For many, the love affair with baking starts at a very young age, when it’s as easy as adding water to a mix, stirring with a plastic spoon and watching in awe as tiny brownies baked under an everyday light bulb in your little toy oven. Luckily, today’s oven options are much broader and more complex, and the shorter, brisker days of autumn practically beg you to bake a hearty loaf of bread, a Friday night pizza, roasted beets, braised beef shanks or a simple baked apple. Now’s the perfect time to get reacquainted with your oven.
Why an Oven's Fuel Source Matters
There are two main fuel sources for ovens: electric and gas. Electric ovens are usually considered better at distributing heat evenly, but with a dryer heat. Gas ovens, on the other hand, tend to heat and cool quicker than electric and provide a moister heat. Whereas there once were significant performance differences between the two types of fuels, technological advances have brought them closer.
Wood, one of the original sources of heat in ovens, is regaining status as the popularity of wood-fired brick ovens increases. Once found only in trendy restaurants, wood ovens are branching out beyond commercial kitchens and allowing anyone to become a backyard pizzaiolo! Just keep in mind that this fuel source takes time and patience to heat and control.
The sun is another source of fuel for ovens, particularly where other resources are scarce. But solar ovens aren’t just for the camping crowd… Well-constructed solar ovens can easily reach needed baking temperatures; however, cooking times can vary depending on cloud cover.
5 Types of Ovens to Choose From
The conventional oven has been the mainstay in homes for decades, and can be used for nearly all types of baking including pies, cakes, roasts, vegetables and delicate items like soufflés or meringues.
Not only is it versatile, but it’s the least expensive and can be found with a range or as a separate wall oven. Wall ovens are often stacked, giving the cook extra baking space, especially useful at Thanksgiving.
The convection oven uses a fan to circulate hot air in the oven, allowing foods to cook more evenly, at a lower temperature and in less time. Bakers especially rave about the way breads and cookies bake crisp on the outside and chewy on the inside. Generally, foods will cook about 25 percent faster in a convection oven than in a conventional oven, and you can fill it without the worry of cool spots because the hot air is moving all around. Look for convection ovens with three heating elements: at the top of the oven, the bottom of the oven and one near the fan in the back. This ensures that hot air is blown into the entire oven cavity. Turn off the fan when baking foods such as muffins, for which the forced air would cause peaks.
The darling of the foodservice industry for many years, the combi is essentially a convection oven that includes the added ability to inject steam, baking foods faster and more evenly. In recent years, countertop and range models have been introduced for the home kitchen, enabling recreational cooks to steam, proof, incubate, dehydrate and bake foods with one appliance. The combi also makes quick work of reheating leftovers without the mushy side effects of a microwave.
As ovens evolve through technology, many professional chefs and home cooks have developed a fondness for the original baking vessels. Wood-fired brick ovens found in backyard kitchens are contemporary versions of early ovens made of brick or stone, in which food was placed directly on a hot slab or against the oven wall. The allures of these ovens are many. Intense heat of up to 800 degrees Fahrenheit allows for baking a thin, crispy pizza crust; smoky flavor infused from the chosen wood (maple, applewood or pecan wood are favorites) makes any roast delicious; and breads have a crunchy exterior but chewy interior. Variations of the wood-fired brick or clay ovens also are found across culinary cultures, from the clay tandoor ovens of India to Native American horno, made of mud brick and perfect for baking traditional Pueblo or Adobe bread.
While not an oven in the traditional sense, the Dutch oven (also called a camp oven) is a thick-walled cooking vessel with a tight-fitting lid that retains heat like a clay or brick oven and can be used for baking exceptional bread. The enclosed space retains the moisture from the dough resulting in a crispy exterior and chewy interior in each loaf. Whatever oven you choose, remember that just opening the oven door for a peek inside can drop the temperature by 25 to 50 degrees Fahrenheit, and leaving the door open for 30 seconds while you rearrange racks or rotate batches can cause a temperature drop of 100 to 150 degrees Fahrenheit. Now fire up your oven and slide in your favorite bread loaf, casserole, roast or sweet treats for cozy nights as the winter weather rolls in.