If there is but one small(ish), food-heating kitchen appliance you allow on your countertops, let it be the toaster oven.
Superior to both the microwave and the mere toaster, the toaster oven is legitimately a godsend all-purpose appliance--particularly for college students, singles, and small families (so basically, most everyone I know). One of my especially culinarily talented friends and colleagues Sidney Fry, Cooking Light's Nutrition Editor/staff RD and diehard toaster oven enthusiast, recently mentioned that her profound appreciation for the toaster oven stems from the 2-month period her home kitchen was gutted for a renovation and she had to rely largely on this workhorse appliance to feed her husband and toddler each day. And even after getting her fully functioning kitchen back, the toaster oven continues to hold an indispensable place in her daily meal prep.
Point-blank, the toaster oven can handle a number of tasks more efficiently than your full-size oven and keeps you from heating up the entire house. After learning of her prowess with this countertop cooker, I sat down with Sidney and asked her to dish on the best ways to utilize a toaster oven for food made faster and easier, and here are her top 10 suggestions:
1. Toasting nuts
There's seriously no reason to break out the big guns (and by that, I mean preheat your oven) to "lightly toast" a cup of pecans for a salad or waffles. And if you don't want to stand over a stovetop stirring them around a skillet when you could be doing something else with your hands and attention, the toaster oven is the perfect aid. Sidney suggests that once you spread the nuts in an even layer on the toaster oven tray, cover them loosely with aluminum foil; have them covered for the first half of toasting, then remove the foil and finish them uncovered.
2. Cooking frozen fries and tots
Again, unless you're cooking the entire bag, there is no sense in heating up the kitchen just to thaw/toast some frozen spuds. Say you're grilling burgers, and you just need a couple servings of frozen tater tots or fries to go alongside for tonight (because let's be real... those aren't things you want leftovers of), call on your trusty toaster oven. Bonus points because the toaster oven dominates when it comes to getting 'em extra crispy.
3. Crisp up bacon or prosciutto
Making a BLT just for you or trying to make making breakfast for a few move a little faster? Avoid grease splattering your stovetop and self, and just throw some bacon slices in your toaster oven. You can also toss in prosciutto strips to get a little crispy and frizzled around the edges before adding them to a salad, topping a soup, or simply snacking on them like pork chips.
Whether you're serving them as a side or loading them with toppings as a main course, it can never hurt to toss a couple of potatoes in the toaster oven when you get home.
5. Melting Cheese
Be it for toast or a not-party-sized serving of nachos, the toaster oven is a wizard at getting gooey, bubbly, browning cheese action going.
6. Reheating and re-crisping
So you know how I said that the toaster oven is superior to the microwave? Here's why: When a microwave reheats, your leftovers get warm and soggy, but when a toaster oven reheats, your leftovers are warmed and returned more so to their original state. For example, a piece of pizza reheated in a toaster oven regains some crispness and life in its crust while the cheese starts getting melty-good again. Pizza reheated in the microwave goes limp. Beyond pizza, you can reheat whatever leftovers you have on hand in the toaster oven. Just transfer things like mashed potatoes or veggies, to ramekins or other pieces of small oven-proof cookware.
7. Reviving stale granola
If you have a handful of homemade granola left in the bottom of the container that's gone stale, don't toss it out. Toss it into the toaster oven to get a little revamp. You can bring it back to crunchy glory with just a few minutes of toasting.
8. Homemade hot pockets
Sidney notes that especially for her son, the toaster oven is awesome for making quick handheld meals. She loads a halved pita pocket with leftover cooked veggies (like broccoli florets or asparagus), maybe some meat if there's rotisserie chicken or something around, and shredded cheese, then pops it into the toaster oven to create a warm and satisfying lunch pocket. Mini pita pizzas would also be a good play here.
9. Baked Eggs
Another fantastic quick and easy breakfast option. Gently crack eggs into buttered ramekins (1 per ramekin), top each with a tablespoon of cream, season with salt and pepper, then pop them in the toaster oven to bake until the whites are set.
10. Not actual baking.
"Actual baking" being things like cakes, breads, muffins, and the like. This is the definitive area that Sidney recommends avoiding with the toaster oven. She says that although it is possible, this is one place she has found that the quality of your final product actually suffers when you go for the toaster oven over the real deal. That said, rejuvenating chocolate chip cookies in the toaster oven is a total yes. Have a batch that's been in the cookie jar a couple days? Throw a few in the toaster oven to re-crisp those edges and re-melt the chocolate chips into pockets of rich chocolate lava.