Hot And Bothered – Overheating To Extremes

Sunday, February 27, 2011

How well do you know your oven?

Baking, according to popular opinion and practical experience, is a science. Even though cooking in general is referred to as the culinary arts. And when done for a living, used to be viewed as a trade*. Confused yet?

The point I’m trying to get to is that baking requires a level of precision to work. For cakes not to collapse, turn out like bricks, be too floury, too eggy, too chewy, crack down the middle, or look beautiful but taste appalling. As opposed to the mixed blessing and not-quite-baking-fail of looking appalling and tasting fabulous**.

The causes of baking fails are many and varied, and often involve not reading a recipe properly, branching out and making changes to it (except that’s also how you get new recipes, which are automatically classed as experiments, and so exempt from being a baking fail and are just a process of gradual refinement when they don’t work. And occasionally a bad idea that just had to be tried to get it out of your system), substituting ingredients when you find you’ve run out of something, and not using the right technique (especially likely when following a rather vague recipe, and sometimes a result of getting hypnotised watching the KitchenAid and beating something a bit too much). Capricious things like the weather can also get in the way (pate sucree on a hot sticky day, anybody?).

But, much as I might’ve mentioned, just once or twice in passing, the temperamental oven known as the Evil Smeg***, I would never had expected it to be the primary and indisputable king of potential baking fails. Until.

Until I went and made a Christmas cake. Baking something that’s meant to cook for 40 minutes and turns out to be done after 25 can be adjusted for by getting used to watching the oven like a hawk, and thinking recipes are just a little variable. Cracks on top of everything (another reason for my love of brownies, which are meant to have cracks on top) can be justified by beating oneself up for possibly beating other things too much. But when something has to bake for four hours, it’s a pretty good indicator that when it starts to look crispy after one and a half, that something is awry. Very, very awry.

Just how awry, I discovered after the princely outlay of $8.95 on an oven thermometer. Something I’d kept putting off getting, because how wrong could an oven be, and did I really need to spend more money on something else cluttering up the kitchen with only one purpose (the answers to which were very, impossibly wrong beyond all belief and yes, really, truly, and should’ve done it years ago). The cake, meant to be cooked at 160C had been quietly incinerating at 225C.

So check your ovens, chickens. Especially if you live in new-and-slightly-dodgy apartments. And umquestionably if you happen to have a Smeg oven. For less than $10, you too can have kitchen anecdotes and no more burnt baking. And one less excuse for a baking fail...

I’d love to hear if anybody else has had similar experiences, or other appliances with attitude. And, from a practical point of view, anybody cooking recipes from the blog might want to look at how long it was meant to be cooked for, and not how long my one took.

* I suspect an awful lot of modern chefs would like to view it as a profession, or perhaps a calling, but it started out as a trade. When that was viewed as a good and reliable thing to do, and not as the start of a long trail of one-up-man-ship and superiority complexes.
** This happens more often if you have a serious addiction to cake batter (or brownie batter, friand batter, muffin batter...).
*** Which sounds a little too much like a dodgy sci-fi villain...

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