When you have a small kitchen, a toaster can feel like the ultimate non-essential. And yet, there are times that there are no replacements for its convenience—like when you have a kid and that kid decides that bread and frozen waffles and bagels and breakfast "tarts" and the rest of the toastable gluten-verse are going to be the foundation of his food pyramid.
For all the toastable gluten-heads out there, we went on the hunt for the best toaster. We wanted to find one well-designed enough to fit neatly into a small space, sturdy enough to stand up to near-constant use, and reliable enough to perform a grab bag of tasks ably, whether during a rushed school-day breakfast or leisurely weekend brunch. Was there ever a reason to spend $300 on a toaster, or would a $35 one suffice?
In 2018, we tested 15 highly rated models from across the price spectrum to find out. The toasters ranged in price from $30 to $300, and came either in 2-slice or 4-slice form. In the end, we named five winners: a budget pick, an overall favorite in both the 2-slice and 4-slice categories, and a design favorite—you are going to see it on the counter everyday, after all. In 2019, we updated the 2-slice toaster category by testing three new toasters—one we had overlooked in the first round and two new releases. We put them up against the Smeg and and the Oster toasters we had originally loved in the budget and high-design categories.
The goal of our 2019 update was to see if any of the new additions to our test upset the winners podium of 2018. The new toasters we tested started at just $18, and, spoiler alert: one of them did beat out the old budget pick. We also wanted to check some of these new toasters against the Smeg, our high-design pick of 2018, to make sure that its performance was still up to snuff against newer models. No upsets here. While the $150 price tag was just as daunting the second time, it proved once again to be as easy to operate and effective as it is good looking.
How We Tested
When it comes to toasting, sliced white sandwich bread is the ultimate blank slate—so, for the first round, we grabbed a few bags of Wonder Bread to gauge how each machine could handle the basics. We tried each toaster at a low, medium, and high setting, got out a stopwatch to measure how long each toast took, and compared each setting for consistency. To determine the toasters' defrosting and reheating capabilities, we chose frozen waffles as the next marker. Lastly, to evaluate how each toaster dealt with larger objects and sturdier slices (We're looking at you farmers market miche), We chose a stack of sliced bagels for the final challenge.
Two-thirds of the toasters we tested were 2-slice models: this, we reasoned, was standard, and big enough for most uses. But I was also determined to find a 4-slice model—ideal for roommate situations or larger families—that performed well enough to merit giving up some extra space. I used the same tests to evaluate both size models.
Factors We Evaluated
1. Does the toaster feel well-built?
Almost all toasters are made from a combination of metal (these days, often stainless steel) and plastic—but depending on price point and manufacturer, the build-quality and aesthetic differences between models can vary enormously. Before toasting, we held each machine in our hands and watched at how sturdily it sat on the counter: ones that wobbled or squeaked lost some points.
2. Does it accommodate large items and toast evenly and consistently?
We looked for toasters with slots that could accommodate slices of all shapes and size. We also checked to make sure that, once lowered, each item sat deeply in the slots with no portion uncovered and untoasted. We evaluated whether the machines toasted both sides of the bread evenly and yielded predictable differences when using both the light toast and dark toast settings. If the toaster had a dedicated bagel setting, We used it, though we did not automatically disqualify models that lacked those specifications. Even though I timed how long each machine took to perform the different tasks, in the end the machine’s performance and consistency was more important than an extra 20 to 40 seconds.
3. Can it defrost frozen items without over-toasting them?
Nowadays, lots of toasters come with a defrost setting—which would seem ideal for items like frozen waffles and breakfast pastries, but in past experience, the results are often either a waffle that's toasted on the outside but icy in the middle or defrosted but depressingly soggy. The goal: finding a machine that offered the best of both worlds.
4. Are the settings intuitive to use?
Though we appreciate options, we hate redundant design clutter. In approaching each toaster, we judged whether the machines' controls were practical and comprehensive. We also considered whether the interface seemed self-explanatory (good) or would require a close reading of the manual (bad).
5. Is it bulky?
Even if you don't live in a tiny NYC apartment, chances are your kitchen counter is still some valuable real estate. With that in mind, we favored toasters that seemed thoughtfully designed and conservatively proportioned.
The Best Toasters
The Best Overall 2-Slice Toaster: Breville Die-Cast
At around $125, the Breville Die-Cast is an investment, but the sleek, leverless model called to us as soon as we took it out of the box—and once we set it up and started toasting, it didn't disappoint. Well-built, with a weighty frame and a stylish minimalist exterior, it was extremely stable on the counter without feeling bulky. The toasting slots were generously proportioned to handle both tall and thick slices, and the digital controls were attractive and intuitive to use. It turned out remarkably consistent results during all three tests, evenly toasting each slice of bread, easily defrosting and crisping the waffles, and ably accommodating the bagels. Some of the little touches that made it even more appealing: a smooth motorized lift that lowers and raises the slices from the toaster at the touch of a button, the sliding knob that sets the level of toastiness and flashes to count down the remaining cook time, and the pleasant "ding" that sounds to remind you when the job is done—a feature we suspect could be a godsend during hectic morning multitasking. One glowing Amazon reviewer dubbed this model the Cadillac of toasters—and after a day of putting it through its paces, I couldn't agree more.
The Best Budget 2-Slice Toaster: Bella Pro Series Wide Slot
Does the idea of spending $100 on a toaster make you irate? Relax. If you're willing to sacrifice some of the little luxuries, it's still entirely possible to get a reliable, everyday option for the price of a few boxes of Pop-Tarts. A new model from Bella, this toaster beat out the Oster Jelly Bean we had originally deemed to be our favorite budget pick in 2018. At first glance, the brushed steel exterior of the Bella is better looking and feels less flimsy than the Oster's plastic fabrication. It's just as lightweight and petite though, should you need to tuck it away in a cabinet now and then to save on counter space. Unlike the other budget toasters tested, the Bella browned bread all the way to the edges of the slice perfectly. The wide slots could easily accommodate pre-sliced sandwich bread and thick, hand cut slices of sourdough alike.
The crumb tray is easy to remove and clean, and it took under two minutes to get a light golden brown slice at the medium setting. The toaster has one function we suggest ignoring: A gluten free button. Because gluten-free bread is made from such a range of flours, we can't see how one button would catch the varied toast times needed. Still, beyond that trendy quirk, we loved this humble little toaster.
Another Great Budget 2-Slice Toaster: Oster Jelly Bean
Though, predictably, the build-quality of all the lower priced models were a little flimsy, the Oster toaster was better than almost all of the competition even though it's only $30. Among the contenders surveyed, stainless steel (or faux-stainless) was the default finish, but the Jelly Bean goes a different route: the model we tried came with a curvy, matte charcoal exterior which, though not necessarily high-design, cleaned easily and seemed conveniently fingerprint- and smudge-proof. (And, if you’re looking for a pop of color in your kitchen: Amazon lists a bright eggplant purple as another option.) For the most part, it ticked off all the toasting boxes with passably consistent sliced bread, perfectly crisped waffles, and golden, chewy bagels. The evenness of its toasting is particularly impressive at higher settings—so if you like your bread on the crunchy side, take note. A few quibbles: most slices come out of the toaster with a little “bald spot” on top—the result of the bread not sitting fully submerged in the slot. And the lever squeaks a bit when depressed. Annoying? Yes. Worth sacrificing the bargain performance? Probably not.
The Best High-Design Toaster: Smeg Toaster
We were suspicious that the Smeg toaster was going to be all style and no substance, but we were wrong. Using this machine is like having a little Italian sports car on your kitchen counter, with a well-built and expertly proportioned cherry red exterior, a sleek chrome toasting lever that sits in the hand like a gearshift, and a minimalist, intuitive control knob that spins with a satisfying click. And it doesn’t just sit there and look good: after toasting at low, medium, and high settings, slices emerged evenly browned (if a little on the dark side—this toaster does seem to run hot), and waffles and bagels expertly balanced between chewy and crunchy. The generous slots can easily accommodate tall slices and a simple-to-slide-out crumb tray makes cleanup easy. Yes, $150 is a lot to spend on a toaster, but if you have the budget for it and design is a priority, you can feel good about taking the plunge on the Smeg.
The Best 4-Slice Toasters: Breville Die-Cast & Oster 4-Slice Toaster
Perhaps unsurprisingly, the best 4-slice toasters are essentially doublewide versions of our 2-slice picks. From a pure design standpoint, we initially leaned toward the long-slot toasters in our lineup, which can pack more slices into a slimmer space and are great if you have a small kitchen or clutter is a problem. But ultimately, we weren't wowed by the performance of these models and realized that, while bulkier, the side-by-side 4-slot design of the Breville and the Oster offered more customization for families or roommates—if one person wants a bagel and the other a waffle, or if one likes toast barely browned and the other likes it as dark as a carbon shingle, no worries.
Other Toasters I Tested
Unless you're a slavish brand loyalist determined to have every appliance in your kitchen match, there's no reason to drop $300 on a toaster when a model a third of the price performs better—and a model one-tenth of the price performs just as well. We looked at three toasters at the super high-priced end of the spectrum: the KitchenAid Pro Line Series, which we disqualified before even plugging in because it was the size of a SmartCar and so heavy we could barely move it on the counter, and the Wolf Gourmet 2- and 4-slice toasters, which we did test. Both Wolf Gourmet toasters yielded inconsistent and disappointing results, especially given their astronomical prices ($300 and $400, respectively). The shiny surface of the All-Clad 2-slice toaster quickly became streaked with fingerprints and ran cool, failing to brown bagels at even a medium-high setting. The Cuisinart 2-slot toaster wobbled on the counter and felt flimsy to touch. It had a squeaky lever and loose control knobs, and its toasting power was one of the weakest we tested. The Crux 2-slice toaster looked nice, but its performance—inconsistent browning and no defrost button—couldn't compete with others in its price range. The Cuisinart Artisan left an untoasted white ring around the edge of bread slices; the KitchenAid 4-slice long slot never produced toast darker than pale, even at the highest setting; and the Hamilton Beach 4-slice long slot was so flimsy it felt like we could dent it with our fingernails when we picked it up.
In our 2019 update, we tested the Hamilton Beach Cool Wall 2-Slice, hoping it would prove a little sturdier than the 4-slice in the original test. Sadly, it didn't. Cheap, lightweight plastic actually pulled away from the metal sides when I handled it, and the dinky knob felt like it could come off in my hand. We also tested a fun limited edition toaster from KitchenAid's Queen of Hearts collection. While we liked the glossy red exterior and the uniquely long shape, it seemed impractically sized for most kitchens and it took a full minute longer to achieve a golden brown slice than the Bella when both turned to the medium setting—and the Bella is less than half the price.
If price isn't your main concern and you're looking for a well-built toaster that delivers consistent results and has high-tech (but not intimidating) touches, get the Breville Die-Cast. Both the 2-slice and 4-slice models of the Breville outperformed similar toasters in the same price category, so choose the size that fits your household needs. If you're looking for a more affordable option that performs nearly as well as the Breville, go for the Bella. Finally, if you want a machine that has a retro luxury feel and produces evenly browned, if a little crispy, slices of bread, get the Smeg 2-slice toaster.
Originally Appeared on Epicurious