Don't Be Scared of Your Convection Oven

Convection ovens (or the convection setting on your standard thermal oven) can be a little scary for some people. After all, for many it’s the Great Unknown, a mystery. What does it do? Why, when, how would I use it? Will it burn down my kitchen? (Or perhaps more importantly, will it ruin dinner?)

Well, I wanted to write a post that takes some of the mystery out of convection cooking. 

I should say from the start that most of my references are related to full-size ovens that have a convection setting as opposed to a countertop model (which I also have and really like).

And of course please be sure to ALWAYS follow your appliance’s instruction manual.

Convection is...

So, here’s the deal. 

A conventional (thermal) oven uses radiant heat that comes from heating coils on the top and/or bottom. The result is usually an oven with hot and cold spots. Ovens use air to transfer heat: you burn gas or heat an element at the bottom of the oven, and the hot air rises up into the oven, cooking your food. That works pretty well most of the time. But remember hot air rises. So the hot air that cooks your food rises to the top of the oven. This can make the top of the oven hotter than the bottom.

Ovens with a convection setting are just like any oven, except they have a fan (sometimes two) in the back, and sometimes an additional heating element (more on some of those differences later). When you turn on the convection setting(s) the internal fan circulates hot air creating an evenly heated environment for the food.

Boom! That’s the basic mechanics of the whole thing. Mystery (mostly) solved.

What's so great about using convection?

There are three main benefits that you will most often hear about as it relates to convection cooking:

1. Faster cooking times

As the hot air blows around your food, your recipes will often cook somewhat faster. About 25% faster is a good rule-of-thumb. But watch it closely. Some some trial-and-error might be needed.

2. Evenly cooked food

Another benefit of all this circulating hot air is more even cooking. Think about it this way, if you bake several trays of cookies in a still, thermal oven at once - on different racks - they will come out very differently. If you do the same thing in a convection oven, the circulating air will bake more evenly - even across the different racks. (However, I’d still recommend turning your pans around halfway through. Depending on your oven you may still have hotter spots.)

This even heating feature also helps when roasting meat, too. For instance, if you roast a chicken or a turkey in a convection oven, it will brown all over, rather than just on top (if you use a lower-sided pan). It will also be done much more quickly.

3. Energy efficiency

Since you are cooking at a lower temperature for a shorter period of time, there is some improved energy efficiency. Not a ton perhaps, but some.

How do I know which recipes I should use convection for?

The rush of heat speeds up the chemical reactions that occur when food cooks - like browning or drying. So, convection is typically good for:

  • Roast chicken or turkey - The skin of a roasting chicken renders its fat and browns more quickly, so the meat cooks faster and stays juicier.
  • Roasted root vegetables (nicely caramelized) - sugars in roasting vegetables and potatoes begin caramelizing sooner, creating crisp edges, moist interiors, and deeper flavors.
  • Artisan breads - with  firmer structure
  • Pizza - cooks the top ingredients nicely, without making the crust super-hard
  • Drying meringues (if it will hold a temperature below 200°F)
  • Drying/dehydrating fruits and vegetables - dries them out more quickly and evenly
  • Making tons of cookies at once - nice and evenly
  • Biscuits and scones - they rise nicely and bake evenly
  • Toasting nuts - more even toasting/roasting with less stirring/movement needed
  • Pie crusts - The butter in a pie crust or a croissant releases its steam quickly, creating flaky layers.

So, wouldn’t I be crazy NOT to use it?

Faster, slightly lower temperature, some energy savings. So, why the heck wouldn’t I use convection ALL the time? Good question! Well, as you would expect, nothing's that simple. Convection cooking isn’t really great for everything.

If your dish has to be covered while cooking, don’t use convection. It simply won’t do anything (well, nothing positive that is!) - and it could potentially screw up your recipe. If the circulating air can’t reach the food it really won’t help. And if you change the temperature and/or cooking time it could create problems.

Cakes? Nope. Cakes need time to rise and set and bake through. Convection cooking will bake the top of your cake before the inside can form properly. The result will be a crusty top and a somewhat gooey, undercooked middle.

So, in a nutshell, I wouldn’t use convection for these:

  • Quick breads
  • Cupcakes and anything with a wet batter (like muffins)
  • Cakes
  • Sandwich breads or sweet yeast baking

So how about giving us some basic guidelines?

Here are a few basic rules-of-thumb:

  • Use trays and baking pans with lower sides that allow hot air to flow freely around the food. 
  • Use shallow roasting pans and rimless cookie sheets when possible. 
  • Try to keep a two-inch clearance on all sides of the pan you are using. It allows the air to circulate more efficiently.
  • Never cover shelves with aluminum foil. Trays and pans should be placed so they don't hinder effective circulation.
  • Since almost all recipes are written assuming a thermal still oven you have to adjust the recipe. You probably need to play with it a little to get it just right. A few things to consider doing:
    • Consider dropping the temperature by about 25 to 30°F 
    • Shorten the time (10 to 15 percent for cookies and up to 30 percent less for large roasts)
    • See if your oven’s user manuals gives you any advice

“True” convection, you think you're soooo special.

Not all convection ovens are "true convection”. In a true convection oven, the fan blows heated air into the oven using a third heating element near the fan in the back. This additional heating element heats the air before it enters the oven. essentially, this element sucks air in from the oven, heats it to a uniform temperature and then blows it back out into the oven.

Other terms you might see are "third-element convection," or "European convection”. So if you really want “true convection” look for these terms (or sometimes a specific brand’s name for them).

And one last thing…

Also you should know that there is a difference between "convection bake" (lower fan speed, so you don’t end up blowing your cookies across the pan, or putting tilted “hats” on your cupcakes) and "convection roast" (higher fan speed). Your oven may or may not have these refinements. If they do, pay attention to them. Again refer to your appliance’s manual.

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I heard some great advice once: The best way to get comfortable with a convection oven, is to just start using it. (OK, maybe not for the first time when you’re hosting Thanksgiving dinner for ten!)

The easiest way to do this is to experiment with your favorite recipes by cooking them at a slightly lower temperature and for a slightly shorter time than you normally would. See what happens. Make notes, Adjust your recipes. Play with it a little. The main thing is...don't be afraid of it!


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