A Theory of Toaster Ovens and Toast

I returned the horrible, no good, piece of crap that DeLonghi was shilling as a toaster oven. Thankfully, I had no hassles upon return at Linens and Things with my receipt and the two month old toaster oven under my arm. I was prepared to start shouting at them, but tried the pleasant approach first and I didn't even have to explain how disappointed I was in the DeLonghi's cooking and toasting performance. That was about $80 back in my wallet and its ~$40 replacement (Farberware) is a credit to small appliances everywhere.

While I'm on the subject, there seems to be a trend in the toaster over business to ever larger and fancier machines. It's not uncommon to see small countertop convection ovens (or even convection / microwave ovens) sold as "toaster" ovens. One of the selling points on my former DeLonghi was that it could cook a whole 12" pizza - a premade convenience that I do occasionally indulge in, though had I taken a ruler to the Trader Joe's refrigerated pizzas I would have found that they are only about 10". The DeLonghi was big enough that the heating elements were far away from the food, making it more difficult than necessary to toast things. Additionally, the toaster oven took forever to warm up, meaning that any toast put into a cold oven would ALWAYS come out bone dry, having been turned into a Zwieback cracker - like a piece of jerky. Jerky toast - that's what I want in the morning! This was a problem from Day 1, but I thought that I'd solve it by turning the thing on for a few minutes before putting bread in for toast. If I had time to babysit first the oven and then the toast this was a minimally acceptable strategy.

However, the strategy was compromised by the third flaw of the Delonghi: I never could figure out how to get both heating elements hot and keep them that way. I only once saw the bottom element get to a dull red hot, so I don't know if it ever was fully on. Additionally, the Delonghi would spontaneously turn off the broiler (top) element once it was hot. I don't know who the genius was at DeLonghi who designed this, but I'd like to tell them that YOU CAN'T TOAST BREAD ON LOW HEAT!! I managed to steam a nice little chop into an unappetizing shade of gray using this broiler cut-out "feature". That was the last straw.

Toast should be crispy and golden/brown (caramelized) on the outside and still moist on the inside. What this means in terms of actually cooking the thing is that you want the heat to be applied rapidy (so the toaster shouldn't take a long time to warm up) and you also want a high heat (so the outside can caramelize, giving you that nice toasty flavor, while the inside, which lags behind the outside in temperature, doesn't get so hot and therefore stays moister).

The bigger toaster ovens have a design disadvantage since they necessarily position the heating elements far from your toast. Since there's a 1/r^2 dependence on the thermal energy reaching your food, a small change in distance could result in much less toasting and much more drying. This is why "bagel width toasters" suck for regular bread - the heating elements are close to the wide bagel, but too far away from thinner bread for ideal toasting. The smaller toaster ovens appear to solve the "too far" problem in the tried and true American fashion by applying more power, which they can do because they have heating elements that can handle a higher heat output without self-destructing. (My new Farberware toaster oven has coil inside quartz or glass heating elements and is rated 1200 Watts. I've frequently seen high power consumption on the larger toaster ovens as a selling point - up to 1550 Watts. But there's only so far you can take that before customers complain that their circuit breakers trip when they use the coffee brewer at the same time as the toaster oven. I would guess that toasters, as opposed to toaster ovens, are limited by their size and price points to lower ouput flat heating elements typically made from NiChrome wire and I would also guess that they run at proportionately lower power. A brief survey of toasters on sale at Amazon.com shows that what must be the Cadillac of toasters - the 10 pound, four slice, model FEP4B toaster from Krups - has a power rating of 1500 Watts. I imagine this is the high water mark, since most don't bother to mention it.) In any case, I seem to have determined experimentally what the optimum size for a toaster oven is, and most small toaster ovens will make the grade. Bigger is better only up to the point where the thermal energy you can get to your toast doesn't diminish too much.

EDIT1: In my in-box this PM,

"My DeLonghi oven died. I have to return it. I hope I can find the receipt. It just stopped working when I was cooking in it. I hope you like your Farberware one better.

[Who purchased her identical oven only a short time before I did.]

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