instructions to get going. The oven kit includes a glass tray and a metal tray as well as a probe thermometer for gauging the doneness of meats.

The Wolf Gourmet countertop oven has “calrod” technology, which consists of tube-shaped heating elements that convert electricity into heat. In addition, it uses convection, which involves a fan circulating heated air to cook foods evenly.

To control the appliance, you select a heat mode (like bake, roast or broil), turn a knob to set the temperature and then wait for the oven to heat up. The oven has two adjustable metal racks and also includes a probe thermometer.

Credit…Mary Lam for The New York Times
Credit…Mary Lam for The New York Times

The pros and cons for each oven were the most pronounced in roast chicken.

For this experiment, I salted a chicken and painted it with soy sauce, and then I removed the spine. Each oven baked half the chicken.

With the Brava, I selected the preset chicken recipe. The screen instructed me to insert the probe thermometer into the chicken, place it on the metal tray and start cooking immediately. After about 28 minutes, the chicken reached an internal temperature of 165 degrees. It was done.

With the Wolf, I turned the heat up to 425 degrees and waited about 12 minutes for it to heat up. Then I placed the chicken on a sheet pan, inserted the thermometer into the meat and lined the pan on the center rack. About 36 minutes later, the chicken was ready.

The result: The Wolf produced a chicken with a darker, crispier skin, in part because of its longer cook time. The Brava chicken came out slightly dryer and blander. But my wife and I agreed that both chicken halves were satisfying — much better than a rotisserie chicken sold at a grocery store.

After the chicken was done, we baked baby broccoli in each oven, which took about 6 minutes in the Brava and 11 minutes in the Wolf. Both ovens made the broccolini nicely charred and crispy.

Verdict: If I wanted the best roast chicken, I would get a Wolf. But if I wanted to get a good chicken quickly on the dinner table, I would get a Brava.

Credit…Brian X. Chen for The New York Times
Credit…Brian X. Chen for The New York Times

The Wolf excelled at baking breads, while the Brava was hit and miss.

In this test, I prepared 24 bagels of equal weight and baked a dozen in each oven.

The Wolf produced bagels with a nicely browned, crispy crust and a pillowy crumb. The Brava bagels came out pale and doughy. I decided to give the Brava a few extra minutes to ensure the bagels were not raw, but they still did not brown.

I brought the bagels to the office and handed out scorecards to let my colleagues rate the bagels, without telling them which oven produced which batch. The Wolf beat the Brava, 8 to 0.

Credit…Mary Lam for The New York Times
Credit…Mary Lam for The New York Times

Cookies were more forgiving. My wife made a batch of chocolate-chip and peanut-butter oat cookies. The Wolf oven’s cookies turned out evenly browned but softer, and the Brava cookies were crispier with uneven browning.

Similarly, she asked her colleagues to score the cookies. The Brava beat the Wolf, 7 to 5. Some rated the Wolf cookies higher for aesthetics and consistency, but others preferred the crispier chew of the Brava cookies.

Verdict: Serious bakers should get a Wolf oven. Casual bakers would be fine with a Brava.

My wife and I also reheated a leftover roast duck from a Chinese restaurant. The Brava had a button to reheat food; the Wolf did not. So I turned the Wolf up to 350 degrees and set a timer for five minutes.

After the time was up, the leftover duck came out nice and hot from the Brava. The Wolf oven’s duck was still slightly chilled and needed a bit more time.

Verdict: The Brava is faster and easier to use for reheating leftovers.

All the verdicts point to one thing: There are now countertop ovens for different types of cooks.

For perfectionist cooks with the luxury of time, like my wife and me, an oven that uses well-honed, traditional heating methods like the Wolf is a great fit. This countertop appliance could handle the vast majority of our baking needs, leaving our full-sized oven with one main job each year: Thanksgiving turkey.

But there are plenty of people who would probably enjoy a smart oven like the Brava, such as busy parents with young children who just need to get dinner on the table quickly, or those who bake quick meals like frozen pizzas.


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