Last night's dinner — a plate of crispy chicken Parmesan cutlets with a side of garlic bread — was the stuff comfort food dreams are made of. It was perfectly calibrated to soothe the rough edges of a long, rainy day; a single-gal supper that could go toe-to-toe with takeout from the most satisfyingly homespun neighborhood Italian restaurant — all mine and all made from scratch.
And I cooked every single speck of my dinner within 30 minutes using my Breville toaster oven.
My Breville, one of the new breeds of countertop toaster ovens, has made my life infinitely better — so much so that I can't imagine how a single-use vertical slice toaster will ever find its way onto my countertop again. An even bolder statement? I can't imagine how a microwave will ever find its way into my house again.
Sure, these countertop ovens make quick work of the obvious — putting a crunchy, browned sheen on bread, bagels, waffles, and English muffins (the muffins alone are a reason to upgrade, given that their toasting process took an interminable 10 minutes and two full toasting cycles on my lame collegiate-era model).
But the new toaster ovens' real genius lies in their multi-functionality. With a footprint deep and wide enough to fit a nine-inch round or square baking pan, they can broil steaks, defrost and cook frozen pizzas, sizzle nachos, and bake entire cakes and pies. Some of the more deluxe models even offer double racks and convection properties for more crispy oven fries than you could possibly eat in one sitting.
In short, these scaled-down ovens are the biggest helpmate a cook could ask for — even for a professional recipe developer like myself. Here's why:
1. They keep things cool.
For those of us who live without central air conditioning in the summer, the season when our kitchens reach temperatures otherwise seen on the surface of the sun, having a countertop oven means we can still eat real meals instead of subsisting on cantaloupe, tomato salads, and Popsicles. (Not that I've ever done that. Nope, not me!)
Seriously, if pressed, I could do an entire day's worth of meals in the Breville and not turn on a full-size oven: a breakfast of baked eggs in ramekins, with a few toasted baguette slices for dipping; roasted shrimp and broccoli with soba noodles for lunch; crispy chicken or fish en papillote for dinner; and freshly baked brownies for dessert. Sure beats cold cereal.
2. They make the best leftovers you've ever tasted.
We're a household of two humans and two cats, which means there's a lot of repurposing leftovers for weekly meals. And while a microwave is sufficient for zapping whatever's in the fridge into a warm, edible state, I want more from my meals.
For me, the tradeoff between two and 10 minutes of heating my dinner is a worthwhile one — I get more flavor, and more of that freshly cooked taste than the soggy sadness of a nuked meal. My chicken stays tender instead of rubbery. Need I say more?
3. They make cooking for a crowd a cinch.
When we moved into our house nine years ago, I claimed Thanksgiving as my holiday and sunk my claws in real good. I've never had a fear of hosting big meals — honestly, it's kind of like my Olympics — but the sheer logistics of the event required a lot of oven juggling and advance planning.
For these kinds of large group dinners, I used to be envious of those lucky ducks with double wall ovens. They had room to roast a turkey or ham and warm up Parker House rolls or stuffing at the same time. Meanwhile, I was relegated to oven Tetris, juggling what could be reheated when and worrying if everything would make it onto the table at the same time, and oh my God the mashed potatoes are going to be cold!
With my toaster oven as my right-hand man, this is no longer a problem. The turkey comes out to rest, the stuffing goes in, the mashed potatoes warm in the Breville after the pecans have been toasted on top of the baked brie appetizer, the green beans stay bathed in butter, and everything is at the perfect temperature. All this without undergoing a massive kitchen renovation.
I am still dreaming of that long-awaited day when I finally have the cash to remodel our sad and outdated kitchen. But when I finally make that a reality, I won't worry about how we'll live without a real oven for a few months. I have my Breville. We'll be just fine.