I often get asked how to decide which setting and temperature to use in the oven so I thought maybe I should share a few tips. This post will probably be more useful for North Americans since we use Farenheit for temprature; slightly odd since everything else in Canada is centigrade… Many home cooks have told me they are confused with the different options newer ovens offer. At this point, you may think this post may be a waste of time… and sure, it is not the type of post that is full of cooking inspiration, mouthwatering photos and romantic kitchen anecdotes. Nope, this post is purely technical. However, being regularly disappointed with your end results when baking, roasting, braising or slow cooking may be even more frustrating than spending a little bit of extra time getting really familiar with your own kitchen work horse. Over the years, I have found these types of articles the most useful in perfecting my skills in the kitchen which is why I decided to write an entire post on the «oven»!
So what is the difference between bake, convection bake and/or convection roast? And why isn’t 350°F the temperature to use on everything? 350°F seems to be the standard suggested temperature for many, many recipes. It provides an even and deep heat without burning. It is great for preparations that need time to cook through before caramelizing on the edges (the Maillard reaction). It is also quite forgiving if you happen to leave your food in a little longer than expected. But 350°F will not give your food that deep caramel colour you may be looking for or yield the perfect results when baking things such as shortbread, meringue or deeply roasted vegetables. For instance, I have this amazing chocolate chip cookie recipe: these cookies are thin & crisp & chewy at the same time. I was baking these for years always with success. Then I bought a new range and I was having a really hard time getting these cookies to bake just right. After several «missed» batches, I noticed that the manufacturer’s temperature setting was off by several degrees. These cookies are made with a lot of butter; because of the higher than normal temperature, the butter would melt quickly before it had time to bake properly with the flour. Another «miss» when I first got this oven happened when I was cooking a nice and lean sirloin roast using the convection roast option. The roast completely dried out on the exterior before it was properly cooked on the inside. We were left with a mediocre roast that featured overdone ends and a thick dry outer edge…
Over the years, I “played” a fair bit with my oven settings, discovering many cool features. When we moved two years ago, my now “best friend” in the kitchen had to stay behind as it was sold with the house. Needless to say, I had to buy the exact same oven: thankfully, that particular type and brand was still available! Still, it took a few trials and errors to get the settings right.
I have yet come across a cookbook that offers extra information on how to efficiently use an oven. It is quite unfortunate because the heat source will directly affect the end results of any recipe. Heat varies from moist to dry and from low to intense. This is why a char broiled steak on the BBQ tastes different than a pan seared one. Getting to know your oven really well will increase its potential and will ensure you deliver perfect results every time you use it. That is especially sweet when you wish to impress your guest with the perfectly cooked roast!
First and foremost, if you use your oven a fair bit, it may be wise to buy an oven thermometer¹ to see if the temperature set by the manufacturer is indeed the one indicated on the setting pad. Many ovens are not heating up to the desired temperature and it most certainly will affect the end results. Most ovens offer the option of reprogramming the temperature setting so that when you expect 350°F, it is exactly that. This information can be found in your owner’s manual. If you have misplaced your owner’s manual, most can be found online on the manufacturer’s website. All you need is your model number.
When should you use Bake over Convection Bake? The major difference between those two setting is air circulation in the oven. The second biggest difference between the two settings is a pre-set temperature: most convection ovens will pro-rate the temperature about 25 degrees lower when selecting convection bake. However, most ovens will also offer the option of overriding manually the pre-set automatic temperature drop. I always override the pre-set drop in temperature; I personally do not find my oven fan strong enough to compensate for the drop in degrees.
Convection bake mode is best used for baked goods that require a short bake time, with crispy edges and soft centers. Cookies, biscuits, puff pastry, meringues (on a low temp setting) and pies, for example, bake extremely well with the convection bake mode. Most home ovens do not have powerful fans such as commercial convection ovens do, so contrary to popular belief, using the convection feature may not really reduce the total baking time as anticipated. However, it is always best to check a few minutes earlier than the proposed bake time since each oven has its own personality!
Standard bake mode is best used for cakes, breads and sweet loaves. Since these items spend a bit more time in the oven, using convection setting may dry them out before they are completely cooked in the center. Banana bread, for instance, is best when baked traditionally: it will bake evenly and the edges will not go dry and crisp.
Combining standard bake mode with convection bake mode: It is possible to start baking using the standard bake mode and finish with convection. This works particularly well with pies, quiches and breads (amongst other things): it will yield a moist baked center and crisp the outer edges in the final stages. For example, I first start on standard baking mode then I manually switch to convection mode when I am ready to do so, usually for the last 10 to 15 minutes of cooking time. I particularly like to use this feature with lasagna: once I am ready to switch to the convection mode, I also increase the temperature slightly to make sure I have bubbling golden brown cheese on top.
Convection roast VS regular bake mode. The 2 main differences between convection roast and convection bake are: your oven convection roast setting probably does not automatically pro-rate the oven temperature to 25 degrees less than what you ask (as it does when selecting convection bake mode) for AND most importantly, the top element fires up as the main source of intense heat. The fan, depending on your oven model, may also run at a higher speed, circulating more air. When using convection roast, it is important to gage where your rack should sit: for a quick roast and deep sear, such as steaks and smaller roasts, the rack should be closest to the top. For larger roasts, the middle to the bottom of the oven probably works best. I use convection roast mode on meats that have a fair bit of exterior fat: prime rib, lamb, chicken, pork roasts. One word of caution: roasts with a nice coating of exterior fat should be placed closer to the bottom of the oven to prevent excessive burning and smoking. I normally start my roasts at a very high heat, between 450°F to 500°F for the first 15 minutes. I then reduce the temperature to 375°F to 400°F, depending on the size of my roast (higher temp. for larger roasts), until it reaches the desired internal temperature. As well, I like to make sure my kitchen is well ventilated during this process as the high temperature setting used to sear the meat at the beginning is bound to create a bit of smoke. I also love to use convection roast mode for roasting vegetables. Since I like roasted veggies deeply browned with a crispy edge, I tend to roast at a high temperature, normally 450°F, and I place my vegetables on the middle rack. For meats that require a longer cooking time such as braised meats, very lean meats (sirloin, filet, chicken breasts, etc.), I prefer using regular bake mode.
My favorite oven tools: because I use my oven a fair bit, even in the thick of summer, I have invested in really good products.
- For years, I used flimsy cookie sheets that would instantly buckle up in the oven under the stress of the sudden temperature change. That drove me insane! I invested in thick commercial grade aluminum baking sheets which I line with Silpat™ sheets. Over the years, I have bought 3 sheets with 3 Silpats™ which helps me seamlessly bake a sheet, cool a sheet and prep a sheet, all at once. I also use the cookie sheet lined with a Silpat™ to roast all my vegetables, make crispy chicken and even bacon. Silpats™ can be used at very high temperatures. I have tried other brands but none have ever compared to this original brand.
- Enamel coated cast iron, such as Le Creuset™: nothing beats Le Creuset ™ for delicious braised meats: I like the deep covered cookware also referred to as a Dutch oven for my stews, cabbage rolls, osso bucco etc… I particularly enjoy being able to use the same apparatus to sear the meat on the stove top and then to braise in the oven. Cookware like Le Creuset™ is pricey and I spent a big chunk of my cooking years without one. I only manage to score one a few years ago, as a Christmas gift, thanks to my beloved King who values and appreciates what is placed on his plate at dinner time.
- Stones: I enjoy working with stones especially for foods that taste best when the outside is nice and crispy but the inside still juicy and moist. I particularly like that I can pre-heat a stone to high heat when making pizza and I also appreciate that the stone will retain its heat once removed from the oven. It is a good quality when serving pizza: it remains warm as you dig into it (or for those who arrive late at the dinner table)! I also enjoy using stones for chicken pieces (wings especially), fruit crisps (they stay warm long after being pulled from the oven), pies and frittatas/quiches. However, I do not enjoy baking cookies and cakes with stones for the exact same reason: they take too long to cool off.
- Deep and flat roasting pan with removable rack. Another wonderful gift from my King… He has figured out at a very early stage in our marriage that keeping the cook happy is an extremely rewarding thing for him! I have scored many a great kitchen tool with this type of bribery!!! What I enjoy about a flat bottom roasting pan is the ability to use it on the stovetop to sear the meat before transferring to the oven. It also allows me to make a sauce using the pan drippings and little brown bit bursts of flavor, once the roast is done and cooling. The rack is not only made to easily remove the finished roast from the pan, it also lets the meat cook without boiling in liquid.
- Long sleeve silicone oven mitts: I love my silicone covered mitts for their heat resistance and their anti-slip properties. They are also super easy to clean up.
- Parchment paper and non-stick aluminum foil
I hope this post proves to be useful for many of you:)
¹Buying a thermometer: it may be wise to make sure the thermometer you will use to test your oven temperature is graded properly. To check my food thermometers, I always rely on the boiling water test. The temperature of boiling water is 212°F or 100°C. It is then easy to add or subtract the difference between the readings of the thermometer you are using to the actual «real» temperature.