A surprising number of people still do not know the answer to this question. Then again, it may not really be that surprising – the two machines’ functions and mechanisms are so similar—and the same goes for their names—that it wouldn’t be hard to confuse them as one and the same thing.
In reality, though, they’re different gadgets. It’s all in their capabilities and limitations.
The (Regular) Toaster
A toaster is exactly as its name says. In fact, that’s all it is. The classic toaster shape most of us know by now—the box with the slots at the top where slices of bread can be slid in—has yet to undergo changes in design so drastic that it is no longer recognizable to our parents or even grandparents.
Some new options do offer rather more slots than the old ones, though. There are now toasters with 8 slots instead of the standard 2. Despite that, they’re still clearly recognizable as toasters.
This is the toaster, then: a gadget that lets you toast bread slices… and nothing else. What defines it is its singularity of purpose, which is also indicated by its one-word name.
The Toaster Oven
The toaster oven, on the other hand, is a machine that can serve as both a toaster and an oven. To some extent, it may even be better to think of it simply as a mini-oven. Even the large ovens can toast too, after all, so just calling it an oven doesn’t take anything away from its toasting ability or function.
This multiplicity of purpose is also the reason that the toaster oven looks the way it does. Instead of simple slots for bread slices, it has a larger enclosed cooking area into which you can put food by opening a hinged door. Most toaster ovens even come with broiling abilities, so you can really do much more with them than you can with a simple toaster.
The Differences Between Them
In the main, a toaster oven will take up more space than a regular toaster. This is because the cooking area in a toaster oven is larger. Toasters only need to cook bread slices, so the cooking spaces in them are much smaller. This leads to a smaller device overall.
This results in one of the big advantages of the toaster over the toaster oven: it’s far smaller on the kitchen counter. This is important to many customers, especially now that living spaces are shrinking more and more. With limited real estate for countertop machines, people will hesitate over a toaster oven’s size more than they will over a toaster’s.
Like most other machines with only one purpose, the toaster also excels in bread toasting. Toaster ovens are designed to cook other things besides bread, so while they can definitely toast your bagels in the morning, they will not do it with the same speed or even efficacy as a regular toaster.
When comparing bread toasted in a toaster to one toasted in a toaster oven, one typically finds the former far more evenly browned than the latter. Toaster ovens tend to produce uneven browning on bread slices, and often leave grill marks on them.
Toasters, being machines dedicated to this purpose, excel at the task by comparison. They not only distribute the browning better but also tend to be twice as fast at achieving the same brown as a toaster oven.
There’s less to heat for the machine’s heating implements, after all, with the bread already right next to the heating element and minimal air in between. Not the same for a toaster oven, which often has a bigger gap between the heating elements and the bread’s sides. This means that a toaster oven will take longer to heat bread as well as spend more energy heating it.
On the flip side, a toaster oven can do far more than a toaster can. Its size and power means that it can not only toast but also roast, broil, bake, and even defrost food. Some of the newer machines even let you steam food inside them. Basically, it can do most of the things that a larger range oven can, just on a smaller scale. The higher wattage pays off in terms of bigger cooking power compared to the regular toaster.
Which One to Pick
There are a lot of factors that may enter the picture when you’re trying to make a choice between the two. You could be concerned about the footprint of the appliance, for instance, in which case you would most likely lean towards the more compact toasters. On the other hand, you may think, too, of having greater versatility in your kitchen appliance, in which case the toaster oven would likely appear more attractive.
A lot of people advocate having both, but this may be difficult for those with limited counter space and funds. If you really want to get only one of them, make the decision based entirely on your needs. Do you need the appliance only so that you can toast bread or do you need it too so that you can toast, roast, bake, or cook other stuff?
If you need it for the first reason and really do not need to cook anything else with it, get the toaster. Otherwise, get the toaster oven.
Extra Considerations for the Purchase
Keep in mind that toasters and toaster ovens now come in quite a lot of flavors. You can get a 2-slice toaster or a 6-slice one, for example. You can even get a toaster where the cooking dials are set based on the level of brownness you can achieve with each one of them.
Some good things to look out for if you are seeking a new toaster would be a crumb tray you can slide out for easy emptying, as well as a bread-lifting lever. Make sure, too, that the slots for the bread are the right width and depth for your preferred bread type.
If what you’re getting is a toaster oven, though, you should look for things like broiling capabilities (not all of them have this) and defrosting (always a handy feature). Seek out nonstick interiors as well if you want easy maintenance, and infrared heating for faster cooking.