Some people buy the latest new kitchen gadgets because they’re into cooking and want to exploit new technology for a better culinary experience. Others because they’re into the technology itself. Still others don’t really enjoy cooking, and this is the camp I fall into. So last Spring, armed with a lack of interest and time for kitchen adventures, I found myself an early backer of the Tovala oven.
Tovala launched in early 2016 with a Kickstarter campaign. The “smart oven that makes home cooking easy” sounded perfect for me—not just because it might enable me to escape the unhealthy Lean Cuisine rut I’d been in for workday lunching but because part of the Tovala equation is a subscription service for fresh, prepared meals, shipped weekly. They had me at “prepared.”
Tovala’s campaign funded in under 24 hours. Following just a few months’ delay, the ovens shipped to early backers roughly a year after launch (not bad by Kickstarter standards), and now it’s available for the public to order.
After negotiating for counter space [“but I’m writing a review of it…”], I excitedly unpacked and set up my new magical cooking box. The oven arrived with no documentation other than a small card instructing me to download and install the Tovala app, which was at the time also devoid of anything even remotely resembling operating instructions beyond some onboarding panels. Tovala has since added a multi-page quick start guide to the package and significantly bolstered its knowledgebase content, optimized for mobile as an in-app “user guide.” Including a QR code that directs consumers to the app in Apple’s and Google’s respective stores would be a nice addition to the standard packaging.
The oven shipped with a rack that’s a little tricky to slide into place around an extrusion that’s designed to keep the rack from falling out, a tray (which I still don’t really know where to place in the oven, a detached water reservoir, and a branded pot holder as a gift for the Kickstarter backers.
The water reservoir is a unique and important component of the oven, since this is technically a countertop combi-oven that can cook with heat, air, and steam. The reservoir lets you easily add water to produce steam by filling it at the sink then sliding it into your oven. Unfortunately, a number of the reservoirs shipped to early backers have leaky valve stops, so I discovered I was trailing water across the kitchen as I took mine over the oven. The flaw does not impede proper operations, since it doesn’t leak once it’s seated in the oven, and Tovala’s co-founder and CEO, David Rabie, indicates that new reservoirs will be sent to customers experiencing this issue.
The oven is sizable—it fits fine on a standard-depth kitchen counter, but it slides under my upper cabinets with just four inches to spare and sticks out beyond the 12” cabinets above it. Adding to this depth, the oven has a heavy cable that terminates at a standard 3-prong plug, sticking straight out from the wall outlet. A flat plug with a side-angled cord would allow you to push the oven closer to the backsplash and hide the plug.
The design of the oven is fairly contemporary. Its sturdy door encompasses the entire front face of the oven, surfaced in black glass with a window into the oven. A curved stainless handle spans the front, and a plastic control panel is literally bolted onto the front surface of the door. This is a change introduced after the Kickstarter launch, both to address usability concerns and to protect the electronics from excessive heat exposure (original designs had the readout and touch controls built onto the top edge of the door). Extremely bright LEDs on this panel indicate connection status, mode, progress, and water level. Three buttons and a knob give you some limited control of the oven locally—anything else requires the app.
Like many “smart” appliances, the Tovala oven connects to your Wi-Fi network, and getting it connected is easy enough. You need to set up an account, which, if you subscribed to Tovala’s food service, you’d have already done. Like some other Tovala customers, I either didn’t remember already setting up an account or didn’t realize they were the same until the app wouldn’t let me set up a new account with my email address.
The app easily found my wireless home network and connected with my oven after prompting for my wireless password and sending network info to the oven. A green LED network indicator on the front panel of the oven lets you know it’s connected.
The Tovala oven uses its connectivity for a few key functions—updates, recipe programming, control, and notifications among them. I’d argue that one of the greatest benefits of device connectivity is the ability for companies to improve or change product functionality over time. Already, Tovala has delivered two over-the-air updates to early customers to change the behavior of some of the front panel controls, indicators, and cook cycles.
One of the things that makes Tovala’s solution so simple is the ability to automatically program the oven for Tovala’s own meals by scanning a QR code on each meal pack using a scanner hidden under the front panel. A typical cook cycle might go through four or five bake/broil/steam phases, but all you have to do is scan the code to start it all. The oven gets the proper cooking program over the air and does the rest for you.
Tovala’s app also has some (few—very few) recipes built in and allows you to build and save your own. Co-founder Rabie says more pre-defined recipes are coming, and you’ll soon be able to share recipes with the Tovala community.
The app can also send notifications to your phone when cooking is complete and when the oven encounters any problems. In my testing, the notifications have been inconsistent. After encountering a bug in the initial app release, I uninstalled the app and re-installed, but I still don’t get most notifications when cooking is complete.
The gem in the Tovala solution is the prepared meal subscription plans. Tovala offers two meal plans—one that allows you to pick three meals a week and another that doubles your selected order so you can prepare meals for two. Each week, you make your meal selections online or in the Tovala app from around half a dozen offerings that are constantly changing (perhaps with the exception of Miso-glazed Salmon, which doesn’t ever seem to fall off the menu).
Most meals comprise a protein, or main dish, with vegetable and grain sides. The mains are commonly boneless chicken, fish, or tofu, while the sides are typically a vegetable or green paired with some sort of whole-grain rice. This past week’s ordering options included Teriyaki Chicken with Fried Rice Pilaf, Roasted Pineapple & Sesame Coleslaw and Sunflower Satay Tofu Steak with Sesame Ginger Brown Rice & Garlic Green Beans; and this week’s Miso-glazed Salmon sides are Edamame Brown Rice and Charred Citrus Broccoli. You’re not going to find traditional starches like white rice and mashed potatoes (although they’ve occasionally offered fingerlings).
Tovala’s food is fresh—not frozen—and meals are shipped out to customers each Tuesday, arriving the next day. They’re bundled together in packets that are then packed in foam-and-mylar-lined boxes containing ice packs. It’s a lot of packaging, intended (but not always succeeding) to keep the meals protected and adequately chilled until you can properly refrigerate them.
Meal preparation is quite simple. Each pack contains one or two plastic-covered foil trays and a caddy containing garnishes and accompaniments clearly labeled to add before or after cooking. Tear off the plastic; sprinkle, spread, or pour the “before” items (often oils or Miso glaze) as directed on the meal pack, scan the QR code, put the trays in the oven, and push the knob to start. In 15-20 minutes you may or may not get a device notification to let you know that your meal is ready. You may want to ask Alexa to set a timer for you, because you likely won’t hear the nearly-inaudible electronic chirps the oven makes when the cooking cycle completes.
The meals are delicious, and the portions are generous. I’ve ordered chicken, fish, turkey, pasta, and vegetable meals, and every single one of them has been flavorful and filling. Rabie says their intent is to provide clean ingredients with bold flavors and no preservatives. Meals are typically 400-800 calories and are high in protein. I’ve never been able to plate a meal to look anything like a professional chef would intend, but it typically looks colorful and appetizing. My plates don’t look as beautiful as in Tovala’s photos, but the food tastes as good as (often better than) I’d expect. Tovala plans to eventually expand the menu, offering plans to accommodate different palates and diets.
As with other food delivery services, Tovala’s early backers have reported a number of common shipping problems that the company is still working to resolve. Some packages have arrived damaged. Some customers have reported that the ice packs are fully melted on warmer days, and the delivered food is no longer cold. Some shipments have arrived after the FedEx delivery window for standard overnight service, which is already 8:00 p.m. And a combination of breached ice packs and condensation has caused many meal packs to arrive soaking wet. Unfortunately, I have experienced all of these issues. Happily, Tovala’s customer support, available by phone, email, and chat, is extremely friendly and helpful. They’ll promptly credit your account if your food arrives damaged or spoiled.
The company’s also had some packaging and labeling issues over these initial few months, including three separate labeling “mix-ups” on meal nutrition information, garnish instructions, and even one regarding an expiration date. They’ve followed each of these up with email correspondence to customers, but these problems suggest a highly manual process with quality review and control issues that are concerning when we’re talking about perishable food packaging.
OK, so the Tovala oven does a great job cooking Tovala meals. Perhaps that’s not a surprise; arguably, it’s a necessity. But how is the Tovala oven at cooking other stuff? It turns out that’s a little more complicated—both figuratively and literally.
Tovala’s oven features two built-in cooking cycles—Toast and Heat—and they both have issues. Let’s look at Toast first. Since the Tovala product is a countertop oven, you might expect that this oven might take the place of your toaster or toaster oven. I did…that seems reasonable (and it was part of my argument for putting this thing on our kitchen counter). Not so fast.
Tovala offers a Toast cycle, but even after recent updates (again automatically delivered over the air), this oven doesn’t toast bread anywhere near as evenly, quickly, or consistently as pretty much any toaster I’ve ever used. I’ve spoken with David Rabie about making toast more than I’ve probably ever discussed toast with anyone. He’s explained the complexity of carmelization across bread types and temperatures, stepped through their multi-phase toasting cycle, and patiently listened to my complaints. I just want to make toast, and it strikes me that companies have made products that can do this successfully for years.
Initially, my Tovala oven overcooked (burned) the top side and undercooked the bottom of nearly any bread product I tried to toast. The recent update refines the toasting process, offering five toast settings (expanded from the original three). While I’m no longer burning toast, I’m no less disappointed with the results. The browning is still uneven between the top and bottom sides, with the bottom remaining undercooked. And now it all takes longer—anywhere from five to nearly ten minutes. My partner put our toaster back on the counter.
Tovala’s other built-in function, Heat, is a timed cycle with a mixture of broil, steam, and convection bake, cooking at a range of temperatures between 400°–475° F. It seems specifically designed for reheating. You don’t need to adjust the temperature—it handles all that for you. Just press the Heat button, turn the front knob to select the desired cooking time, and press the knob to start. Tovala recommends 9:15 as a good starting point to reheat a meal and 15 minutes to cook something frozen. While it’s convenient and somewhat magical, the black-box nature of the cycle can be a bit frustrating. It’s all about experimenting to find the right cook time, but you can’t just add time to a heating cycle in progress, and you can’t pause the cycle if you open the oven to inspect your food.
For anything more specific or complicated than these slightly flawed Toast and Heat functions, you need to pull out your phone and use Tovala’s app.
…to use your oven.
If you want to, say, broil something for 6 minutes, you need to use the app. If someone in your household wants to heat something at 375° for 25 minutes, they’ll need to use the app. If your house-sitter or visiting in-laws want to cook someth—oh, let’s face it…they’re out of luck.
This is where it all falls apart for me. And to make matters worse, the app doesn’t just let you set the temp/time and go. To start cooking at a particular temperature, you need to select an existing or create a new cook cycle…or meal…or recipe—the same thing has different names depending what screen you’re on. Adding time or increasing the temperature while the oven is already in use is equally cumbersome. You can’t just change it from the cooking status screen. Instead, you have to find the recipe in use and edit the appropriate steps, which changes your saved recipe, too. And like the Heat function, you can’t pause the cycle if you open the oven to check on things.
There are also some preset recipes you can choose from in the app that give you pre-programmed cook cycles for a select few proteins and vegetables (five when it first shipped; eight at the time of this writing). Tovala plans to expand this library over time, but this feels like a huge missed opportunity and gap, particularly considering this type of combination cooking is likely new to most consumers and how otherwise tedious it is to just set it like a plain, old oven.
How do you cook baked potatoes, tater tots, or other foods you might heat in a traditional oven? What’s the best way to reheat pizza, rolls, or croissants? I find it hard to imagine that the folks working at Tovala don’t already have some of these cycles pre-programmed for their own ovens. Even Tovala’s Kickstarter campaign featured example cook cycles for some popular foods, but most of them aren’t yet in the app.
I’d also like to see some assistance with cooking packaged foods. Imagine if the scanner could read the bar code on select packaged products and set the oven accordingly. Now that would be useful.
If you’ve never cooked with steam before, there are some aspects of the Tovala oven that may surprise you. For example, I wasn’t expecting the water drippings that form in the oven during and after cooking. I’m also constantly forgetting to keep my hands and face away when I open the oven door after cooking, as a waft of hot steam usually needs to escape before you can grab your food. I’m forgetful enough about it that I kind of wish the device had CAUTION: Hot Steam! permanently printed on the top edge of the door frame. I’m also concerned about the long-term effects the steam may have on the finish of the cabinets above my oven.
Finally, while this isn’t an issue that appears to affect functionality, the oven seems to have some engineering or manufacturing flaws that cause it to make occasional unsettling noises. Several Tovala customers, including me, have reported that as the oven is heating, it occasionally makes a loud bang as the interior oven wall buckles. As the oven cools, it bangs itself back into place. Additionally, there’s an occasional whistle inside the oven when it’s heating—usually on longer cook cycles. Rabie acknowledges these as known issues but notes that they don’t impact the oven performance or pose any danger (short of, perhaps, startling you). Still…how did that get through testing?
Like all ovens, this thing is going to get dirty. Crumbs from bread products and splatter from meals create a soupy mess on the bottom as it mixes with residual water condensation. But unlike a toaster with a removable bottom panel or a microwave oven with smooth surfaces, this box has permanently attached top-and-bottom heating coils that you need to clean around. It’s kind of a pain. I’ve sadly given up on maintaining an always-shiny oven interior.
Tovala recommends wiping down the interior of the oven when it’s cool with soapy water and traditional oven cleaner. The oven has a clean cycle you can run it through after the cleaner has been sitting for a while. You run that using the app, of course.
So how much does all of this cost? Meals are $12 apiece, including shipping, and you can subscribe to receive either 3 meals a week for $36 or 6 meals a week (two each of the 3 selected meals) for $72. That’s a lot—slightly more than other food delivery services, but Tovala has the added benefit of the meals being already prepared for you (if, like me, you want that added convenience). And if you like Miso-glazed Salmon as part of your weekly diet, that regular offering alone may be worth it to you.
The oven itself costs $399. That’s $70 higher than the estimated retail price projected during the Kickstarter campaign. For now, you can only order it online, but Rabie says they’ll be considering retail channels in the future.
As a stand-alone countertop oven, Tovala promises a lot but doesn’t yet live up to its full potential. Toasting bread is still problematic, even after recent updates, so it’s not going to replace your toaster yet. Heating food is more reliable, but in that mode your oven is literally a black box that you just have to trust. If you want more control, you’re relegated to using the app, which only supports iOS and Android phones, isn’t optimized yet for tablets, and can’t be controlled through voice assistants like the Echo or Google Home (all of which, according to Rabie, are under consideration for Tovala’s roadmap).
Tovala makes no bones about the fact that the company’s focus has been on using the oven to cook Tovala meals—and clearly they’ve spent significant time and effort making that convenient and reliable. In my opinion, the Tovala meals are the best part of the offering, but that’s marred somewhat by a still imperfect fulfillment process. The company needs to further improve the reliability of its meal packaging and delivery, perhaps even offering an “express” option for customers in warmer climates who can receive packages earlier in the day.
That focus on the meal subscription service is also the likely reason Tovala’s industrial designers ultimately felt they could delegate basic function and temperature control to an app, but that’s a potential liability for both Tovala and its customers. Tovala oven owners are taking a bet on this company, trusting it to maintain and update the apps and services that control the oven long after purchase.
What happens if smartphones no longer rule our lives in 5 years? What happens if Tovala abandons or degrades support for this first-generation oven when its focus moves to newer models. What happens if Tovala isn’t successful, or gets acquired, or pivots? Well…then you could be left with a large, not-so-great-at-toasting toaster oven. This clearly isn’t an issue specific to Tovala, but it’s one that we, as consumers, will need to consider as more products abandon physical controls and rely on third-party devices and cloud services.
As an early backer on Kickstarter, I paid about half the current retail price, and I’m happy with that price. I don’t know that I would have gone in at $399. I’m also very pleased with the meals and the convenience—I’m eating better now. I recognize that my oven is likely one of the first batch produced and shipped, and Tovala will refine the hardware and experience over time. But in its current form, I’m frustrated by the product’s quirks like the toasting, the banging and whistling, and the heavy app dependency.
Bottom line: this product is about convenience. If you’re interested in eating good, prepared meals at a premium price, then Tovala is worth your consideration. If you consider yourself an amateur chef, and you’re more interested in control and precision, then you’re in luck because this space is heating up [sorry…it was really unavoidable]. If you’re in that group, though, you may be better served by June’s or Anova’s anticipated offering. Either way, get out your wallets. This convenience and control doesn’t come cheap.
About the Author: Richard Gunther is the Director of Client Experience at Universal Mind, a digital agency in Denver, CO. He’s also the Editor of the Digital Media Zone and hosts Home: On, a podcast about DIY home automation products and technology.