Popping a slice of bread into the toaster is part of the morning ritual. "People are passionate about their toast," says Betty Byrne, manager of the Hamilton Beach test kitchen. "The aroma of toasting bread is evocative of childhood." In America, where electric toasters have been around for 100 years, the appliance has evolved and adjusted to food trends. Today, that means wider slots for bagels, muffin tops and artisan breads, plus warming and defrost features. All this innovation hopefully helps to prevent burnt toast, a smell that can start the day on a bad note.
One slot. Some models have one long, wide slot to accommodate large slices of thick artisan breads. Defrost. A setting that defrosts and toasts at the same time. Bells and whistles. A timer sounds when your toast is ready.
Design as a selling point. "People don't put toasters away; they leave them on the counter, so they have to look good," says Luca Alessi, associate product manager for DeLonghi, whose toasters have sleek Italian lines. Many U.S. companies are going for chubby stainless-steel styling evocative of 1940s diners.
Keep it clean. If your toaster is used daily, shake out the crumb tray over the kitchen sink or trash can at least once a week after unplugging it. Then wipe the tray down with a dry cloth. Use a damp cloth for the outside of the toaster. Do not stick a fork in it. Never put anything in a toaster besides wood or bamboo toast tongs, and only after you unplug it and wait for it to cool. Pull the plug. Your toaster should be unplugged when not in use to avoid the possibility of a fire.
Toaster ovens. Purists will tell you that although toaster ovens have been popular for 50 years and can bake and broil, they generally don't toast as well as pop-up toasters. That's because their heat source isn't as close to the bread.
Frosted pastries. Some toaster makers caution that for safety reasons, these should not be put in pop-up toasters. The frosting "is primarily sugar, which is flammable," says Byrne of Hamilton Beach. Kris Charles, a spokeswoman for Pop-Tarts maker Kellogg, recommends following the package instructions (use lowest heat setting, for example) and the guidelines for your toaster.
Heating up. The first cycle of a toaster takes the longest. It's sort of like preheating your oven. The second and third cycles won't take as long.
Toast world. Plug in to the quirky underworld of toasters with the Eat Toast blog ( www.eattoast.com ). "People seem to have something to say about their toast and toasters; it's an iconic appliance," says Morgan Schwartz, a New York college professor who started the site in January.
Cat fancy. Does your cat pee on your toaster? The reason for this may be a crumb tray jammed with bread that is regularly nibbled on by a mouse.
Owners. 91 percent of U.S. households own a toaster, according to Hamilton Beach.
-Crumbly, sugary breads