A Burning Question

By Matt Masolini

September 19, 2014 5 min read

So, it's time to learn how to cook. Maybe you've seen so many cooking shows you've decided to try your hand at it. Maybe you've just moved out, and dinner stopped magically appearing on the table. Or maybe you've heard that it's way cheaper to cook at home than it is to keep ordering takeout. Congratulations. Now what the heck is that box underneath those burners, and what does it do?

The oven may be the most misunderstood cooking device for a new cook; it takes considerably longer than a microwave, and you can't monitor the food so closely as you can monitor something cooking on the stove. The first thing to remember is an oven is just an insulated box whose temperature you can control. And though an old, tiny oven looks less reliable than a modern one with digital displays, the basics remain the same. Some are gas-powered, but most of them are electric (even if the stove on top is gas). There's a temperature control -- either a knob or a set of up and down buttons. The knob will generally go from "off" to "warm" and then through a series of numbers until it gets to "high" or "broil"; the buttons will usually start at 200 degrees or so and let you increase or decrease the heat. Now, moving from what to how. There are three settings found in most ovens, and what follows is how each of them works.

First up is the gold standard: regular, or conventional, oven. The most important thing to know is that the heating element is on the bottom. Thus, the closer to the bottom the more quickly the food will cook. The main advantage this method has is simplicity; you put something in, set the timer and leave it alone until the timer goes off. An important step for any recipe using regular baking is preheating. According to a GE Appliances guide, ovens with a visible element "can take 5-10 minutes to preheat." This is especially important with old or large ovens, as they take longer to heat up.

Next up is the convection oven. The difference between this method and regular baking is that a fan circulates the air through the oven. According to About.com, the use of a fan means "more even cooking," as well as shortening cooking times by about 25 percent. Older ovens won't have this feature, and chances are the tried-and-true family recipes were written for a conventional oven, so keep an eye on the timer when trying this out. Because this method works by circulating air, it's important that there be room on all sides of whatever is cooking; try to use the flattest pan available in the center of the oven. By the same token, a batch of cupcakes or a high-rimmed baking sheet crowded full of fries is better-suited for regular baking.

Last is the hottest and most specialized component of the oven, the broiler. According to About.com, broiling can be thought of as "grilling's cousin," as it's the closest thing to putting food directly on a flame. The broiler, also called a salamander on several cooking shows, is at the top of the oven and works at much higher temperatures than the lower heating element. This allows foods to caramelize and brown without drying them out, and this method is especially effective at melting cheese over the top of something. But be sure to keep an eye on what you're broiling, as the high heat will turn your dish from melted to scorched if you're not careful.

Now that how it works is out of the way, a couple of odds and ends on using your oven. First, when to cover something while cooking and when to leave something uncovered. Any meat being baked in a pan with liquid in it should generally be uncovered; this will help keep the meat from drying out while also reducing the liquid into a sauce. But a dry piece of meat, particularly if sharing a pan with potatoes or green vegetables, should be covered.

What about cleaning it? Modern ovens have a self-cleaning feature. Some people swear by this; some say it does more harm than good. When in doubt, it's hard to go wrong with soap and water. Just remember to let everything cool off before you start scrubbing!

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