Sunday 5 May 2013

About my oven (or why the nose is mightier than the timer)

This is partly an apology and partly some helpful advice.  Mostly it is an explanation for anyone who finds the oven timing in my recipes a little odd.  The apology is about my oven.  I have noticed every time I write up a recipe on my blog, I always take far longer to bake anything than the recipe states.  In conjunction with this, I have been thinking about a baker I once heard never used a timer but relied on her nose to know when her baking was ready to come out of the oven.  And I would love to know about your oven experiences.

My slow oven:
So it seems that my oven just doesn't have the oomph that is expected of an oven in standard recipes.  It is not due to it being old and cranky.  In fact we bought a new oven in 2011.  (See my kitchen renovation post.)  I expected a new oven would deliver the power to my baking that had been lacking.  It didn't.  The second time we called out the oven repairman, he explained why.

Apparently our place has a weak gas flow so the flames are never as high as they should be.  There was no easy solution.  Unless we move house.  I have always preferred gas ovens over electricity.  Perhaps it is due to my memory of moving house and being told by my mother that we could bake in our gas oven whenever we wanted now because we didn't need to preheat the electric oven.  However if my previous residence I had one of the most effective ovens I have lived with and it was electric.  If I had known about the gas flow before buying my current oven I might have bought a good electric oven.  (Though I couldn't stand an electrical stovetop.)

What this means is that I can't be sure that my recipe times are accurate.  It is frustrating when writing a recipe on my blog that I want to be replicable by others or myself (in this kitchen or others).  What is means is that I am more likely to include advice on how to know when a cake is ready.  This is usually the skewer test but I can also see if it looks baked by the batter firming up, turning golden brown and slightly pulling away from the edges of the cake tin.  I usually turn my cake around midway through baking for even timing.  This gives me an idea of if the cake will need more time that the recipe suggests.

No oven is the same:
When I think about the ovens I have had over the years in many different homes, I think about how each acted differently.  Some were uberpowerful and others looked like they had been there for centuries.  My mum also bought a new oven a few years back and she has the opposite problem.  Her oven cooks so powerfully that it burnt so much food at first.

It seems that many of our ovens have quirks.  We learn to live with them.  My mother has found the right setting on her oven to cook food and not burn it.  I know that my oven will usually take longer than a recipe says.  (I know I need to use my oven thermometer more.  Perhaps one day I will find the setting to bake everything at the time a recipe suggests but I fear it will be off the dial.)

The timer vs the nose:
It is not that many decades ago that cookbooks often didn't give a time for recipes.  I guess it reflected on ovens being less standardised than today.  I am sure many of our grandmothers were quite adept at using their nose (like the aforementioned baker) to know when a cake was ready to come out.  It is all about intuition.  We rely on recipes so much these days that we forget to use our intuition.  Common sense is just not that common any more.

So I will give you this gentle reminder.  There are many ways to tell if a cake is cooked.  However the nose is a great helper.  If a recipe smells like it is burning before the time is up, it may well be.  If a recipe doesn't smell cooked when it comes out of the oven, be wary as it may not be.

Update (November 2013): After this post, I felt I should try harder.  I used my oven thermometer more.  I have started to turn my oven dial up to 20 C above the stated temperature.  Which means that though my oven is fan forced and technically I should put the temp at 160 C plus the fan if a recipe calls for 180 C, I now usually put it at 180 C.  It doesn't always solve the problem.  It can still take ages to roast vegies.  I can't make my oven really really hot.  But it is working better. 

Update  2017 - found this article on The Kitchn really useful in thinking about gas ovens - 5 important things to know about baking in a gas oven.  It advises that you have a pizza stone in the lower racks to spread heat evenly and that you always rotate trays and dishes mid way though baking or roasting, both of which I do.

Questions for you:
I'd love to hear about your oven.  Does your oven have any quirks and if so how you do compensate for them? Have you had problems with a weak gas flow and if so have you any advice for me? Do you prefer to use your timer or your nose to time your baking?


  1. We had a similar experience with our oven. We got a new one a few years ago and assumed there was something wrong with it when it was slow. A few things actually did need to be fixed in the end but it has remained slow. Maybe it is the gas flow with us too? I always need to leave things in the oven for longer too!

  2. I fear my oven may be a bit like yours. If I give it time to preheat - and for recipes I blog, I do - I think it is pretty close to standard. However, it takes an age to preheat, especially for high temperatures, and so in my day-to-day cooking I often start using it when it's at (say) 120'C instead of 180'C. It is electric so the issue is different to yours, and as it went in when the house was built some 10 years ago, I think it is age related. I love my mother's oven and one day will have a better one, but for now I often give time ranges if I've adapted a recipe and I take longer than the recipe suggested, or like you try to indicate other ways of telling if something is done. It adds adventure if nothing else!

  3. We bought a new oven about four years ago, and it was a revelation - suddenly, things actually cooked in the time they said in the recipe! I hadn't realised that was even possible! I came close to burning a lot of meals by relying on my usual habits...

    I've always had really slow ovens prior to this, so I've tended to check in at the end of the suggested time, and then estimate more time based on how close it is to done. Smell is a good indicator if I'm in the kitchen, but given my tendency to wander off to the other end of the house, usually if the smell of done-ness has reached me, I'm too late...

  4. I think I've been pretty lucky - my old (gas) oven seemed to bake fine. When I had a new kitchen last year I thought I wanted gas again for that reason, but I ended up with electric. It doesn't take too long to preheat and seems to cook at a standard rate. I think my timings are longer than other peoples generally though because I'm pretty paranoid about undercooking stuff and prefer it to be well done - always adds a good few minutes onto my recipes. Which is why I generally give a range for when cakes are done - most people might prefer the lower end! Interesting topic...

  5. I currently have an electric oven in the rental property that Im in and you are right about the hotplate! I have to stay with it because it generate so much heat I fear a house fire everytime I use it that said I would classify the oven as a quick oven.

    Im about to move back home to a gas oven my gas oven which Ive never baked in (we moved before I had caught the baking bug) so Im feeling a bit dubious about baking bread etc because Ive cooked roasts in it and seem to remember it took an age to get any heat out of it.

    Oh well Ill have fun experimenting I guess :)

  6. All oven are different which is part of the problem. Where I live now the oven came with my flat and its fan oven only, which is not great for baking. I have discovered after many poor results, that if a recipe calls for 180C, I have to actually bake it at 150C which seems insainly low. My fan oven seems to work in overdrive.
    I'd love a new oven, one that can be non-fan too. Oh well, learn and adapt

  7. My oven is a very fast one - I usually set my timer for at least 10% shorter than the recommended time if I'm following a recipe. As for gas vs. electric, I've never noticed much difference on cooking, apart from jacket potatoes. I have an electric oven, and now even an electric stove top - induction is (as hard as this may be to believe) actually *more* responsive than gas. And I feel much safer, too.

  8. I think as a baker you need to accept that every oven is different so no time in a recipe is going to be 100% accurate. I always follow my nose when baking!

  9. My oven seems to be hotter and cook really fast - if I follow the directions in recipes, things burn! I hate it and my boyfriend keeps telling me to buy a new one but I'm holding out as I want us to buy a house next year and then I can have my nice new kitchen :-)

  10. Don't even start me on my oven, I could write a blog post all of my own on it! Its chief quirk is that the seal on the door has gone - so the door creaks open at inopportune moments, such as someone walking past or a stiff breeze. To get a new one I'd also need a new kitchen... so in the meantime, we're stuck with each other!

  11. Thanks everyone for sharing your experiences with your ovens - it is interesting to see the range of experiences. It makes me feel better about my oven times in my blog being different from so many recipes I follow. Great to see how everyone adapts too!

  12. My oven is exactly the same as yours... even looks the same. Slow and annoying but so much better than the old one that almost killed us leaking gas.

    I cook with my nose too (well nose and a skewer and a good poke if I'm really unsure) and I trust my readers have enough common sense to not burn or under-cook things!


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