Choosing a Toaster
These days, many people call on a toaster oven to deliver crispy toast, bagels, English muffins, and toaster pastries, but it's no match for a dedicated appliance. Even a cheap pop-up toaster can perfectly brown the foundation of a soul-satisfying meal or quick-as-a-minute snack. Many traditional two-slice toasters come in a four-slice version, which offers convenience and efficiency but hogs counter space and costs more. Cheapism.com read scores of expert and user reviews to find the best two-slice toasters under $30 and the best four-slice toasters for $50 or less.
Toaster Brands.As with many countertop appliances, there's no shortage of inexpensive options. Familiar brand names in entry-level toasters include Hamilton Beach, Oster, Cuisinart, and Black & Decker. Krups makes an occasional appearance but more often shows up in the mid-range, along with labels such as Breville, DeLonghi, KitchenAid, and T-fal; Cuisinart and other budget players also field mid-price toasters. Higher up the ladder sit names such as Smeg and Dualit.
Pricey vs. Cheap Toasters.It's certainly possible to spend upward of $150 for a top-of-the-line pop-up toaster. For that, you get sleek and eye-catching aesthetics, chrome and steel construction, speed, and frills such as digital controls, motorized lift, and heat sensors -- and, some might argue, tastier results.
But the best entry-level toasters hold their own. They boast modern (sometimes retro) profiles, often last for years, and present a host of desirable features once reserved for high-end models, including extra-wide slots, multiple settings, and a removable crumb tray. And many reviews attest that the best budget toasters produce results that rival their upscale counterparts.
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Features Comparison Buying Guide continues below table
Toaster Reviews: What We Considered
To cull the best cheap toasters, we dug deep into expert and consumer reviews. Sources for our research included ecommerce sites such as Amazon, Walmart.com, BestBuy.com, and HomeDepot.com, as well as those maintained by manufacturers. For guidance based on expert product testing, we turned to Top Ten Reviews, TechGearLab, Good Housekeeping, CNET, and Consumer Reports.
No toaster garners an unblemished rating for toasting performance. Uneven browning and crisping, whether top to bottom, side to side, or slot to slot, is the primary complaint lodged against even the best cheap toasters. But the vast majority of reviewers gleefully report how pleased they are with whatever pops out of the toasters on our list.
Browning Controls.People have different preferences when it comes to the shade of their toast, and different types of bread require different amounts of toasting time. Raisin bread, for example, browns rapidly due to the high sugar content, while thick slices and breads with lots of whole seeds and grains take longer to toast. The browning controls let users determine the duration of the toasting process.
Digital controls are the most precise but generally available only on high-end toasters. Inexpensive toasters rely on a dial with at least five specific shade options denoted by numbers or dots. In reality, the choice of shades is a continuum along a spectrum from light to dark. Burned and/or under-toasted bread is the bane of every consumer who likes their toast just so. Getting used to a toaster's eccentricities -- that is, exactly how the browning/shade indicators correspond to degrees of light and dark -- requires some trial and error.
Settings.Newer toasters, even those in budget territory, now feature several settings for different functions.
- A bagel setting typically toasts only one side of the bagel and warms the other. In almost all cases, that means the cut side feels the most heat. On some models, however, the bagel setting merely toasts for a longer period, heating both sides to the same degree (so it's also good for very thick bread slices).
- Many toasters also include either a defrost or frozen function, which adds time to the toasting cycle or defrosts the item before the "toast" order is given.
- Warm or reheat is another setting that sometimes shows up in the cheap price range. It lets users reheat or keep the toasted item warm for a brief period without toasting it further.
- A cancel button stops the process in case the bread (or whatever) is toasting more quickly than expected. Some of the cheapest toasters don't sport a cancel button, so we made sure to check for that in making our picks.
Four-slice toasters generally have dual controls, allowing different settings for two sets of two slices. In other words, they essentially function as two independent two-slice toasters side by side in the same housing.
Bread Lifter and Slots.One downside of budget toasters is housing that heats up very quickly because of poor insulation or lesser-quality components. Only some models feature stay-cool housing, and reviewers caution that the area around the slots gets very hot regardless.
A bread lifter, found on most toasters, ensures that smaller items like English muffins or sliced buns pop up high enough to avoid having to poke around inside the toaster. The mechanism is either automatic or requires users to lift the lever that starts the toasting process. Many models also are equipped with an anti-jam device that shuts down the toaster in the event something does get stuck.
Unlike the old days when bagels and thick-cut slices invariably got mangled in the narrow slots, forcing users to reach in with bare fingers or yank with a knife or fork (all dangerous!), the best current models feature slots that measure at least 1.3 inches wide. This is ample space for English muffins, artisanal bread, and bagel halves.