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

The $400 Wi-Fi Tovala Smart Oven is at its best when it cooks prepackaged meals from the company. On its own, it's just OK.

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Ashlee Clark Thompson
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Ashlee Clark Thompson

Associate Editor

Ashlee spent time as a newspaper reporter, AmeriCorps VISTA and an employee at a healthcare company before she landed at CNET. She loves to eat, write and watch "Golden Girls" (preferably all three at the same time). The first two hobbies help her out as an appliance reviewer. The last one makes her an asset to trivia teams. Ashlee also created the blog, AshleeEats.com, where she writes about casual dining in Louisville, Kentucky.

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6 min read

You know how some students do well on standardized tests like the SAT and ACT, but barely pass their regular classes? The $400 Tovala Smart Oven is the appliance version of this phenomenon. (Stick with me, this will make sense soon, I promise.)

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7.1

Tovala Smart Oven

The Good

You scan the bar code from Tovala's prepackaged, refrigerated meals on the the $400 Tovala Smart Oven, and the appliance automatically cooks them with little effort on your part. The Tovala meals are leaps and bounds ahead of traditional convenience foods like frozen TV dinners.

The Bad

The Tovala Meals are expensive. As a countertop steam oven, the Tovala itself is just OK. And the accompanying app doesn't add much to your cooking.

The Bottom Line

This appliance is at its best when you pair it with the company's delicious meals. Not into a meal delivery service? Consider a regular countertop oven.

The Tovala Smart Oven, which you can order through the company's website, is a Wi-Fi connected countertop appliance with a built-in QR code scanner. It reads the codes on the $12, prepackaged, refrigerated meals that the company delivers through a subscription service. Then, the oven cooks them according to instructions it downloads from the cloud.

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The $400 Tovala Smart Oven is comparable in size to a large microwave or toaster oven.

Chris Monroe/CNET

The company's meals, called Tovala Meals, are like the standardized tests I mentioned earlier. This is where the Tovala oven hits its sweet spot. The meals' ingredients are fresh and imaginative, and the oven consistently brings out the best in them thanks to a combination of a baking element, a broiler, steam and a convection fan. 

But when it comes to the daily functions (aka the regular classes of my comparison), the Tovala comes up short. There's not much to the oven once you take away the company's meals and scanner, and that's a problem for folks who just want a new small appliance without the commitment of a meal delivery subscription. Sure, you can use the Tovala as you would any other countertop oven to steam bake, broil and toast your own food. But you have to control most functions through a clumsy, bare-bones app. 

Consider the Tovala if you're in the market for meal delivery service that requires minimal cooking and you don't mind adding another appliance to your kitchen. Just want to upgrade your countertop oven and not your diet? Shop around for another appliance that doesn't rely on a costly subscription service.

Tovala looks like a toaster oven, but cooks with steam

The Tovala resembles a jacked toaster oven. It's 9.25x12.88x12.25 inches with about 2.72 cubic feet of room inside. The chunky control panel is pretty simple. There are three buttons: toast, heat and cancel. You use a knob on the panel to adjust toast settings from one to five. The scanner is built within the panel, so you hold QR codes beneath it.

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The Tovala's control panel has toast, heat and cancel buttons. The display shows the cooking time. You control toast levels with the knob at the center. The blue lights indicate water levels in the reservoir.

Chris Monroe/CNET

When you open the Tovala's door, there is a removable water reservoir built into the side of the oven. The water creates steam that helps inject moisture into foods as they cook. This was a nice feature that helped keep meats juicy and baked goods light. There is a convection fan built into the oven wall to circulate air while the Tovala bakes. The oven also comes with one rack and one tray you can use with your own food.

Tovala Meals are the main attraction

Tovala designed its oven primarily around its meal subscription delivery, and its meals specifically for the oven. In other words, you can't have one without other, so it's time to turn foodie for a bit.

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The main parts of a Tovala Meal entree come in aluminum pans. Additional ingredients come in plastic containers. The whole thing comes wrapped in a cardboard package. All of the containers are recyclable.

Chris Monroe/CNET

Here's how Tovala's meal subscription delivery works: You sign up for a meal plan when you order the Tovala from the company's website (you can't get the meals without the oven, but you can cancel your meal subscription once you have the oven). Right now, there's only two options: three one-person meals for $36 a week, or three two-person meals for $72 a week. You pick your three meals from a rotating weekly menu of five to six entrees, and Tovala ships them to you in a cold pack.

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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. 

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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?

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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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7.1

Tovala Smart Oven

Score Breakdown

Performance 8Usability 7Design 6Features 6
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