Microwave or Toaster Oven: Which Is the Greener Kitchen Gadget?

There are various factors to consider, from energy and time to the final product.

Clean kitchen with a microwave and a toaster oven

Sidekix Media / Unsplash

You may have noticed that you can save a lot of energy by switching from a full-size oven to using smaller cooking devices like a microwave or toaster oven when reheating food. But which is better—the microwave or the toaster oven? Let's take a closer look to see how the two compare across several practical categories.

Energy Use

When it comes to energy consumption, the competition between a microwave and a toaster oven isn't much of a competition. A microwave uses on average around 700-1,300 watts. A toaster oven uses around 1,200-1,800 watts. Essentially, when using a countertop device rather than a conventional oven, which uses an average of 3,000 watts, a toaster oven will use approximately half the energy, while a microwave uses about one third of the energy.

It's easy to see that you'll be using less energy overall if you go with a microwave. The real trick is in how you will use it, and how you want your food cooked, since the two devices have different specialties.

Varied Uses

A microwave and a toaster oven are used for different purposes. Generally speaking, microwaves are most useful for defrosting and thawing ingredients, reheating prepared meals and beverages (like cold coffee), steaming vegetables, boiling water, melting butter, making popcorn, cooking potatoes, sanitizing cleaning and makeup sponges, etc. Toaster ovens are most useful for baking and browning foods, roasting meats like chicken and bacon, broiling, toasting (maintaining a crispy crust that would go soggy in a microwave), and reheating certain kinds of prepared meals.

If you want something done quickly and don't care much about how the food turns out other than being hot, then a microwave is the way to go. But if you want to imitate baking in an oven, then a toaster oven is a better choice, as it heats food more slowly but also more evenly. Either way, you're saving money and energy over a conventional oven if you're using one of the two devices to reheat food or cook small, quick meals.

Another thing to consider is how much time is spent with the power on. A microwave is normally used for reheating food or cooking frozen meals. Unless you don't use an oven at all and are cooking frozen lasagnas, which take around 25 minutes, you're probably only using a microwave for a few minutes at a time. Average daily use is about 15 minutes total on high for reheating food. Assuming an average price of $0.10 per kilowatt hour, that adds up to .36 kwh, or $0.04.

For a toaster oven, it takes more time to heat up food. Usually a toaster oven is preheated for a few minutes, then the food is baked or broiled. For instance, reheating a piece of pizza takes about two minutes in a microwave, but five minutes at 350˚F in a toaster oven. An average daily use for reheating food is about 50 minutes at 425˚F, which adds up to an average of .95 kwh, or $0.10.

Decision Time

Is it worth the additional energy bill to have food that feels and tastes like it just came out of the oven? Ultimately, it's up to you. Both a microwave and toaster oven have a variety of settings that allow you versatility in cooking.

One rule of thumb is if you want your food heated fast and with the least energy use, go with a microwave. But if you want your food heated well while still using half the energy of a conventional oven, go with a toaster oven.

Of course, it is also possible to have both devices and use them according to your needs, maximizing the energy savings of the microwave where appropriate, and the quality of the toaster oven where appropriate, and avoiding a conventional oven altogether in many instances. You could also live without either one and use the stovetop to reheat certain items, like cold soup or pizza (in a cast iron pan).

A microwave tends to be a larger appliance than a toaster oven, making the latter easier to tuck away in an inconspicuous corner of the kitchen. Microwaves tend to be easier to clean because you can use steam to soften food bits and wipe down quickly, though toaster ovens do have removable pans and crumb trays. Both are safe; toaster ovens now have automatic shutoffs and microwaves are no longer seen as scary sources of radiation. Microwaves remain fairly cool to the touch inside after cooking, while toaster ovens are hot, so require more care. Both contain hot foods that could burn you if you don't handle carefully.

Tips for Buying and Using

There are a few things to keep in mind so that you can get the most energy-efficient device. When purchasing, keep an eye on the wattage when comparing models. Go for a device that is on the lower end of the power consumption range. Just because it's a higher-watt device doesn't automatically mean it will cook better. Also, if you're going to be using the device on a daily basis, go with convection—the air circulation will cook food more evenly.

For toaster ovens, treat it like an oven. For instance, preheating can be helpful but not always necessary. If you feel you have to preheat, minimize the amount of time spent warming up the toaster oven. Also, it's best-suited for smaller meals. If you have large ones, go for a big one-potter in the conventional oven or slow cooker so you have leftovers. That will ultimately be more energy efficient in the long run.