A toaster oven, or compact oven, is a mini-me to a full-sized oven. They bake, roast, grill and toast, and some even have a hotplate on top – all this at a fraction of the price of a full-sized oven. So why not use a toaster oven all the time? While they can be useful for small cooking jobs such as toasted cheese sandwiches, and are obviously handy when space is an issue – in a caravan, for instance – they do have a couple of drawbacks.

Not as good as a full-sized oven – but better than a toaster

Toaster ovens are compact and use less energy than a full-sized oven, but their small size rules out big cooking jobs – so it's dinner for two at most. They get the job done, but when we tested them we found they aren't always the greatest cooks. You can get some OK results through experimentation, however. The top, rear and glass doors can get too hot to touch safely, so little hands need to be kept away.

Are they better than a convection microwave?

As an alternative, the considerations are really price and performance. Toaster ovens are relatively inexpensive, while  a typical convection microwave oven (or even just a microwave oven with grill element), offers more options and better cooking, but is generally larger and more expensive – starting at about $500, but typically priced at $800 or more.

I can find a use for one of these little pocket rockets. What should I look for?

Capacity

Check the oven is big enough to fit your cookware but small enough to fit your bench space. Some are wider at the base to fit a large pizza.

Controls

Controls should be clearly labelled and easy to press, grip or turn. Most models have at least three rotary controls: temperature, function selection and a timer.

Racks

Most ovens have three rack positions, but some have reversible racks that give two height options for each position.

Accessories

These can include a roasting tray (some with a drip tray insert to allow fat to drain from meat), pizza tray, biscuit trays, a handle for the trays, racks for safer handling, and a rotisserie for roasting meat.

Easy cleaning

Non-stick or ceramic interiors are best – look for ones with few crevices or gaps. Most models have removable crumb trays. Trays that can be put into the dishwasher make cleaning a breeze.

Hot to handle!

Door glass temperatures can reach from 81°C to 113°C, and the rear of the oven can get even hotter (up to 168°C in one case we've seen), so be cautious and leave clearance around the oven for air circulation. Be careful of touching the oven during or after use and don't leave anything on the oven that could be damaged by high heat. On a positive note, the handles and controls all remain cool enough to touch safely.

Cost

Toaster ovens start at $35 and go up to $400.