One of the greatest leaps I made in liberating myself from recipes was the realization that only five temperatures on an oven dial really matter. I called them:
It sounded pretty original at the time.
For years, my oven completely baffled me. The problem began with the dial itself, which like most of them displayed a range between 200° and 500°F, inviting me to choose among no less than three-hundred individual temperatures. Any decently sized cookbook seemed to employ every last one, of course.
Like most people, I used to actually rely on recipes, so the situation put me in a bizarre frame of mind. Rather than consult my own experience, I found myself always reaching for an abstract piece of an imaginary puzzle: What’s the “solution” to roast chicken? 440° or 455°? Factors to consider included the weight of the bird, and the differential between the height of the breast and of the legs, not to mention the internal temperature of the roast as determined by a digital probe-thermometer. It would make my head spin. And that was just a roasted chicken.
I know now that a chicken roasts perfectly well at 440° or 455°, or 438° or 451° or 479°, any of which are hot enough to brown the skin nicely before the meat finishes cooking.
A chicken roasts in a high oven, in other words.
Stovetop dials have always worked like that. You have no idea, I’m sure, how many BTUs your largest burner emits on 8. Your stove might not even have an “8.” It may go only to 7. It may go all the way to 15 with a “boil” setting above that, or its dials may display only “off” and “max,” like an old gas range I used to have.
By now, you may have even concluded that the “correct” position on any one of your dials simply depends on the circumstance, that for white rice it’s whatever maintains a simmer without boiling over, or that pancakes just need a couple minutes to finish without burning—a temperature at which, perhaps, a scratch on your dial aligns with a petrified grease stain on the surface of your stove, and like the convergence of two astronomical signs, they guide you unerringly in the course of your culinary odyssey.
The numbers on your dial would be completely irrelevant, in that case.
Quantities have no meaning, in and of themselves. A “quarter mile,” for example, is something I recognize only because I used to run that distance in high-school track. “Sixty degrees Fahrenheit” is likewise nothing more than a sensation; it’s the point at which I’m too cold without a jacket but too warm with a coat.
Obviously, the temperature that I feel at any moment involves lots of unseen factors, such as humidity and windspeed. I rely nevertheless on the reading I receive from a plastic thermometer suction-cupped to my kitchen window, for a general indication of what to expect.
I regard my oven dial no differently.
A home oven isn’t exactly advanced technology, after all. It’s a steel box surrounded by some insulation. Inside of that chamber is a metal rod that heats up according to the whim of a thermostat, which is a gadget like the one that governs your home furnace.
To understand how your oven works, realize that it really does just amount to a bunch of hot air. The oven’s heating element by itself doesn’t cook anything. Its job is to radiate heat, literally beaming energy all around itself in the form of infrared light, like the sun warming the solar system.
Radiation has rather limited use in cooking. Its heat fades by the inch, for one thing, so you need to start with an insane quantity of it, then hold your ingredients as closely as possible to the source. Your toaster oven is an example of radiant heat in action. For anything more substantial than a slice of bread, however, you need something like a backyard barbecue, where charcoal briquets achieve about 2,000°F, which is four times hotter than a large stove burner on maximum.
Your oven’s heating element delivers a respectable 1,200°F, incidentally. That’s hot enough to singe anything placed on a rack just above it.
Rarely do you put foods directly on that rack, however. They usually sit in a receptacle of some kind. And that brings us to the other problem with radiating heat, which is that the flimsiest of materials obstructs it completely. A sheet of aluminum foil is enough.
To roast something like a chicken using nothing more than the radiating heat of your oven’s element, you’d have to employ a revolving rotisserie spit so that every facet of the bird would have equal facetime with the heat source. Furthermore, you’d want to use the broiler on the oven’s ceiling rather than the element on its floor so that a pan beneath the chicken could capture the drippings.
If that sounds like a hassle, then it explains perhaps why cooking involves mostly conduction, in which one material receives heat from another simply by touching it. A stove burner that touches a pan that touches your food: That’s conduction at work. Likewise, a heating element touching molecules of air that touch your food is how your oven works.
Hot air has its advantages. It cooks ingredients very evenly by completely enveloping them in heat. Hot water does that, too, but air permits ingredients to achieve temperatures much higher than the boiling point, temperatures that provoke chemical reactions that brown foods.
Air conducts heat very poorly, however—certainly poorer than metal, which is why you can stick your hand in a 500°F oven for a minute without any problem but burn yourself if you touch one of the 500° metal walls.
Air is obviously not very dense, either, which is why ovens tend to have cool spots, and why blocking air circulation actually manages to block heat, as when you tie together the legs of a roast chicken in order to safeguard the breast’s vulnerable interior.
To strengthen and support the oven’s hot air, aiding it as much as we can in its all-important task of cooking our food, we first have it heat the oven’s own interior, in that familiar routine we call “pre” heating. Until the chamber walls are as hot as you want the air to be, they just rob heat from the air itself, and cooking never gets off the ground. Think of preheating an oven therefore like charging a battery.
You need about forty-five minutes. Less time is required for lower oven-settings, to be sure, but if you just set aside forty-five minutes as a matter of habit, then you’ll learn to organize yourself accordingly, and your mind will be free to worry about something else.
Ignore all of the beeps and blinking lights that supposedly tell you when your oven is hot. Those are governed by the thermostat, which is always wrong.
Oven thermostats are designed to read the temperature of the air—not of the walls nor any other part of the oven’s hardware. As soon as the air reaches your target, the thermostat turns the heating element off. As the air inevitably cools, the thermostat turns the heat back on. Back and forth it goes like this until the chamber walls are hot, as if by accident. From that point on, the temperature of the air is much more stable.
To be perfectly honest, the thermostat often doesn’t even get the chance to respond to the temperature of the air. In a typical home oven, it juts straight out of the back wall, in plain sight of the heating element’s superhot glare.
The heating element is constantly turning itself off, in other words. To remedy this apparent flaw in design, you could place an inexpensive aluminum tray on the bottom rack of your oven, which would block the element’s radiation and keep your thermostat engaged for longer intervals, lessening the time that your oven requires to preheat. (I’ve never bothered to try this, myself.)
By the way, your oven’s heating element has only two modes: off and full blast. When the thermostat throws open the switch, it’s like having a bed of charcoal on the floor of your oven all at once, pushing the air-temperature way past your target. This occurs whenever you open the oven door, for instance.
The temperature inside of your oven is never stable, anyway. Perfect insulation doesn’t exist, for one thing. Also, hot air constantly escapes through a vent just above the door. (Since air expands as it heats, were it not for ventilation, your oven would explode.)
Even if the appliance could maintain a constant temperature, your ingredients always experience something entirely different, since foods release vapor as they cook. Vapor carries away heat. That’s why we have sweat glands.
Vapor has a tendency moreover to hover over foods, like a blanket of fog, insulating them from the full force of your oven’s heat. “Convection” fans are therefore installed in the backs of many ovens to whisk away that surface moisture. Convection is an excellent way to ensure that the skin of a roast chicken browns quickly. It’s a disaster with a cake, which needs plenty of time to rise before a crust sets in.
Don’t forget, either, that small ovens can seem hotter than large ones simply because the interior walls of a smaller chamber are closer to your ingredients. Metal walls radiate infrared heat, just like any other hot metal surface.
I could go on like this. It’s enough to make your head spin.
Suffice it to say that your oven is a phenomenon largely beyond your control, as are most things in cooking. So, give up on the illusion of precision. It frees you to rely on your own judgement, which is how you learn to cook without recipes.
You’ll be focused on results that way, not an arbitrary number. Learning will feel like a journey of discovery rather than a slough through uncharted waters.
Foods remain at a nice temperature to eat, at this point.
Tough, lean joints of meat will remain moist at this point while sitting in a covered vessel (i.e., “pot-roasting”).
Liquid in a covered vessel at this point will hold a gentle simmer. (Practically speaking, I no longer use my stovetop to make broths, braises or beans; I put them in the oven and set a timer.)
Large joints of meat that have been browned beforehand in a high oven will finish with much less risk of over-cooking.
Sautés will finish cooking in twenty minutes at this point, leaving a nicely reduced pan sauce.
Whole trouts and fish fillets will bake in twenty minutes at this point.
Cold foods will re-warm adequately in twenty minutes at this point.
Casseroles will brown at this point in forty-five minutes or so.
Anything put to roast in a high oven will begin to brown in about twenty minutes; you have maybe another half-hour before it starts to burn.
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