Tovala Smart Oven review: Cooking up a winner?
Finally, a smart kitchen gadget that reasonably answers the question, "Where's the beef?" (Or chicken, fish, vegetables, etc. ...)
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For the better part of two weeks, I’ve made lunch and dinners almost completely from scratch without neglecting my work or partner. This sudden burst of culinary creativity came courtesy of Tovala, an appliance maker and meal delivery service that’s just released its Smart Oven. I’ve tried the $249 countertop multipurpose oven, and it’s the first kitchen gadget that’s reliably got me out of a takeout or thrown-together dinner rut, though not without some compromises.
Brandt Ranj / Popular Science
What is the Tovala Smart Oven?
If you look at the Tovala Smart Oven from the outside, it looks like any ordinary countertop smart oven—because it is. The Smart Oven has Toast, Bake, Broil, Air Fry, and Reheat settings, along with buttons that allow you to select the time and temperature of your cook (a Pro edition adds in a steam function, as well as an additional cost). The Reheat button, which has become standard on newer countertop ovens, will set the Smart Oven to 400 degrees for 10 minutes—a perfect way for me to enjoy the warmed jelly donut shown above. At its heart, the Tovala Smart Oven is a 5-in-1 device that wants to fill your stomach with delicious meals while it empties your kitchen of other appliances—maybe not my stand mixer, but countertop ovens feel almost as essential at this point. Still, the Tovala is far from the only multipurpose oven on the market.
None of the Smart Oven’s features are remarkable except for the top-most function button, Scan, and that button makes all the difference. Pushing the Scan button turns on a scanner that reads QR codes printed on recipe cards. These cards are bundled in a small package along with individually wrapped preportioned ingredients that, when assembled, allow you to cook a single-serving meal in roughly half an hour with minimal effort.
Tovala is so confident in the quality of the meals developed by its chefs that it’ll slash the Smart Oven’s price from $249 to $99 if you order meals six times (you pay for the oven upfront when you set up your subscription). Having made roughly a dozen Tovala meals, the Smart Oven is a straightforward gadget to recommend if you’re concerned about eating more healthily, saving money (compared to dining out), and fighting against the choice paralysis that comes with meal planning. Tovala’s system isn’t perfect, but it beats the sinking feeling of realizing you won’t have time to cook as planned.
Setting up the Tovala Smart Oven
The Smart Oven may have a neat trick up its sleeve, but it’s a Wi-Fi-enabled countertop oven at the end of the day, so setting it up doesn’t require much time or technical know-how. After removing the oven from its packaging, I installed the crumb tray into a slot beneath the door, then slid its wire rack into the middle position. Tovala also includes an air fryer rack and baking tray, which can be used if you cook using those functions. Sometimes, the baking tray will be necessary to cook Tovala’s meals. The Smart Oven’s functions are all clearly labeled. The same is true of the appliance’s time and temperature setting buttons.
Once the oven was set up, I downloaded Tovala’s app (iOS and Android), created an account, entered my credit card information, and ordered some meals. It’s important to note that most of Tovala’s meals aren’t pre-made dishes you’re simply heating up. Each is a mini meal kit with fresh ingredients that can be unboxed, prepared, scanned, and put into the oven in about two minutes.
Tovala’s meals start at $9.99 but can balloon to nearly $18 if you choose a premium entree with an optional extra. To keep things fresh, Tovala offers a rotating list of 25 options that appeal to many diets—whether you have a food restriction, allergy, or want to keep track of your calories. You can instantly see which of the meals Tovala offers will fit within your diet by tapping a button under the “meal type.” You can order between four and 16 meals per week and change the number you get each week. You also have the option to skip weeks if necessary or cancel your Tovala meal subscription entirely with no penalties. Tovala will e-mail you about its new menu a few days in advance so you don’t feel rushed when making your selections. If you don’t choose the meals you want by 6 pm CT, Tovala will choose the meals for you.
Using the Tovala Smart Oven
If I had to give Tovala credit for one thing, it’s that the company has perfected the process of getting its meals from a raw state to your plate in under half an hour while requiring virtually no effort. Each meal kit comes in a small paper box with an easy-to-read label (featuring ingredients, weight, and expiration date), a simplified recipe card, and pre-portioned ingredients. There’s no chopping, cutting, or marinating required. Instead, putting together a Tovala meal is a matter of assembly: Remove your protein from its vacuum-sealed plastic bag, place it inside a disposable foil tin, cover it in a sauce, cheese, or other condiments, and similarly prepare a side dish. Once the meal has been assembled, hitting the Smart Oven’s Scan button will allow it to read the QR code on the meal kit’s recipe card and automatically set the correct time and temperature for that recipe. Hitting the Start button will begin cooking your food, and you’ll hear a ding (and get an app alert, in case you’re out of earshot) when the meal is done and ready to be removed.
This plug-and-play cooking style may irk some home chefs who are used to the flexibility of tailoring a recipe to their taste—Tovala does include an optional ingredient with some meals to offer some variability—but the focus here is on sheer efficiency. The truth is that while I love cooking, using Tovala’s Smart Oven to make fresh meals twice a day was refreshing. I didn’t have to plan my lunch hour around meal prepping something for dinner or worrying about whether I was missing an ingredient that would require an inconvenient trip to the store. All the common mishaps that can derail dinner plans were taken care of.
None of this would matter if Tovala’s meals tasted terrible, but that was typically far from the case. The from-scratch meals were very good, including a BBQ Cheddar Chicken Sandwich, Italian Meatballs & Penne in Marinara, Chicken Parmesan, Gyro-Spiced Chicken Breast, Lemon Garlic Rice & Toasted Carrots, and the Kung Pao Chicken & Fried Rice Bowl. In all of those cases, I was impressed with how well-seasoned the meat was, the amount of additional flavor provided by the sauces, and the fact that both the main and side dishes were cooked simultaneously without one element being over or underdone. My only disappointing Tovala meal was its Beef Lasagna, which came preassembled and only needed to be unwrapped and heated up. In this case, the food looked (and tasted) like a leftover rather than something cooked that night.
Tovala’s approach combines the convenience of heating a frozen dinner with the taste of fresh food while requiring no additional kitchen tools or cooking skills. This combination is successful as long as you continue to order food from Tovala, but what happens when you don’t? It turns out Tovala has accounted for this in a few ways. The first is making the Smart Oven compatible with thousands of frozen food items from dozens of companies. A full index of compatible meals is available in the Tovala app, which we recommend reviewing before considering the Smart Oven. If you have a recognized meal, you can scan its barcode using the Smart Oven’s QR reader to set its time and temperature automatically. This is the same behavior you’d get when cooking one of Tovala’s meals. In my tests, the Smart Oven successfully cooked a handful of relatively healthy frozen items from Whole Foods with no fuss.
If you’d like to use the Smart Oven to cook your own concoctions, Tovala’s app contains recipes from the company’s chefs. You can use this digital cookbook to make everything from chicken wings and pigs in a blanket to brownies and roasted shishito peppers. The ingredient list for all of Tovala’s recipes is always reasonable, and the directions are incredibly easy to follow. Most steps are only one sentence long; you can read the entire recipe without scrolling. Just assemble the ingredients, put your dish in the oven, and hit start in the app. It’s clear that the Smart Oven was designed with Tovala’s meals in mind, but this appliance needs to be just as useful if you’ve paused your subscription.
So, who should buy the Tovala Smart Oven?
Waking up with the desire to cook—only to have the traffic report, a long meeting, an unexpected phone call, or some other unforeseen circumstance—derail your plans can be very disappointing, especially if you spend twice the money on takeout and or end up having to throw out spoiled ingredients. Tovala’s Smart Oven can help save you time in the kitchen and cut down on food waste even if you only order four meals per week. If you pause your subscription but later find more time, gather your ingredients or run by the store for your favorite frozen feast. Tovala’s Smart Oven will heat up faster than your full-sized one, and Tovala’s recipes can inspire you on what to cook. Countertop ovens have never been better, but Tovala’s unique approach helps its appliance stand out as a kitchen gadget I’d add to my favorite smart home devices. If you’re a frustrated home cook, the Tovala Smart Oven may help get lunch or dinner onto your table instead of reaching for the delivery app on your phone.