There are now lots of stores that will send you kitchen equipment in the mail. Some of them aren't even stores, technically speaking, consisting instead of computers, phone banks and warehouses.

The catalogues issued by these enterprises are mirrors of their soul, the outward manifestation, you might say, of the inner marketing ideas. This theory can be tested locally, where Kitchen Bazaar sends out pages of rock 'em, sock 'em, fun notes about everything from heart-shaped ice cube trays to Calphalon pots, Williams-Sonoma makes us think in terms of high style, high trend and (sometimes) high cost, and La Cuisine issues an encyclopedia of the most serious (but not sober), most extensive collection of cookware imaginable.

Say "Hammacher Schlemmer" and many things come to mind -- among them, possibly, the name for some retrograde TV sitcom. But Hammacher Schlemmer is actually a store that sells the best of a bit of everything from heated towel racks to a $6,000 espresso machine.

You might think heated towel racks are amusing, but the folks at Hammacher Schlemmer take these things very seriously. They have the nerve -- unusual these days -- to unconditionally guarantee everythingin their catalogue and to declare certain items "the best" or "the only." Even their disclaimer has an air of earnestness: "Whenever an item in this supplement catalogue is characterized as being 'the best' or 'the only one' to perform in a particular way, this is, of course, only by comparison with all other products known either to the store or to the Institute." Aha! Only in comparison to all other products "known"!

The Hammacher Schlemmer Institute is nonprofit, though obviously connected to the business enterprise, and these are the people who toast the toast, make the espresso, crisp the crackers in the crisper and so forth. There is a good bit of kitchen equipment in the catalogue, all of it "high-end," some of it very expensive.

The institute's director, Christopher Ryan, was willing to describe all the steps that led to the decision, for example, that the best toaster oven/broiler was a Panasonic model. He says that the ultimate test is how the item performs in actual, everyday use. "You don't need an oscilloscope," Ryan notes, "to test a toaster oven. You want to go in there with potatoes. Or pork chops."

The first thing his staffers decide is what the company's constituency -- which tends to be affluent people with a desire to buy the best but a dearth of time for comparison shopping -- wants out of a toaster oven. They look at cooking speed, ease of cleaning, interior capacity in relationship to overall size and conveniences like timers and self-cleaning abilities. Sometimes the little details are the ones that can drive you crazy, and Ryan says his group pays particular attention to these -- things like how easily a pan goes in and out of the toaster oven, how hot the handle gets or how easy the crumb tray is to deal with.

Most of the tests performed are side-by-side comparison tests of all the toaster ovens considered to be "high-end," or brand new models. Hammacher Schlemmer doesn't bother with the cheaper, tinnier models; it deals only with what it considers to be its competition. The staff toasts toast, broils chops, cooks frozen dinners, bakes potatoes in all half a dozen or so models, paying attention to all the established criteria.

Although most of the emphasis is on how the toaster performs, the staff also does some engineering-type things like going all over the surface with a temperature probe to determine if the toaster gets hot enough to be dangerous. A former director of Consumers Union, whose emphasis tends to be more on the engineering side, is employed as a consultant to help with defining criteria and interpreting data.

The catalogue offers a lucid and thorough description of why the Panasonic model was deemed "the best" -- it has removable continuous-cleaning panels, it toasted evenly and cooked well, and it had clearly marked controls, a sturdy oven rack and a dependable crumb tray. It had one weakness -- a slightly smaller capacity than other comparable models -- a defect that the testers decided was overshadowed by its outstanding features.

So that's how things proceeded with the best little toaster oven. Ryan says his group likes to keep the ratings current by updating them every year or so.

Other kitchen items in the catalogue include the world's smallest travel coffeemaker (with or without an international converter), a gnocci maker, the best full-sized home deep fryer, the best electric tea kettle, the best electric griddle and the best electric pasta maker.

And if you're not interested in kitchen equipment at all, how about a world-band radio? The smallest full-size folding bed? The best suitcase?