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Better Cooking Through Convection

Hot air circulating through your oven cooks food more evenly, at lower temperatures, and often with better and faster results

Fine Cooking Issue 38
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Photos: Scott Phillips.
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Help! I’ve got a new convection oven, and I don’t know what to do with it.” I hear this plea a lot from cooks who have just redone their kitchens, and also from people who are intrigued about convection cooking but aren’t sure what the big deal is. The answer is simple: You can cook just about anything in a convection oven, and while learning to use one certainly isn’t a big deal, the results you get—evenly cooked cookies, crisp pastry, and juicy, well-browned meats (including that Thanksgiving turkey)—are.

To get comfortable with a convection oven, you just have to start using it. The easiest way to do this is to experiment with your favorite recipes by cooking them at a slightly lower temperature and for a slightly shorter time than you normally would (read The Food Geek’s post The Convection Changeover for some good tips on this). But before you do that, or before you follow through with your plans to buy a convection oven, read on to learn how these ovens work, how different models vary, and what kind of results you can expect.

Visit In the Kitchen to get answers to your convection oven questions and watch a video explaining how convection ovens work. You’ll also find plenty of information on conventional ovens, too, as well as kitchen remodels, floor and countertop materials, and kitchen-related hot topics from our Facebook fans. 

Also, if Sunday dinner is sacred around your house—whether you’re using a traditional or convection oven—you’ll want to check out our favorite no-fail Sunday suppers that bring the family together—and subscribe to Fine Cooking magazine for reliable recipes for every day of the week.

A convection oven circulates hot air with a fan

Unlike conventional radiant (also called thermal) ovens, convection ovens have a fan that continuously circulates air through the oven cavity. When hot air is blowing onto food, as opposed to merely surrounding it, the food tends to cook more quickly. A short version of the scientific explanation for this is that moving air speeds up the rate of heat transference that naturally occurs when air of two different temperatures converges. To help understand this, consider wind chill: When cold air blows against you on a blustery winter day, you feel colder more quickly than you do on a windless day of the same temperature.

This acceleration effect is one reason for the superior results you get from convection. The rush of heat speeds up the chemical reactions that occur when food cooks. The butter in a pie crust or a croissant releases its steam quickly, creating flaky layers. The skin of a roasting chicken renders its fat and browns more quickly, so the meat cooks faster and stays juicier. The sugars in roasting vegetables and potatoes begin caramelizing sooner, creating crisp edges, moist interiors, and deep flavors. Overall, food cooked in a convection oven is usually done about 25% faster than it is in a conventional oven.

Guidelines for using convection

  • When following a recipe designed for a conventional oven, heat the convection oven to a temperature 25°F lower than the recipe suggests.
  • Expect food to be done in less time (as much as 25% less) than it would be in a conventional oven, even with the 25°F reduction. The longer you’re cooking something, the greater the time savings; for instance, a turkey may cook an hour faster in a convection oven than in a regular oven, but you may only shave off a minute or two when baking cookies.
  • Use baking pans with low sides to get the full benefits of convection.
  • Go ahead and fill every rack in the oven, but still keep an eye on browning. Depending on your oven, you may have to rotate pans for even cooking.
  • Most ovens let you turn convection on and off. Play around with it. If you want a well-browned roast that’s also slowly cooked, turn the convection on at the start or at the end, but off during the rest of cooking.
  • The fan sometimes blows parchment or foil around. Use a metal spoon or fork to hold down the parchment.

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Another benefit of all this circulating hot air is more even cooking. In a conventional oven, baking three racks of cookies at the same time is asking for trouble (see “The cookie convection test,” below). The cookies on the bottom rack closest to the heating element, as well as those on the top rack where hot air rises, will be overcooked before the cookies on the middle rack are done. Convection cooking, with hot air moving all around the oven, can eliminate hot and cool spots for more even cooking. And when you can bake 50 cookies at once, your oven is operating a lot more efficiently. This even heating feature gives a great boost to roasts, too. For instance, if you roast a turkey in a convection oven, it will brown all over, rather than just on top (roasting the turkey on a rack in a low-sided baking dish or on a rimmed baking sheet helps to encourage this). It will also be done much more quickly.

The cookie convection test

We recently gave our test kitchen director’s new convection wall ovens a test-spin. We baked three sheets of butter pecan cookies in the top oven with the convection turned on and the temperature 25°F below what the recipe called for. We baked three more sheets of cookies in the lower oven with no convection, just the standard radiant heat set at the temperature the recipe called for. The cookies on each rack in the top oven (a total of 45 cookies) all cooked evenly, and in the suggested time the recipe called for (16 minutes). See right side of image.

In the lower, non-convection, oven, (left side of image) after 7 or 8 minutes, the cookies on the lowest rack were obviously browning too much, too fast. A few minutes later, we pulled out that whole sheet, which had darkened beyond desirability. Meanwhile, the cookies on the middle rack were barely cooking. The top rack did cook perfectly in 15 minutes, but the middle rack plodded along for a few more minutes before being done.

 

Not all convection ovens are “true convection”

The extent to which you get these marvelous results depends a lot on the particular convection oven you’re using. The best—and most efficient—convection ovens blow heated air into the oven cavity. This means they have a third heating element (in addition to the usual top and bottom elements in a radiant oven) located near or around the fan in the back of the oven. This element heats the air to a uniform temperature before it enters the oven cavity. In many ovens, the third heating element is covered by a baffle, or a panel, which channels air sucked in by the fan past the heating element and back out into the oven.

The appliance industry generally calls this type of oven “true convection,” “third-element convection,” or “European convection” (first popularized in Europe), so these are the terms to look for when shopping. In an effort to distinguish themselves, however, some manufacturers have come up with their own names. Dacor, for instance, calls its technology “Pure Convection” because its third-element convection also uses a special filtering system that prevents odors from being transferred from one item to another cooking in the same oven.

Convection ovens without a third heating element generally cook less evenly. In the worst examples, this type of oven will have a fan mounted on the outside of the oven and will actually blow unheated air into the oven cavity, randomly mixing up hot and cold air. In most of these ovens, though, the fan is mounted on the inside of the oven cavity, but the air blowing around the food won’t be a uniform temperature. With the bottom radiant element fully heated, the oven will have hot and cool spots.

You’ll find most “true convection” ovens in built-in wall ovens or slide-in ranges, not countertop models. If you’re looking for the benefits of convection cooking, you should really upgrade your range or wall ovens rather than buy a countertop convection oven. Full-size ovens generally have better circulation and ventilation, and they may include a filtering system. They’re usually self-cleaning, too. If, however, you’re short on space and looking for extra oven capacity, a countertop convection oven might be right for you. Some of the better models do have heating elements integrated with the fan.

Countertop cooking

When shopping for a countertop convection oven, look for the biggest oven capacity you can find. (Anything that also functions as a toaster oven really isn’t big enough to give you the full benefits of convection cooking.) You’ll recognize the better models by their price—$300 to $700. Bigger countertop convection ovens are about 18 to 22 inches wide and 14 to 18 inches deep. Be sure you have enough counter space: these ovens get fairly hot and need a few inches of breathing room around them. They also vent directly into your kitchen, so you might have lingering odors after cooking a roast. Check to see if the oven has an easy-to-clean interior.

You’ll also see microwave/convection ovens on the market. These are primarily designed as microwave ovens; some can function as convection ovens alone, but most supplement convection with microwaves.

A large countertop convection oven, such as those from Delonghi, produces excellent results, including extra-crispy roast potatoes and juicy, golden roast chicken in 20% to 25% less time than the same food cooked in a radiant oven. It’s just big enough to hold the smallest of turkeys. A baffle around the fan in this oven promotes good air circulation.

Finding a “true convection” oven

If you’ve had convection in your home oven in the past, you might have been underimpressed with it. Just in the last few years, manufacturers have really caught the “true convection” bug, and home ovens are much better for it. Now there are so many ovens with convection features on the market that I couldn’t begin to name them all. I do know that Amana, Dacor, GE, Gaggenau, Frigidaire, Kenmore, Miele, KitchenAid, Thermador, and Viking all manufacture electric, self-cleaning ovens that feature third-element convection. Each manufacturer has many different models of oven, though, so you must inquire carefully to make sure the oven you’re eyeing has the goods. If you’ve got your heart set on a professional range, you might have to give up true convection, as many of these ranges didn’t feature it until recently, and some still don’t. Also, gas ovens generally don’t offer true convection. (This doesn’t mean you can’t have a gas cooktop; many manufacturers now offer “dual-fuel” ranges.)

Also, ovens are becoming so highly specialized that true convection is only the beginning. Most ovens are designed to let you turn convection on and off as you please. But some go further and allow you to use the convection element with just the broiler, or just the baking element, or with either of these heated to a lesser or greater temperature. Gaggenau has an oven with nine cooking combinations. Other manufacturers, including Thermador and GE, offer ovens with a hidden radiant element in the bottom of the oven so you can cook pizza and breads directly on the heat source with the convection functioning, too. Or if you want a professional-style all-convection all-the-time oven, Wolf now offers one designed especially to be built into home kitchens. Every manufacturer has an angle.

To get familiar with the options, get on the Internet and then head for an appliance store. Built-in or slide-in convection ovens and ranges start at about $1,500.

Visit In the Kitchen to get answers to your convection oven questions and watch a video explaining how convection ovens work. You’ll also find plenty of information on conventional ovens, too, as well as kitchen remodels, floor and countertop materials, and kitchen-related hot topics from our Facebook fans. 

Try pastries, pies, roasts, or vegetables in the convection oven

Once you decide what type of convection oven you’re going to use, you can begin to think about what you’d like to cook in it. I first got excited about convection ovens when my mother started cooking in one 20 years ago. My father brought home one of the first Farberware countertop convection ovens, and my mother discovered it produced especially delicious roast chicken and roast potatoes. Later, when I began working in professional kitchens, I learned that a convection oven can cook a lot of things well. I began to rely on it for the tastiest, well-caramelized roasted vegetables. I cooked crisp tart crusts, juicy beef tenderloins, and even perfect frittatas in a convection oven. The pastry chefs I worked with used the convection oven to bake flaky croissants every morning.

When I began to research this topic, I was curious to know how other cooks felt about convection cooking and what tips they could offer. I discovered that many pros have had limited experience with home convection ovens but have used them in professional kitchens. Now that so many manufacturers are including true convection in home ovens (and many chefs are upgrading their home kitchens), that will probably change. Nevertheless, I did get some valuable advice and interesting opinions, which I hope will help you in considering convection for your kitchen.

Professional tips for convection cooking

Flo Braker, baker and food writer, Palo Alto, California: “I love my convection oven for roasting, and I’ve baked fabulous pizza with convection. I also find it produces crisp tartlet shells, and it works well for freeform breads, with the air circulating all around them. But I haven’t been as happy using it with other baked goods, especially dense or high-fat baked goodies like pound cake.”

Janet Fletcher, cookbook author, Napa, California: “Our Viking range has a convection fan in the oven. I turn it on when roasting chicken or when baking potatoes. It speeds up the cooking and, I think, gives a crisper skin in both cases.”

Robert Jörin, baking instructor, Culinary Institute of America, Napa, California: “While I haven’t worked with home convection ovens, our professional convection oven is ideal for laminated doughs. These doughs tend to puff up higher than in regular ovens, but they can burn more easily, too, if you overbake.”

Kathleen Weber, owner, Della Fattoria bakery, Petaluma, California: “We like the convection oven for speed and even browning. The one tip I have is to really watch the timing. Things will cook faster so you need to stay right there and watch the first batch of cookies you bake and note how long they take so you can adjust the time on your recipe.”

Shirley O. Corriher, food scientist, Atlanta: “I think you can’t bake anything as well without convection. I just love it for biscuits especially. I get more volume with my bread, and it’s ideal for cookies. I do find that while I get more even results, I still need to rotate the sheet pans during cooking. I also love convection for roasting meats.”

David Lebovitz, baker and cookbook author, San Francisco: “I love my convection oven for multiple racks of cookies, or anything I want to dry out, like pâte à choux. I just don’t use it for angel food cake or anything that’s going to fly around.”

Joanne Chang, baker, Flour, Boston: “I use a convection oven for practically everything at the restaurant. I love the even heat. If I had to pick, I’d use convection over a standard oven any old day. I use convection to quickly and evenly toast nuts, to make evenly cooked tuiles to garnish desserts, to bake our brioche and raisin-pecan bread, tart shells and filled tarts, cakes, cookies, and breakfast treats.”

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