Burnt Toast – A Cautionary Tale

A watched toaster oven will never catch fire. I learned this lesson the hard way

It all started innocently enough

I don't think these will make good breadcrumbs
I don't think these will make good breadcrumbs

I was multitasking one evening, doing chores and getting ready to make dinner. I figured I could dry out some old bread to make into crumbs while I put away a few things upstairs. I have done this many times before. Put a few pieces of stale bread in the toaster oven, set on low temp for about 10 minutes, and it crushes nicely. But things didn’t turn out that way tonight.



I inherited frugality from my mother, a child of the Depression. Now that we are living through an economic downturn for our own generation, the economizing ways of my mother’s time have become fashionable again. At least that is a nice way of saying my cheapskate tendencies serve a purpose. Why should I drop a few bucks on a canister of preservative-laden bread crumbs when I can make my own? It is good bread, healthier than the canned stuff, and instead of tossing it out or feeding to the birds (they can fend for themselves, I got my own problems) I can get some use out of it. I have been making my own shake-and-bake bread mix for awhile, and the kids like it better.

We recently retired our old toaster oven and got a new one. The old one had been with us forever. It was older than our house – literally. The handle would not stay on the glass anymore, and had fallen off so many times that the floor below has a nice set of dings in it. Sometimes you just get cheap, and cannot part with something, even though it goes against practical judgment. That frugal streak can go too far sometimes, and in this case, that old oven was way past its prime. From the glass door that was nearly impossible to see through, to the cramped size of the thing, it was a long time coming. When the spiffy new model was on the shelf at Costco for a great price, all those years of ‘we really need a new toaster oven’ came together and I bought the thing.

I was quite proud of the purchase. We had been researching them for a while, looking for the best deal, checking with my sources in retail (my sister, who gets us great discounts), and waiting for the right time. I know it’s just a toaster oven, not a government bailout, it should not get that much scrutiny. But some things just go that way, and this was one of them. So I saw the big, shiny oven on the top shelf (I never see products on lower shelves, it’s a personal failing), it was cheaper than anything we had looked at, bigger, and had the simple three dials we wanted. None of the digital stuff with so many features you need a consultant to operate it. I dropped that puppy in the basket and happily brought home our new appliance.

And we loved it. It was shiny and new and it made the best toast. I cooked pizzas in the thing. I was proud of my accomplishment. I did my homework, I was thorough, I was a Trustworthy Consumer. I did good. I was so tickled, I could have done a testimonial for it.

We enjoyed a few blissful months with our new appliance. Once or twice my wife scorched her Pita bread, which we ascribed to getting to know our new oven. She usually puts the temp too high, if you ask me. If she had consulted with the Appliance Master more often, there would be no problem. Until it was my turn at the helm.

Which brings me back to the story.

I had set the toaster oven to a low temp, around 200, cranked the timer to 15 minutes or so, and headed up to do my chores. The only thing I forgot was to set the mode to Oven. Bad move. Because when the oven is in Toast mode, it follows the timer, but not the temperature. In retrospect, this is a bit of a design flaw. Toasters typically have built-in timers, so that even on dark setting, the heating element will shut off automatically. You may get scorched toast, but that’s it. However, on this particular oven, one could get into trouble if the dials are set the wrong way. The instructions say to turn the timer past 20, and then turn it back to the toast range, which is no more than 5-8 minutes depending on how light or dark you want it.

Now, the temperature setting for Toast is very hot. I figure around 350 or 400. I have seen the elements during toast mode, and they glow brightly. And wherever you set the timer, it will keep up the heat the whole time. This is the same way my wife scorched her pita. Although when you are near the oven and it begins to scorch, you can smell it, or the smoke alarm goes off, and you can stop it before anything serious happens. This was my first mistake. I left the scene. I was wrapping up my chores, standing at the top of the stairs, and about to head down –all at the same moment the smell hit me, my son started screaming that the toast was burning, and the smoke alarms went off. Nothing unusual, it happens with the pita. I just have to open the front and back doors for a minute or two and all is well. So I hustled down the stairs to get to the doors, but before I could get through the kitchen, I saw thick brown smoke billowing out of the toaster oven. This was no ordinary scorched toast. Something was very wrong. Suddenly all the smoke alarms were going off downstairs, and then the upstairs alarms went, too. My eyes followed the trail of billowing smoke upwards, and I saw a two foot thick layer of smoke hovering at the ceiling, across the entire downstairs. My heart started to race a bit. I have not had a house fire before, but I came close many years back at a previous home with a pot-bellied stove. That night I put too many pieces of wood in the oven and the flames shot so far up I started a flue fire. I had to get the fire extinguisher and put it out. The flue was glowing red-hot, the black paint was flaking off and floating around the house. We had the fire department check out the house, and after getting the flue cleaned, we never had any more problems. That night was very scary. And now that same fear was back.

You know that sinking feeling that you’re in trouble?

I was still in motion, and not really processing it all, so I continued to the front of the house to open the door. I ran back to the kitchen, and the toaster was spewing even more smoke now, black and ominous, at which point I realized I had a very serious situation on my hands. The adrenaline was going strong, my son was still screaming, and I went to open the toaster oven door. My second mistake. What had just been smoldering bread now burst into flames. Not just flickering around the edge flames, either. It was fireplace flames, and they were shooting out the front of the toaster. I stepped back, now seriously worried, visions of a kitchen fire in my mind. My son began screaming, “Daddy! The toaster is on fire! The toaster is on fire!” Needless to say, I was well aware of this, but now my fear of a serious problem was maginfied by the spectre of evacuating the house with my son, fire engines, and a host of other things you never want to think about. I was frantically going through the checklist of what to do in a kitchen fire. Don’t throw water (yes, I knew it was not a grease fire), don’t put anything combustible on it like a towel, and so on. This is all going through my head in the space of a few seconds, when the only thing I could think of doing was to try and blow it out. My third mistake. The flames shot up higher and were licking the bottom of the kitchen cabinet. When the adrenaline is flowing, you don’t think straight. And absent any fire drills or other training, nothing heroic sprang to my mind. Except, that is, to shut the damn door. Which I finally did, cutting off the supply of oxygen and putting out the flames.

But all was not well just yet. The toaster was still on, and the toast still burning. The layer of smoke was approaching eye level, and it continued to billow out of the oven. It was stinging my eyes, and making me cough. We have 10-foot high ceilings, which meant a 5-foot thick layer of smoke was descending throughout the house, snaking up the back stairs, and generally stinking up the place. And now my son was screaming that Mommy was home with my daugther. A minute or two had passed since I came downstairs. My heart was pounding, the smoke was everywhere, and still going strong from the toaster, and now my wife was home to witness my handiwork. This was just great. Nothing like screwing up in a major way with an audience. I managed to keep my wits, turn off the timer and unplug the still-toasting-and-now-burning oven. I grabbed the oven mits and carefully took the smoking box out the back door.

OK, I was on top of something at last. Stopped the fire, unplugged the thing and got it out of the house. I got back inside and opened every window downstairs. Then I went upstairs, closed all the doors off the main hall and opened the skylight, which usually draws air up and out of the house nicely. That is, when there is a breeze. And today, there was dead air. Not the slightest movement. Fine. I grabbed a fan, propped it at the front door, and got a bit of movement going. After a few minutes the smoke alarms stopped, and the air was clear again. It took another two days of open windows, and I finally got the stench out of the house.

All’s well that ends well

My wife did a handy job of cleaning up the oven. Since the flames had not occurred for very long, there was no melted knobs or damage to the oven exterior. They are designed for high heat, and aside from the smoke and brief flame, the toaster had gotten no hotter than it would with regular use. So once it was cleaned up, I ran it a few times to check that it was operating OK, and to burn off any residual smell on the inside of the unit.

It looks lived in now. The shiny parts have a bit of coffee-colored patina. The interior looks like a battle-scarred landing bay from a Star Wars prop. But it works just fine. I warmed up a nice lunch for the kids, with corn dogs, taquitos, and wedge-cut fries.

However, the kitchen cabinet still smells a bit.

Outside doesn’t look too bad, you can hardly tell anything happened

Inside it now looks about 2 years old

Inside it just looks about 2 years old

The toast was, well… toast. I think I can put these in my barbecue

The toast was, well... toast. I think I can put these in my barbecue

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