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Do Not Trust the Machine

May 26, 2009

I don’t care how fancy your oven is.  It could be lying to you.

Maybe you’ve been cooking in your oven for years, and you know it inside out.  You know that if you turn it up to 425, it runs a little slow.  Or if you set it to 350 it runs a little fast.  Perhaps through trial and error, you’ve discovered a hot spot in the upper left corner.

But I am guessing that most people are not that intimate with their appliances.  So instead, you rely on trust.  Blind misplaced trust.

If you use that oven for preparing food, and if you are taking the time to follow a recipe, you are not cooking.  You are punting.  “Well, we’ll just see how this turns out.”

Do yourself a favor.  Get a good oven thermometer.  And do it soon.

If you go to the store, look at three identical thermometers.  You will notice that they have slightly different ambient readings.  The one you buy should be the one that represents the median ambient temperature.  Naturally.

Should you not have the time to go the store, buy three thermometers online, perform the same examination at home, and return the two outliers.

Once you have selected your thermometer, bring it home and start cooking.  As the oven is preheating, put the thermometer on the rack you will use to cook.  Observe the differences and correct the oven setting.  You may also want to take some time to move the thermometer around the rack to see if the heat is evenly distributed.  If not, you may need to be more vigilant about turning around pans halfway through cooking in the future.

But as they used to say in GI Joe, “Knowing is half the battle.”

As long as we are in a quantitative mood, I’ll throw out one more suggestion.  The other tool you should have in the kitchen is a digital tip-sensitive thermometer.  That will tell you for certain what is happening on the inside of your meat.  And you can choose to cook for safety or for pleasure.  But either way, you’ll be able to be precise.  Since it’s tip-sensitive, you get to choose where in the meat you want the reading taken from.  Sometimes you will want it in the middle.  Sometimes perhaps closer to the bone.  But this feature gives you the control you need.

Personally, I would be loath to use something that pricks the meat for grilling or roasting.  But for low and slow braising, barbecue or even a wet sauté, it would come in handy.

However, if you are the kind of person who thinks all meat is contaminated, or if you really just don’t want to take a chance and prefer all your meat cooked until everything living inside of it is dead, or if you listen to the federal government when they tell you how to eat, you really need to bring one of these with you everywhere.

But that level of food safety isn’t our thing.  We prefer to try and seek out meat and other foodstuffs that are less likely to contain nasty creepy crawlies in the first place.

More on that to come.

6 Comments leave one →
  1. Greg permalink
    May 26, 2009 1:32 pm

    One of the interesting things about an oven thermometer is the way it reveals the temperature dynamics of using an oven. For example: opening the oven door — whoa, the heat just goes rushing out.

    It’s one thing to know this, it’s another to see the thermometer report it back. It makes you think twice about peeking “just to check.”

  2. Ellen W. permalink
    May 26, 2009 5:31 pm

    Here’s the thing. The oven doesn’t stay at the temperature you set it for, it is designed to fluctuate around the temperature you have chosen. Imagine a scale with peaks and valleys. For a gas oven, the range of fluctuation is greater (and therefore less accurate) while for an electric oven, the range is smaller and more accurate. Also, a convection oven, which has a fan to make sure the air is circulating around the oven, will be more evenly heated than a non-convection oven.

  3. May 28, 2009 8:40 am

    I feel like the oven is… well, a tempermental being at best. The thermometer is nice to have, but after a while I feel like you just ‘know’ your oven – like where you need to put things on what levels in order for them to cook the way you’d like.

    I kind of realized this when I went to use the oven at my Dad’s place (never used it before), and kept going “What the hell am I doing wrong? Why is it cooking like this?”

  4. May 28, 2009 1:59 pm

    Yes to oven thermometers! It’s been an especially important tool for me as I’ve moved apartments fairly regularly over the years, which means relearning quirks with each new appliance.

    Also yes to the ban on pricking cooking meat. Even worse: slashing it open to “see how it’s doing inside,” the cooking method my parents used when I was younger. I grew up barbarian, really.

    So, I’m curious: how do you handle grilling? If using a non-tested oven is punting, I can only imagine the headspin when confronted with wrangling hot coals or open flame. Are the conditions too variable for a fusser?

  5. Annie permalink
    May 28, 2009 6:08 pm

    That’s serious! Oven thermometers?

  6. May 29, 2009 1:48 pm

    Another trick of oven use, is to actually read the sheet that comes with your backware. The dark Chicago Metallic recommends lowering the oven temp by 25 degrees from recommended.

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