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The Convection Changeover

The colored inks show how fluid particles interact together. Radiant heat would only travel in straight lines.
Plus: it looks cool.

The colored inks show how fluid particles interact together. Radiant heat would only travel in straight lines.

Plus: it looks cool.

By Brian Geiger, contributor

November 12th, 2009

Kitchen Mysteries is a weekly exploration of oddities surrounding cooking and food. They could be recipes that fail when they shouldn't, conflicting advice from different sources, or just plain weirdness. If it happens in a kitchen, and you're not sure why, send a tweet to The Food Geek to find out what's happening.

Friend of The Food Geek, Valerie, asks:

Hi, Valerie,

There's some theory to understand, and there are some rules of thumb. Let's start with the theory.

We know from previous articles that normal ovens work on radiant heat. Radiant heat is very gentle, and allows whatever you're cooking to be gradually heated. It gives you a great deal of fine-grained control over whatever you're cooking. In terms of Olympic sports, radiant heat is fencing: there are real muscles involved, but the winner will be the one with the speed, reflexes, and subtle strategies.

When you move to a convection oven, you don't want to throw all that away. After all, people are used to ovens behaving in a certain manner, and if you completely change it, then there'll be confusion, and you'll need at least two ovens to get anything done, and puppies will cry, and so on. Even so, there are some definite shortcomings to pure radiant cooking, some of which we discussed last week.

Visit Fine Cooking's special section, In the Kitchen, to find more information about convection ovens, including a video on how convection ovens work.

Because radiant cooking is so subtle, it is influenced by just about everything. Color, for example. Do you think a Fry-O-Lator cares what color the battered chicken is when you put it in? It does not. It's just going to go mad with frying power and cook your food. Radiant heat does care about color. Radiant heat will heat darker things faster than lighter things, because lighter things reflect radiant energy (such as light) better than darker things. So, we want something that's less susceptible to environmental forces than radiant heat but not as implacable as, say, boiling oil. For this, we turn to air, and convection heat transfer. 

In many ways, convection and radiant heat are the same thing. With both, you are bouncing something off of something else and the resulting interaction causes some heat to be transferred. With radiant heat, you are bouncing electromagnetic radiation, and with convection you are bouncing fluid particles (liquid or air). The big differences are that:

  1. Radiant heat travels only in a straight line, with some exceptions that don't generally affect how your cake will emerge from the oven. Whereas particles will bounce around and swirl and do crazy things that are not necessarily purely linear;
  2. Fluid particles have more mass than radiant heat, so it transfers more energy per unit;
  3. Fluid particles interact with each other, so they will transfer heat to each other, quickly evening out the heat between the various particles. Heat just hits things and either transfers heat or reflects, so unevenness is almost certain.

Based on all of this, we know that, in general, you aren't going to need as high of a temperature in the oven to cook your food, because the heat is going to be transferred more efficiently. Your dark pans won't be affected as much as they would in a regular oven, and larger, suspended products (turkeys, for example) will be heated more evenly without rotation.

So, rule of thumb: lower the temperature by 25°F (Roughly 15°C). Keep a nose out for your food, and pay attention when it smells like it's done. Check a little more frequently than you normally would, but still try not to open the oven door if you don't need to.

posted in: Blogs, food geek, temperature, heat, light, radiation, convection, particles
Comments (8)

AdrianaG writes: When NOT TO USE convection:

I use conventional baking for muffins and cakes as I find that the top crust gets set too soon with convection. Posted: 4:23 am on November 22nd

mrsrev writes: where are the answers to above questions? Posted: 5:33 pm on May 27th

Suevani writes: I am new to convection cooking. I have a Viking dual fuel range. I would like to know how long and at what temperature to cook a 22 pound Thanksgiving turkey on the convection roast setting, which I am assuming I should use. Any information, advice or tips would be appreciated. Thank you. Posted: 10:02 pm on November 24th

Lucy_Jane writes: When would you choose to use the conventional oven instead of the convection? Posted: 3:07 pm on November 21st

drdeez writes: Angelrob, if you are making a meatloaf are you baking or roasting? Posted: 10:24 pm on April 1st

gdm4 writes: My New Bosch HGS5042UC does this for me, I just discovered while making my Pumpkin Pies.
"25 degrees lower when baking (but same time)"
I try to set it to 350 while in convection baking mode and it automatically drops it to 325 Posted: 2:36 pm on November 26th

TheFoodGeek writes: Those are some great rules, LpAngelRob, thank you. Posted: 12:02 pm on November 13th

LpAngelRob writes: The directions that came with our oven (with 'Speed Bake'!) weren't really easy to remember, so I had to remember a rule of thumb: "You only save time when roasting!"

Which is how I remember their directions: 25 degrees lower when baking (but same time), and 25% less time (but same temperature) when roasting. Posted: 10:55 am on November 13th

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