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Tovala Smart Oven review: Pony up for a meal plan if you want this smart oven

You scan the QR code on the Tovala package, and the oven downloads instructions to cook that meal.

Chris Monroe/CNET

For the most part, there's not much that you need to do before you cook your meal. The entrees come in aluminum containers that hold deceptively large portions. There are also small containers with the additional ingredients you need to finish your meal. Instructions on the cardboard packages of the meals walk you through the often minimal preparations. For example, a salmon dish required me to spread a layer of dijon mustard and a premixed pistachio crumble on top of the fish. You pop the containers into the oven and scan the QR code on the cardboard package. The cook time (usually between 15 and 20 minutes depending on the dish) pops up on the control panel, and you press the knob to begin cooking. 

Each entree has a unique QR code that tells the oven what instructions it needs to download to cook that specific dish. For example, a meal might steam bake for 15 minutes and broil for two, or it might need a convection bake for 12 minutes and a steam bake for eight. The oven automatically sets the appropriate temperature and switches functions based on the instructions it downloads, which is why you can't just pop a Tovala Meal in a traditional microwave or toaster oven.

Overall, the Tovala Meals I cooked were delicious, especially when you consider how little you have to do. The meals combine ingredients that I might not try on my own, such as that dijon- and pistachio-crusted salmon or a corn and mushroom pasta. And the finishing touches Tovala adds for the entrees, like peanuts on top of Thai turkey meatballs or lime wedges for cilantro rice, elevate the dishes with sophisticated flavors. And the ingredients and nutrition information are listed on the packages, so you know exactly what you're eating. 

This Tovala Meal is smokey mesquite spiced chicken with barbecue baked farro, coleslaw, pickled watermelon rind and crispy onions.

Chris Monroe/CNET

However, the cost of these meals adds up. If you're single, a three-meal-a-week plan will set you back more than $1,870 over the course of a year (double that for a couple), and that comes on top of the $400 cost of the oven itself. That's hard to swallow, especially since the idea of eating at home is to save you money.

Normal foods create a bigger challenge for the Tovala

You can use the Tovala oven without the proprietary meals, but the oven's app makes the experience more counterintuitive than it should be. And even then, its cooking performance is decent at best.

You have to rely on the Tovala app to control most of its functions. But it's a little clunky if you want to go rogue and cook some food on your own. You have to make your own recipe, i.e., create step-by-step instructions for your dish each time you cook (steam bake for 11 minutes at 350 degrees F then broil for 2 minutes, etc.). I'd like to see a section that's plainly labeled for manual cooking that's a bit quicker to access for one-time dishes you don't need to save.

Once I got the oven baking, the results were inconsistent. For example, biscuits and toast that cooked on the right side of the oven were darker than their counterparts on the left. And single pieces of toast were lighter on one side than the other. And did I mention that it took 5 to 9 minutes to toast, depending on how brown you want your bread?

I baked biscuits (top) for 11 minutes at 375 degrees Fahrenheit. The biscuits on the right are darker than those on the left. Pieces of toast (bottom) came out browner if they were located in the center of the oven.

Ashlee Clark Thompson/CNET

The app does redeem itself with a handful of recipes it provides for basic proteins and vegetables. You select the recipe you want to cook and prepare your food per the app's simple steps, and the app will send cooking instructions for that dish to the oven. I cooked chicken breasts and broccoli with the app, and the results were outstanding. The chicken breast were juicy with a nice golden crust, and the broccoli retained both its color and its bite. My only complaint is that there aren't enough of these easy-to-follow recipes available in the app.

Final thoughts

The Tovala oven's biggest draw is its companion meal delivery subscription. But that means you'll make a financial commitment to the tune of at least $2,000 for the meal subscription and the oven. If you just need a better way to reheat leftovers, the Tovala oven isn't for you. 

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