At $300, the Balmuda toaster (or, more accurately, Balmuda the Toaster, as the Japanese company refers to it) costs far more than the majority of un-smart toaster ovens, even though it has—at 600 cubic inches—less than half of the capacity of most of them. It’s just roomy enough to hold two modest slices of bread. And while the Balmuda does have three simple temperature-specific heating modes (350°F to 450°F), it’s really meant to do one thing well: heat, brown, and crisp bread products—toast, pastries, and pizzas. Which makes it a very expensive one-trick-pony.
I’m a bread baker and baking instructor who works entirely from home, so I eat a lot of toast. And I’ve been using a Balmuda pretty much daily for the last six months now, so I have a good sense of how well the toaster works. Whether or not it’s worth the sticker price, I cannot say—that depends entirely on the contents of your bank account and your willingness to part with that much of it. Does it make amazing toast, even out of bread that surely would be long past the point of no return under any other circumstances? Does it ever.
How the Balmuda Toaster Works
How does the Balmuda transform rock-hard bread into perfect toast and return days-old croissants and limp, stale pizza slices to whatever greatness they began life with? The secret is steam. Hidden on the top of the oven and revealed when the door is pulled down is a slot into which you pour 5cc (1 teaspoon) of water before adding the bread and turning it on. (The toaster comes with a cute miniature plastic coffee mug for precise water measurement.) The water flows into a metal channel inside the oven cavity, above an electric element that heats it to a boil at the beginning of the toast cycle, filling the oven with steam. The steam softens the exterior of the bread before boiling off completely, while the top and bottom oven elements cycle on and off to gently heat the bread inside and out without overcooking the exterior. Finally, in the last 30 seconds or so, the elements heat up continuously in order to brown and crisp the toast.
Why a jacket of steam at the start of toasting helps restore bread to its former glory has to do with how bread stales in the first place. Hard, stale bread might seem dry, but—unless it has been deliberately dried or allowed to sit at room temperature in a dry environment for a long time—it actually contains loads of water. The problem is that the water isn’t where we want it to be.
To back up a bit: when bread bakes, the starches in the flour and the water in the dough heat up and combine to form something known as a gel. Gelled starches are soft and flexible, which is why fresh bread products are tender. Staling—or retrogradation, as it’s also known—is the reverse of this process: over time, the starches naturally expel the water they contain and crystallize, leaving them hard and brittle. (Starch retrogradation also accounts for what happens to a container of takeout rice left in the fridge a few hours: the rice grains become gritty, even though they haven’t lost any of the water they contained.)
The gelling-retrogradation cycle is infinitely reversible, at least in theory, since the expelled water surrounds the crystallized starches. This is why you can pop that rice into the microwave for a few minutes and turn it from gritty to soft again. And it is why the interior of a slice of bread tenderizes when it’s toasted. In practice, however, some of the water that gets booted from the starches also evaporates, never to join forces again. This happens both slowly as a loaf of bread sits on the counter, and rapidly when a slice toasts in a “regular” toaster. In the latter case, the heat of the oven causes the water in the outer layers of the slice to boil off, turning the bread hard, rather than crisp; the older the slice, the thicker this hard outer layer. (“Crispness” is what you get when that outer layer of hard starches is kept to little more than a thin shell.)
The Balmuda solves this problem by saturating the oven atmosphere with moisture. With all that extra water hanging around, the water inside the bread isn’t as tempted to boil off as it heats up, keeping that outer layer of crispness as thin as possible. And, in the case of breads that have sat around awhile before being toasted, it restores much of the exterior moisture that was lost. It’s a simple trick, but extremely effective.
Toast à la Mode
There are two knobs on the front of the Balmuda. The dial on the left selects the oven mode: sandwich bread, artisan bread, pizza, pastry, and three steam-free, temperature-specific options for cooking or reheating other foods, from 350°F to 450°F. The knob on the right houses the power button and a dial for setting the cook time, from one to 15 minutes, in 30-second intervals up to the first five minutes and 60-second intervals beyond that.
The “bread” modes are tuned to the product being toasted, and vary in the orientation and intensity of the heat during the cycle:
- The “sandwich bread” mode works as described above: steam with oscillating heat, followed by even, continuous heat from both above and below. It’s meant to be used on soft-by-nature, thinly-sliced sandwich breads and English muffins.
- The “artisan bread” mode is identical, except it runs at a higher temperature, to help the oven handle thicker, crustier slices of bread, like sourdoughs.
- The “pizza” mode—used for slices of pizza set on the mini sheet pan included with the oven—heats the top element more than the lower one, to ensure rapid and sufficient melting and crisping of the cheese. And it is meant to be used to toast bagels, which want toasting on their cut faces only. (This mode can also be used to make kissaten, aka “pizza toast”, in which you top slices of bread with sauce, grated cheese, and whatever else you like. Or to just make cheesy toast.)
- The “pastry” mode eliminates the final blast of heat of the three other modes, since things like croissants and donuts want softening and heating through, but not toasting. (They still crisp up, because the steam boils away before the cycle is complete.)
But Does the Balmuda Actually Toast Well?
In my testing, all of the modes worked as described, on both fresh and not-at-all-fresh breads, pizza, and pastries. While the Balmuda never failed to amaze, no matter what I threw at it, perhaps its most impressive trick was restoring many-days-old, dried-out, and hollow-sounding croissants to tender, crisp, and buttery delights. (The Balmuda is no miracle worker, of course. What you get when the timer bell dings is only going to be as good as that thing was on the day it was born; it cannot transform frozen-dough crescent rolls into les croissants Française.)
The trick to using the Balmuda effectively is knowing how long to set the cook time, and this is something that only comes with practice. The “sweet spot” for most products is between three and five minutes—less for thinner, less bulky items, more for thicker ones. (You can also use the Balmuda to toast or reheat frozen bread, pastries, or pizza. In this case you need to add a few extra minutes to give the item time to thaw fully before toasting.) If you overshoot and the bread gets too dark, there is obviously no way to course correct; if you undershoot, however, you can run the cycle again (without adding water for steam) for a minute or two until the bread is toasted enough.
The three “temperature” modes work as described, too, though I didn’t use them very often, since the oven and its accompanying mini baking sheet are only big enough to hold a small amount of food. But it’s nice to have in a pinch, especially when I’d rather not fire up my oven-oven just to reheat some leftover roasted potatoes or whatnot.
The Bottom Line: Should You Buy the Balmuda Toaster?
The Balmuda is not perfect (though maybe with a $300 sticker price it ought to be). The one place I think it could be improved is in the evenness of the toast from top to bottom; in my experience, the top of the slice comes out consistently a few shades darker than the bottom does. This is easily overcome by flipping the slice and giving it another minute or two, but it would be better if you didn’t have to do this, of course.
Despite this minor annoyance, having a Balmuda has completely transformed my relationship to toast. If you’re looking for a compact toaster oven, live in a household with one to two people, value aesthetics, and are really only planning on using the oven for toasting, you’ll likely love the Balmuda, too.
What’s the best way to clean the Balmuda toaster?
Balmuda has clear instructions that can be found here for cleaning the toaster. The instructions are broken down by toaster oven part, too.
What’s special about the Balmuda toaster?
The Balmuda uses steam and temperature controls to toast bread and reheat pastries and pizza. During our testing, we found this steam-powered technology worked exceptionally well for toasting and reheating.