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.
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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.