Filling your house with warmth and the smell of baking cookies is an appealing prospect, in midwinter. In summer, the pleasant cookie aroma is still a delight, but the oven's heat tends to be less welcome. That's when the toaster oven comes into its own as an alternative. It heats and cools quickly, won't leave your kitchen gaspingly hot, and -- best of all -- lends itself to small, willpower-friendly batches.

The toaster oven's small scale means it behaves differently than a full-sized oven. The biggest difference is that a toaster oven's heating elements are much, much closer to your food. That means you're more likely to burn cookies in your toaster oven. A toaster oven's temperature settings can also be wildly inaccurate, especially on lower-end models. To complicate things further, toaster ovens themselves vary widely. A shoebox-sized basic model cooks very differently from a deluxe convection mini-oven. Still, getting good cookies from your toaster oven is less complicated than it sounds.

Dedicate your first batch of cookies to eliminating as many variables as possible. Start with a recipe you make regularly, and know well. Set the toaster oven for the same temperature you'd use in your regular oven. The small pan that comes with your toaster oven will usually hold at least two full-sized cookies, or four to six smaller ones. For your first attempt, make a full sheet of small cookies. If your toaster oven heats unevenly, those at the edges may brown and scorch before the middle is properly baked. You might find the whole batch browns in the usual time, or that the cookies take forever and spread too much. Don't be unhappy, regardless of the result. This is exactly why you bake test batches.

Once you've baked your test batch, you'll know how to proceed.

  • If your cookies baked evenly -- yay! -- all is well. You can bake big or little cookies, more or less without adjustment. 
  • If the cookies baked slowly, your toaster isn't hot enough. Turn up the dial, and make another test batch. 
  • If the cookies were done faster than usual, or failed to spread, your toaster runs too hot. Turn it down 10 to 15 degrees, and try again. 
  • If your test cookies darkened too quickly at the ends or edges of the pan, bake your second set of testers in the middle. 

Once you understand how your toaster bakes, you're ready to make cookies. A toaster is perfect for making enough cookies for one or two, and if you search you'll find tiny-batch recipes for exactly that purpose. Otherwise, make up a batch of your favorite dough and keep it in the fridge or freezer for when the impulse strikes. As professional bakers know, leaving the dough in your fridge for a day or two actually improves the cookies. You'll probably find some recipes work better than others in your toaster oven. If it lacks heat, for example, shortbread cookies might be a better choice than chocolate chip. You'll quickly learn what works and what doesn't.