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Small Appliances

Should you ever pay more for a toaster?

Is there any reason to pay as much as $100 or even $500 for higher-end toaster?

Tyler Lizenby/CNET

You take a piece of bread, put it in the slot, push down the levers and the wires get hot. You get -- toast. Yeah, toast.

Perhaps you've seen comedian Heywood Banks regale the virtues of my favorite breakfast staple while using a toaster as a percussion instrument. Perhaps, like me, you grew up watching the Brave Little Toaster. I take particular delight in both, because they glorify one of the most underappreciated appliances in the kitchen.

Toasters are everywhere, but we seldom think about them. They make staples, not delicacies, and the capacity to use one creatively is prohibitively limited. So the very idea of spending more than you have to in order to obtain a toaster seems ridiculous.

With a $20 machine, you can make toast, bagels, waffles, pop-tarts and the like. With a $500 machine, you can make the exact same things. Given the options, what kind of performance improvement or added features could possibly justify a 25x price hike?

Similar mechanics

Tyler Lizenby/CNET

Look inside most toasters, and you'll see similar configurations, lending credence to the theory that a toaster is a toaster.

Squared-off metallic exteriors give way to two to four slots on the top. Almost all toasters boast "extra-wide" slots, but every toaster of the six we reviewed measured roughly an inch and a half wide.

Inside those slots, a metal platform attaches to a lever on the outside. Depress the lever, and the platform lowers with it as your bread descends into the compartment. Metal grates squeeze inward, pivoting from the bottom and keeping your bread in place. The goal of these grates is to keep your food at a uniform distance from the wires that line the slides of each slot.

Once the lever hits the bottom, it clicks into place, held by an electromagnet and completing a circuit which runs power through those wires.

Typically, the wires are nichrome, a nickel/chromium alloy. They radiate heat, browning the outside of the bread. Once the capacitor powering the electromagnet reaches a certain charge, it turns off. The lever, no longer held in place, springs back up, cutting the power to the wires in the process.

Subtle differences

Newer toasters can lower your bread mechanically. Tyler Lizenby/CNET


The process detailed can vary slightly at each stage, and specific toasters start to separate themselves from the pack.

Common materials for the exterior include stainless steel, aluminum and plastic. A sturdier material will allow the toaster to last longer and be more durable along the way. How the exterior is constructed also makes a big difference in how hot it gets while toasting.

The KitchenAid Pro has a beautiful exterior. Tyler Lizenby/CNET

Not counting the top of the toaster, the stainless steel surface of the Hamilton Beach Classic Chrome 2-Slice Toaster reached as high as 157 degrees Fahrenheit after a single run. After five tests, one of the sides got to 180 degrees. Anything over 140 can cause burns. By contrast, the aluminum body of the KitchenAid Pro Line 4-Slice Toaster never rose above 136 even after five tests. After one run, the sides were 83 degrees and cool to the touch.

The material and finish of the toaster makes a clear difference in appearance as well. The Hamilton Beach Classic Chrome has the familiar silver color, curved corners and protruding black lever to actually remind me of the Brave Little Toaster. That's not a bad thing, but the brushed white aluminum of that KitchenAid Pro can turn heads and look right at home in a designer kitchen.

The slots

Again, the openings themselves all sit at that "extra wide" inch and a half, but that doesn't mean they'd all fit an inch and a half wide piece of bread. Even in their resting position, all grates pinch the space, making the usable amount less than that side-to-side measurement. How much space you have left can make a big difference in the toasting process.

Smaller compartments will get the bread stuck more often on the way up or down. Squeezing bread that's near capacity will leave the grates unable to properly center it, causing an uneven browning, so the same slice in a toaster with slightly more room can be adjusted by the grates at least minimally, causing it to fare better while toasting.

The largest slot we measured belonged to the Frigidaire Professional 4-Slice Toaster . At 1 7/16 inch it only lost 1/16 inch of possible space due to the grates. As a result, it proved the best at evenly toasting and at handling thicker breads.

The Frigidaire's slots leave plenty of room. Tyler Lizenby/CNET

The much smaller Cuisinart CPT-440 got bread stuck more often. From grate to grate, the Cuisinart only gives 1 1/8 inch of clearance. It still did well at evenly toasting thin bread, but the Frigidaire did much better with thicker slices.

The heating wires

Since the Cuisinart still toasts thin slices evenly, better than some of its more spacious competition like the KitchenAid KMT422 with a 1 3/8 inch slot, width can't be the only factor determining the consistency of the brownness.

The number and spacing of those nichrome wires proved the most important determinant in how well the bread cooks across its surface.

How the toasters we tested fared on low, medium and high. Ry Crist/CNET

The Cuisinart and Frigidaire gave the most even toasting of the bunch. They have 14 and 12 wires respectively. Thus, they turned out more even bread than the Hamilton Beach Classic Chrome, which only uses 9 wires.

The KitchenAid KMT422 also has 14 wires, but they run across the metallic plate at a diagonal and aren't quite as evenly spaced as those of the Cuisinart and Frigidaire. Both of the latter square their wires to the compartment, and loop under vertical medical slats at even distances across the length of the side.

Modern toasters don't typically suffer from significant spacing issues. Each wire has a specific spot on the metallic side, winding through divots that hold them to their spot. Older models had wires wound around the outside of the plates, and could bunch together, causing the worst instances of burned stripes on a mostly uncooked slice of bread. Still, small tweaks to keep the wires firmly in place help the top toasters deliver the most even browning.

Power usage

Once the toast lowers and the cooking starts, toasters that draw more wattage can complete the process faster.

The Cuisinart CPT-440 draws 1,560 watts and completes a cycle on medium in 2 minutes and 32 seconds. The Frigidaire Professional uses just under 1,400 watts of power, and takes 3 minutes and 40 seconds.

Toast Times (seconds)

Legend:

Average Low Time
Average Medium Time
Average High Time

Note:

Shorter bars indicate faster performance

Timing the cycle

Wattage isn't the only determinant of cooking time. Again, the spacing and number of wires can go a long way in helping a toaster get the job done quickly, but when all is said and done, some toasters just set their timers differently than others.

In the chart above, notice the difference in toasting time between the KitchenAid Pro Line and the KitchenAid KMT422. The latter always takes significantly longer, yet it only uses 25 less watts -- 1,500 to the KitchenAid Pro's 1,525. How does the KitchenAid Pro cook so much faster with only 25 more watts?

20141205100513.jpg
These undercooked bagels show the KitchenAid Pro runs too short of a cyle. Andrew Gebhart/CNET

The short answer: it doesn't. Its digital timer just decides the cycle should end much sooner than its counterpart on the KitchenAid KMT422. This results in a much lighter medium than you get from any of the other toasters we tested. It's a slightly falsified quickness, then, since it finishes the race faster, but doesn't travel as far.

The Cuisinart and the Alessi Electric Toaster demonstrate true speed by combining powerful wattage with efficient heating through their nichrome wires.

Sensing the heat

Timers also need some means of variance. If you cook multiple slices one after another, the wires and the body of the toaster will already be hot when the second piece of bread gets started. If the toaster ran for the exact same amount of time on the first cycle, when it started cold, cooking two consecutive pieces on medium would likely result in a golden brown slice followed by a burned one.

The basic capacitor of most toasters takes care of this by charging more quickly when the toaster starts hot. It functions as a makeshift heat sensor. The Hamilton Beach Classic Chrome shows the results of such a mechanism, as each run in its five consecutive tests on medium was shorter than the last -- the first ran 2:48, then 2:24, 2:17, 2:14 and 2:08.

The Hamilton Beach handled consecutive slices well. Tyler Lizenby/CNET

The digital timer of the KitchenAid Pro senses as the toaster gets hotter, and takes that into account in its calculations. It started at 2:40, then 2:04, before evening off at 1:56 for the last three cycles. It obviously had a couple of levels of heat recognition, and the last three tests stayed at the peak.

Neither suffered the worst-case scenario of too light on one test and burned the next, but neither solution produced perfectly even toast across all five cycles either. The KitchenAid Pro bumped a little in brownness level between test 3 and 4. The Hamilton Beach spiked in the middle, then evened off. Combining a digital timer for computerized smarts with some old-fashioned mechanical sensors would likely hit the sweet spot, but we've yet to test to a toaster capable of perfect consistency across all five cycles.

Countdown

Some toasters add a digital display revealing how long you have to wait until the end of the cycle. I appreciated this perk, as it helped me do other things while my bread was toasting and get back to it when it popped up hot.

I liked Frigidaire's numerical countdown. Tyler Lizenby/CNET

The Frigidaire had my favorite mechanism of the bunch, counting down in numbers. Others with this feature used a slowly decreasing bar graph, which was still helpful if not as exact.

Lowering mechanism

Some higher-end toasters are even doing away with the familiar spring loaded levers in favor of mechanical raising and lowering. On the Cuisinart CPT-440, you press a button and your bread gently lowers into place. The KitchenAid Pro even goes so far as to sense the weight of your bread when you put it in the slot and then lowering it automatically.

On the Cuisinart, you press a button to start toasting. Tyler Lizenby/CNET

Both earn cool points for this mechanism, as it's a fun break from the norm. More computerized parts also lead the way for more advanced sensing mechanisms down the road, but we're not there yet. The automatic lowering doesn't currently offer any advantages to performance, just design.

In fact, it occasionally got in the way of usability. The auto-run feature of the KitchenAid would occasionally start before I had both slices in place and centered. When a thicker piece of toast gets stuck on the way back up, dealing with the mechanized raising and lowering of both toasters proved much more tedious than maneuvering the handle of a lever to get it out. You also lose the ability to lift shorter slices that extra half inch to get them out without burning your fingers.

This feature holds exciting possibilities, but it's currently just a gimmick, and not something I recommend paying extra for.

Presets

More expensive toasters typically offer the exact same buttons as standard models. "Bagel" only heats one side, allowing you to brown just the cut side of your bagel. "Defrost" adds time to the cycle to account for frozen bread. "Reheat" lets you put the bread back down for a short period of time if you forgot about it and it cooled down. Reheat is designed just to warm it and not add any extra browning.

The toaster we tested with the biggest variation to this trio was the KitchenAid Pro Line. Cosmetically, it called defrost "Frozen." Of more significance, it replaced "Reheat" with "A Little Longer," which is designed to add a little extra time to an ongoing cycle. It makes the reheat process automatic. Because it senses the weight of your toast, if you don't come get it after 45 seconds of it popping up, it'll lower back down and keep it warm for you.

Leave these pieces long enough, and the KitchenAid will automatically start reheating them. Tyler Lizenby/CNET

I found that an innovative and useful addition to the toaster, though I would have appreciated a button as well. If you pull out the toast and change your mind, you can't access the reheat option. Thus, the feature isn't implemented perfectly, but it shows some potential.

Defining quality

By paying extra money, you don't actually gain much in useful features from premium toasters. Certainly not enough to warrant doubling the price or more. Again, the functional Hamilton Beach Classic Chrome costs $30. The Cuisinart CPT-440 and Frigidaire Professional 4-Slice Toaster each cost $100. The KitchenAid Pro Line costs $500.

You can find similar machines that cook more types of food, and warrant the price increase that way. Toaster ovens make a fine example, but there are also toasters that have a compartment for cooking eggs but otherwise bear the same shape, or can fit a sandwich cage into a normal-looking toaster slot.

But sticking with ordinary toasters, by paying more, you can primarily get an increase in the caliber of design, speed of cooking and quality of toast.

The Alessi looks pretty great. Tyler Lizenby/CNET

With finer materials for the body, you can make a toaster look better and feel sturdier. With more wires and wattage, you can cook more evenly, and faster. With better timers, you can take the guesswork out of getting to your perfect browning level.

Recommendations

Dealing with burned toast, undercooked toast, or half-cooked toast can be a pain. If you like to make toast, bagels, or waffles a regular part of your breakfast, making sure you have peace of mind that your meal will turn out the way you want it with minimal effort on your part would be nice. Better toasters can offer that, as well as flexible darkness settings so every member of the family is pleased.

You can make a mountain of good toast with the Cuisinart. Ry Crist/CNET

With both the Frigidaire Professional 4-Slice Toaster and the Cuisinart CPT-440 , you pay more than the standard price for a four-slice toaster, but $100 isn't ridiculously more than the $40 to $60 it would cost to get a decent four-slice model. Each offer seven levels of doneness that stay consistent. You can cook your toast on a 6 on one side and your spouse's at a 3 on the other.

Having a wide range of consistent, predictable usability can add quality to your morning meal. They also have enough style so you won't feel the need to hide them away when they aren't in use.

The Verdict

Because of the wide range of subtle difference in just about every aspect of a toaster, spending as much as $100 can make sense to maximize your experience, even though you don't get much of an upgrade in features.

Splurging on the Frigidaire might just be worth it. Tyler Lizenby/CNET

Dropping as much as $500 for the top of the line doesn't make sense. You can't gain much beyond the $100 models, as they make the most out of current toaster technology.

If all toast is the same to you, nothing about any of these premium models will change your mind and the $30 Hamilton Beach Classic Chrome 2-Slice Toaster can do the job just fine. The $100 versions can warrant consideration if you're particular about how you like your toast and want an upgrade in appearance and speed.