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Why you should use your toaster oven as more oven, less toaster

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Given the name, it’s no surprise that people might put the emphasis on “toast” when thinking about their toaster oven. But these days, as the countertop appliance gets smarter and better, you should really be thinking more about the “oven” part.

“The penetration of toaster ovens is pretty high” in America, even if they’re underutilized, says Catherine Ruspino, general manager of cooking at kitchen appliance brand Breville. She says the humble toaster oven has only really started “punching above its weight in the last 10 years.”

Jack Bishop, chief creative officer at America’s Test Kitchen, which is planning to release a toaster oven cookbook next year, agrees. “They’re really like smart ovens.”

An increase in intelligence, though, has come with an increase in price, at least for the best-rated models. ATK’s top pick, the Breville Smart Oven, retails for about $300. The other brands toward the top of its recently updated ratings, including De’Longhi, Cuisinart and Calphalon, also clock in around $200. “We conspicuously did not name a best buy here,” Bishop says.

If you are throwing down that amount of money, you’re going to want to get as much use out of the toaster oven as you can. But even if you have an older model, there are still ways to maximize this versatile appliance. Here are strategies for using it.

Reheating. It sounds banal, but your toaster oven can be your go-to for heating a variety of leftovers. One of the big advantages is that it preheats very quickly — not as instantaneously as your microwave, but much faster than a full-size oven. It also can give you crisp results where the microwave might turn things soggy, such as pizza, fries or even thin breaded chicken cutlets. I’ve used a toaster oven to crisp the exterior of a burrito (briefly heated in the microwave to get the interior going) when I haven’t had access to a skillet.

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Broiling. Broiling relies on the proximity of food to the upper heating element. In a standard oven, that requires moving the rack to a much higher position than where it usually resides in the middle. Depending on your oven, you may end up with rack positions that are either too close to the element or too far away. That is less of an issue in the compact toaster oven, which makes it easy to get food close to the heat, assuming the appliance offers is a good range of rack positions. Ruspino says the short distance the energy has to travel between the element and the food means not much of it will be lost in the air, which is a poor conductor (and another reason larger ovens can be harder to preheat and regulate). With the countertop appliance, it’s easier to keep an eye on the food, too, before it gets too dark.

As to what to broil, Ruspino particularly endorses something like salmon steaks. Chef and cookbook author Eric Ripert, who years ago launched his website with a bunch of toaster oven recipes, also is a fan of broiling seafood, including red snapper and butterflied shrimp (both brushed with softened butter), in the toaster oven.

Don’t overlook thinly sliced vegetables either. Ripert suggests a carpaccio-like take starring zucchini. And there’s always the old standby: a cheesy open-face sandwich. I’ve also been known to throw together broiled s’mores in the toaster oven, no campfire required.

Baking. Toaster ovens can excel at both savory and sweet baking. Bishop says the first chapter of the coming toaster oven book will be about the top 10 dishes to make in the appliance, and one will be “crowd-pleasing casseroles,” such as baked ziti. Those, too, benefit from being close to the element for a beautiful golden top. The limiting factor, of course, is space, and this is another instance where new, larger models have the advantage. Bishop recommends a toaster oven that can accommodate a 9-by-13 baking dish, as well as a similarly sized quarter sheet pan.

The best toaster ovens are incredibly accurate at regulating temperature, even better than some wall ovens, Bishop says.  ATK’s winning Breville model varied no more than 2 degrees from its target temps, as opposed to the typical 25 degrees in a home oven (the poorer performing toaster oven models were off by as much as 60 degrees). Ruspino explains toaster ovens have specific wattage configurations to ensure accuracy and the right pattern of heat depending on which function is selected. That is useful for baked goods, such as muffins or cookies. If you’re someone who likes to stash cookie dough in the freezer to bake off only a few at a time, the toaster oven is the perfect way to go. In fact, ATK found that sugar cookies made in convection-equipped toaster ovens in which a fan helps circulate hot air baked faster and more evenly.

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Other small desserts are prime toaster oven candidates, such as molten chocolate cakes in individual ramekins, baked apples and scaled-down crisps or cobblers.

Roasting. When ATK released its most recent toaster oven review, “we were cooking real food in them,” not dishes that had been tweaked for the appliance. Case in point: roast chicken. Although some models can struggle to fit a 4-pound bird, ATK discovered the better ones can produce well-browned, juicy chickens. The crispy skin is a major plus of roasting chicken in the toaster oven, Ruspino says. “If you want to brown anything, try your toaster oven,” she says.

The toaster oven can also be ideal for roasted sides, Bishop says, especially if space in your regular oven is tight, a.k.a. the Thanksgiving conundrum. But don’t discount it for all-in-one dinners either. Think protein-and-veg sheet pan suppers that can be arranged on a quarter sheet.

Particularly if you’re moving into roasting or baking in your toaster oven, it’s a good idea to check whether the appliance has any hot spots. Bishop suggests filling the entire thing with bread and then toasting the slices to see if the elements run hot in any particular spots. Ideally, you shouldn’t have to rotate pans, but at least this way you’ll know if you have to.

Bishop says manufacturers’ constant updates have flipped toaster ovens’ reputation from dowdy to cool. The improvements have obviously helped performance, but “it’s still a toaster oven, despite all of the bells and whistles,” he says. “I think that you have to take it all with a grain of salt.”

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