Cuisinart CSO-300 Combo Steam + Convection Oven review:

Versatile cooking for expensive tastes

Interestingly enough, the one exception here was the Panasonic FlashXpress, the only non-convection toaster oven we tested. Cookies baked in the FlashXpress seemed to come out more evenly baked than the others, and when we put our wares out for a blind taste test, our tasters agreed, naming the Panasonic's cookies the best of the bunch.

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Things got interesting when we started testing frozen pizza. The Frigidaire Professional, which had already disappointed us with its propensity for burning toast, produced undercooked, underwhelming pizzas when we cooked them according to the product's specifications (it did a little better when we used its own frozen pizza setting). With the Panasonic unable to fit anything larger than an individual-size pizza, we were left with a battle between our two heavyweights, the CSO-300 and its top competitor, the Breville Smart Oven.

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Both performed very well, producing tasty pizzas with each run. Some of our tasters preferred the evenly baked pizza of the CSO-300, while others enjoyed the more well-done, borderline burnt cheese on the Breville's pie. In the end, I'm calling it a draw between the two, although for my own personal tastes, the CSO-300's pizza is the one I'd want to eat. That said, pizza lovers shouldn't rule the Panasonic FlashXpress out too quickly. True, it's a bit limited in terms of size, but it still cooked an individual-size pizza just as well as the CSO-300 and the Breville cooked full-size ones.

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The CSO-300 continued to duke it out with the Breville as our testing turned to roasting chicken. We were actually impressed with almost all of the chicken that was cooked, but it was the CSO-300 and the Breville that maintained a consistent edge in our taste tests, if only a slight one.

Using the CSO-300's steam bake setting, we were able to get a crispier, tastier skin than we could with the other ovens. The chicken was moist, too, although not quite as moist as the Breville, which won the majority of our taste testers' votes in the end. This was a little bit surprising, as the chicken test was the first time I had reason to use the CSO-300's steam baking setting, with crisp, moist chicken being its calling card. Even the icon for the steam bake setting is a roast chicken. To be fair, the CSO-300's chicken was indeed excellent, but still, you have to be impressed with the Breville -- when it came to keeping chicken moist, it outperformed a steam oven.

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I love a good burger, but I'm not sure I'll ever crave one cooked in a toaster oven, not even one cooked in a toaster oven that costs $299. Broiling burgers in the CSO-300 cooked the meat efficiently, but perhaps too evenly, failing to give us much char on the outside at all. The texture of the meat was chewy and a little dry, and left us wishing we were testing patio grills out, instead. Switching over to the CSO-300's steam broiling mode yielded better results, with the meat coming out a fair deal juicier, but as burgers go, the results were still far from exceptional.

In fairness, none of the toaster ovens impressed us with their performance in the burger test. Only the Breville managed to get any kind of char on the meat, but that didn't win it many extra votes in our taste test, where our guinea pigs had a hard time calling any of the burgers a winner. The real takeaway might in fact be that anyone planning on upgrading their toaster oven in order to broil a better burger might want to think twice.

Given that it has a 1.4-liter water reservoir attached to it, you might expect that the CSO-300 would be a higher-maintenance toaster oven than other units -- and you'd be right, to an extent. Like a coffeemaker, you'll have to decalcify the machine at least once a year to remove harmful calcium deposits. Fortunately, this isn't actually all that much work; you'll just need to run a 75-minute steam cycle using distilled vinegar. Owners who use their oven more frequently will want to decalcify on a more regular basis.

Cleaning the oven is rather easy. A tray at the bottom catches drips and crumbs, then slides out easily for quick cleanup. For heavier messes, you can always run a 30-minute steam cycle to loosen things up, then wipe the interior clean with a damp cloth.

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Service and support
The CSO-300 comes with a generous three-year limited warranty from defects in materials and workmanship. Every other toaster oven that we tested came with a standard one-year warranty, even the comparably priced Breville Smart Oven, so this was definitely a strong point for Cuisinart. A three-year warranty speaks to their confidence in the quality of the CSO-300's build.

The CSO-300 comes packaged with instructions for cleaning, maintenance, and decalcification, as well as a very brief troubleshooting section. The Cuisinart Web site doesn't feature much more in the way of troubleshooting or frequently asked questions, although it does provide PDF copies of the product manuals. You can also submit support questions through an online form, or call toll-free 7 days a week at 1-800-726-0190.

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All things considered, the CSO-300 was one of the most impressive toaster ovens that we tested, though I wouldn't say that it dominated the competition. A better description would be to say that it always kept up with the competition -- if another model outperformed it in a certain area, it was never by very much. What's more, the CSO-300 didn't show us any specific weak areas relative to other models, and never finished at the bottom of any of our tests. As conventional toaster ovens go, it's about as well-rounded as they come. Throw in the CSO-300's steam cooking settings, all of which tested quite well in our performance tests, and you've got one of the most versatile countertop ovens currently available.

Does its versatility alone justify the $299 price tag? For most shoppers, I'm not convinced that it does, but once you factor in the luxurious build-quality, the ease of use, and the attractive-looking design, I think you can begin to see why it would be an appealing and justifiable purchase for many home chefs, especially ones looking to make use of the specific advantages offered by steam-powered cooking. If this sounds like you, I say buy it with confidence. Otherwise, I'd recommend sacrificing a little bit of that versatility for the sake of your wallet, and sticking with a much more affordable but still impressive model, like the Panasonic FlashXpress.

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