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.)
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.