Smarter than your average toaster oven

27 Aug

The Breville Smart Oven makes perfect toast – and does a mighty fine job with everything else, too. (Geoff Meeker photo)

These days, toaster ovens are cheap – starting in the $50 range – and suitable for basic tasks, like cooking a frozen pizza or heating a TV dinner.

The manufacturers claim you can cook pretty much anything in them, from whole chickens to a tray of cookies, but I’ve developed a healthy cynicism about that. Because the top elements are so close to the food, anything thicker than a chicken breast will often brown before the food is cooked inside. The temperature settings are unreliable and the elements seem to weaken with age. I have owned several toaster ovens and – oddly enough – none could make a decent piece of toast (the bread always dried out before browning sufficiently).

When I saw the Breville Smart Oven recently, my curiosity was piqued. The online video presentation was impressive, but I was most intrigued by the $300 price tag.

Was it really better? Or just another over-priced appliance? I contacted Breville, who was willing to supply a tester unit (which does not, it should be noted, constrain my ability to be critical).

In this case, I was looking for an oven that really was “smart”; that offered more than a temperature control, broiler and a clock that goes “ding” at the end.

Right out of the box, I placed six slices of bread in the oven and set it on toast. I was about to roast a chicken and wanted to dry out some bread for dressing. I fully expected the bread to become dehydrated, as with every other toaster oven I owned.

Imagine my surprise when, four minutes later, I had six slices of perfectly browned bread – crispy outside and moist inside. I was shocked… and had to heat the bread on low power for an additional 15 minutes, just to dry it out.

Of course, I roasted the chicken in the oven too. It cooked to a crispy, golden finish, tender and juicy inside.

What makes the oven “smart” are the pre-sets. There are nine cooking options on the LCD control panel: toast, bagel, bake, roast, broil, pizza, cookies, reheat and warm. You rotate the “function” dial to your desired cooking option, then fine tune the time and temperature as needed.

For example, toast will default to a medium setting, but you can rotate the dial for darker or lighter. Reheat will happen at 325 degrees for 20 minutes, unless you change the time or temperature – a simple matter of rotating the dial. The broiler actually gives three options – low, medium and high – and so on.

The function dial may sound like a dressed up temperature control dial, but is clearly more than that. The oven puts out 1800 watts, though it uses this power selectively, as needed. It contains five elements – three above and two below – and varying amounts of juice are directed to each, depending on the selection.

For example, on the “bake” function, more wattage goes to the bottom elements than the top, creating a more aggressive cooking heat from below and a more gentle browning heat from above.

Several of the settings – such as roast and bake – use convection, which cooks food faster and more evenly. It works especially well in this oven. And if you modify the cooking settings for a particular function, the oven will remember this and recall them next time.

It may sound complicated at first, but that’s really because the control system is so different from the typical toaster oven. However, it quickly becomes apparent that part of what makes this oven so smart is its easy, intuitive user interface. It presents the full range of cooking options, clearly and simply, and delivers delicious, perfectly cooked meals. It really doesn’t get much easier than this.

My household has been using the Smart Oven every day for eight weeks now, and everything we’ve baked, roasted, toasted or reheated has been excellent. In fact, for small families it has the potential of replacing the conventional oven completely.

The only thing I don’t like is the “feel” of the control buttons. They work fine, but feel light and flimsy – especially the cooking selector dial, which sometimes takes a couple of clicks before it “wakes up” and responds. This is probably trivial but for a $300 appliance, I would expect a solid, more responsive dial.

If you’re in the market for a toaster oven and watching your dollars, you can find something acceptable in the $75 range.

However, if you can spare the $300, it’s definitely worth splurging on the Breville – the toaster oven that actually does make your toaster obsolete.

Geoff Meeker is a communications consultant with a soft spot for technology. He also writes a blog about the local media scene, which is hosted at http://www.thetelegram.com.

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