How Does a Toaster Oven Work?

One of the simplest and most popular kitchen items is the toaster oven. Much like a toaster, it can reliably heat up and toast bread, bagels and waffles, but it's an even more useful appliance that often comes with a variety of settings that can be used for much more than toasting.

Toaster oven with slices of bread
credit: Roderick Chen/Photolibrary/GettyImages
Toaster ovens are like standard ovens, but smaller.

Toaster Oven vs. Microwave

If you're looking at supplying a standard kitchen, you may wonder whether or not a toaster oven is necessary. There are some differences between a toaster oven, microwave and standard oven. There's no single appliance that does everything.

Microwave ovens heat food using microwaves, a wavelength of energy that irradiates the food and heats the water molecules that are part of the substance, thus warming the food via turning some of the water into steam. The benefit to the microwave is that it's very fast — you can reheat an entire plate of food in a minute.

The downside is that heating by microwave does pull some of the moisture out of what's being reheated, which can affect the taste or texture of some meals, especially meats. Nevertheless, most people have a microwave for the simple convenience of quick warming.

Toaster Oven vs. Standard Oven

Standard ovens are larger and mostly used to cook larger items. A conventional oven has heating elements at the bottom. During a preheating period, these elements produce heat, which rises to fill the oven until the space is at the desired temperature.

A convection oven has a fan that will help distribute the air as it warms, so the entire space is at the same temperature. The main downside to using a standard oven is the amount of time and energy it takes to preheat and then cook in this large space. The advantage is, of course, that several foods can be baked, cooked or broiled in a standard oven. Most people have an oven and use it for anything from cookies to pot roast to frozen pizza.

Convection Toaster Oven

Toaster ovens are like standard ovens, but smaller. Many newer models have fans inside for even toasting and cooking, which allows the toaster oven to act as a convection oven. Most toaster oven settings include toasting, broiling, baking or warming, allowing them to be used as both a toaster and a small oven at the same time.

The advantage to the toaster oven is the time factor. It's much faster to heat the smaller space compared to a standard-size oven. It can heat many of the same things a microwave oven can, but items cooked in the toaster oven will come out crispy rather than soggy due to the differences in heating method.

Toaster Oven Heating

Most toaster ovens have heating elements along both the top and bottom of the oven space. The bottom elements are used to heat the space when toasting or baking, and the top element(s) are used when the broil setting is selected.

The heat radiating off of the heating elements warms the enclosed space and whatever food is in the oven. This is a dry heat, so food intended to have any kind of crisping, caramelization or crust will do well in a toaster oven. In a convection oven, the fan helps distribute warm air evenly throughout the space, allowing the food inside to cook more evenly. This is especially efficient in a toaster oven's smaller volume.

General Toaster Oven Use Guidelines

Using a toaster oven depends on the make and model of your appliance, but here are some general guidelines to using one:

  • With a two-in-one toaster oven that has a top slot for bread, add the bread (or other bread products) and depress the lever to start the toasting. If the bread is too thick in places or if any of it touches the sides where the heating elements are, it could burn the bread or even catch on fire, so make sure your food is properly sized. The toasted item will pop up when finished. The toaster portion can be used for bagels, waffles and other similarly sized foods, but it's inadvisable to try to cook anything else in an upright toaster.
  • When using a toaster oven to make toast, lay the bread flat on the rack. Check the settings to ensure toast is selected and choose your desired time on the dial. Most toaster ovens will make a sound when they're finished so you know your toast is ready. Because there's more space in the toaster oven, you can heat other baked goods like muffins or pastries as well.

Baking in the Toaster Oven

To bake in the toaster oven, check the dials and the manual. There should be a bake setting along with a way to adjust the toaster oven temperature. You'll want to familiarize yourself with all of the toaster oven settings before you get started.

Allow the toaster oven a few minutes to heat up, but a long time isn't necessary. Position whatever you're baking inside the toaster oven and be sure no food is touching the top of the oven, then set the timer dial for your desired time. Toaster ovens can be used to bake small batches of cookies and loaves of bread, as well as roasting vegetables and meats. They're best for recipes where exact accuracy isn't required due to their differences from standard oven timing.

Broiling in the Toaster Oven

To broil in the toaster oven, make sure you've selected the broil setting on the appropriate dial. Broiling uses the heating elements on the top of the oven and is often used to melt, brown, crisp or caramelize the tops of certain meals. Imagine melting cheese on top of a small plate of nachos, browning a cheese topping on a casserole and so on. Broiling happens rather quickly, so it's best to set a timer, but don't go too far away so you can keep an eye on what's inside.

Reheating and Thawing Food

To reheat food in the toaster oven, set an oven temperature between 350 and 450 degrees Fahrenheit and set the timer as appropriate. Since all toaster ovens work differently, there will be some trial and error in reheating food, but reheating in the toaster oven ensures it won't come out soggy.

It's not recommended to thaw frozen food in the toaster oven. That's best left for the microwave, if necessary. Preprepared frozen foods like pizza or burritos can be cooked in the toaster oven, but it's easier to defrost things like frozen vegetables or meat in the microwave.

Selecting a Toaster Oven

When choosing appliances, make sure to pick the ones that will work best with your usual menu and kitchen style. Some toaster ovens are large enough to bake a frozen pizza, for example, and can be used to make meals for one or two people. Other people may prefer the convenience of the microwave or the overall power of a standard oven.

When selecting a toaster oven, look for one with extra safety controls to help prevent a smolder or fire. Be sure it has multiple settings so you can get the most out of that valuable counter space. It won't take long before you've found the right settings for the perfect piece of toast.


Danielle Smyth

Danielle Smyth

Danielle Smyth is a writer and content marketer from upstate New York. She holds a Master of Science in Publishing from Pace University. She owns her own content marketing agency, Wordsmyth Creative Content Marketing (www.wordsmythcontent.com), and she enjoys writing home and DIY articles and blogs for clients in a variety of related industries. She also runs her own lifestyle blog, Sweet Frivolity (www.sweetfrivolity.com).