What the numbers on your toaster really mean

A lesson on why you shouldn’t always believe what you read on the internet

A few years back, there was a meme (if you can call it that) telling us that everything we knew about toasters was wrong. It said that the numbers on our toasters – usually on a dial ranging from one to seven – indicated not levels of ‘toastiness’, but actually, time.

Minds were blown, wigs were snatched, and the public was shook. It made so much more sense than the abstract ‘toastiness’ argument, and it seemed so much more plausible when you paused to think about: the longer you heat something, the more it cooks, right? And considering most kitchen appliances like microwaves and mini ovens have timers, wouldn’t it make sense for a toaster to have one too?

It seemed plausible – so plausible that I instantly dismissed my long-held beliefs as childish and wrong. I chose to subscribe to this far more logical answer, one that gave these numbers a quantitative value (minutes) rather than an arbitrary one.

Years passed and I didn’t question it. I accepted it, internalised it, and didn’t think twice about it. Until I did think twice about it, and realised I was wrong.

The following is the amount of time it took for The Spinoff’s toaster from The Warehouse to pop up with the dial set from one to seven. And obviously, it doesn’t take a genius to see, that the whole thing reads like a fucking mess.

#  TIME
1 1 min 30 sec
2 1 min 49 sec
3 2 min 12 sec
4 2 min 38 sec
5 3 min 8 sec
6 3 min 29 sec
7 3 min 55 sec

 

Same goes for the toaster I use at home, which really isn’t that great at all. 

#  TIME
1 1 min 29 sec
2 1 min 39 sec
3 1 min 55 sec
4 2 min 7 sec
5 2 min 22 sec
6 2 min 45secs
7 3 min 14 secs

 

So if the meme was a lie and the numbers don’t mean minutes, what are they actually supposed to mean?

According to toaster manuals published by Sunbeam, DeLonghi, Russell Hobbs and a bunch of others, the dial is meant to control something called ‘browning’ (aka how light or dark you want your toast). That means that yes, levels of ‘toastiness’ is real and I was actually right all along.

Of course, if you’re the type of person who reads manuals for toasters, you’d probably already know this. Same goes for if you somehow came across this video by British YouTuber Tom Scott which shows four different toasters with their dials all set to ‘two’ toasting bread for totally random lengths of time.

Scott explains that the reason for this is because toasters don’t have timing chips on them.

“They’re far too cheap for that,” he says. “What these have is a bi-metallic strip: two bits of metal, back-to-back that heat up and expand at different rates so the strip slowly curves. What you’re changing with these dials is how far that strip has to curve before it triggers that thing that pops the toast up again.”

But if you watch to the end of Scott’s video, you’ll know that the office toaster – the nice-looking metallic one at the very end – does actually stay down for exactly two minutes. Apparently, this is because some newer, more expensive toasters do actually use a circuit as a timer.

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But for those of us who don’t have that kind of luxury, the fact remains that this ‘life pro tip’ – which seemingly came out of nowhere with zero context – was just another big fat hoax. Remember, the internet is littered with these and they all go viral for various reasons. So why was I so ready to believe the toaster meme? Maybe because it was novel, it was shocking, but not so shocking that it wasn’t totally believable. Or maybe it was because I kept seeing it everywhere: on Facebook, on Twitter, and from people that I thought I trusted.

Or maybe I just wanted my toaster to make sense and I was too lazy to check whether it was bullshit or real.


The Spinoff’s food content is brought to you by Freedom Farms. They believe talking about food is nearly as much fun as eating it, and they’re excited to facilitate some good conversations around food provenance in Aotearoa New Zealand.

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