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Ovens 2.0: Hotter, Faster, Smarter

New ovens are bringing professional-level technologies—speed, rotisserie, dehydration, steam—into the home kitchen. But will they make you a better cook? F&W’s Nick Fauchald finds out.

To me, ovens are like cars. reliability is paramount, but add a couple cutting-edge options, and you’ve got yourself a dream machine. My own oven is as dependable as a rust-pocked Yugo, but I recently test-drove four just-off-the-line ovens, each with the kind of innovative technology that makes gearheads like me run for the message boards. One is unprecedented in its speed and efficiency, another boasts the ultimate rotisserie, a third is equipped for high-capacity dehydrating, and the last brings a chef’s secret weapon—steam—into the home kitchen. I approached them as I would any new car: Kick the tires, take a few sharp corners and goose the engines past everyday speeds to see how they handle the abuse.

TurboChef: Speed

TurboChef Double Speedcook 30-inch wall oven
$7,895; 866-543-6569 or turbochef.com.

TurboChef: Speed Oven

The new TurboChef Speedcook oven promises exactly what many 21st-century consumers ask for: more speed, less thinking. Originally developed to make fast food faster (you’ll find commercial TurboChefs at Subway and Starbucks), its “Airspeed Technology” cooks food up to 15 times faster than conventional ovens, according to the literature. It works by combining bursts of microwave heat with convection heat blown through dozens of holes in the top and bottom of the oven, hugging the food inside. Plus, the oven knows which combination of heating methods is best for whatever you put into it, thanks to the hundreds of foods it’s been preprogrammed to cook.

But just how smart is this cookie-baking HAL 9000? I brought an assortment of groceries—a whole chicken, rib eye steaks, potatoes and frozen apple pie and pizza—to the demo kitchen to find out. TurboChef’s own chef, George Grieser, was there in case I needed assistance.

I didn’t need much. The oven’s minimalist, iPod-like interface—a wheel and an LCD touch screen—was simple enough to figure out: Turn the knob to select your food (the list is exhaustive), then navigate the menus to answer a few questions. Chicken? Whole or portion? Stuffed or unstuffed? Fresh or frozen? Once you’ve narrowed it down, the oven rapidly preheats, then you add your food and wait.

But not for long. I started with the pizza, which emerged with a crunchy crust two minutes later—eight minutes faster than its package suggested. Then I made oven fries: perfectly crispy after 15 minutes. Apple pie: 17 minutes; rib eye: 4. Chicken: under 20 minutes to roasted perfection.

After an hour, I had run out of food (and saved about 90 minutes of cooking time). I had also discovered my favorite TurboChef feature: its ability to learn. When the recommended cooking time has almost elapsed, it starts asking questions: Would you like your pie crust more browned? Why, yes. The filling more cooked? No, thank you. Then you can save your preferences: The TurboChef demo oven now contains a program for “Nick’s Apple Pie.”

I had but one complaint: For food that the TurboChef isn’t preprogrammed to cook, you must either prepare it in an old-fashioned oven (the horror!), wait for a software update (loaded via a USB port) or get creative. Case in point: Soon after I finished my test-drive, George’s cell phone rang. One of Charlie Trotter’s sous-chefs (Trotter is a TurboChef devotee and spokesman) needed to cook a tart for which there is no program. After some menu surfing, George figured out that the best way to cook the tart was to tell the oven it was broiling a piece of fish. For now, at least, man triumphs over machine.

Final Verdict

The TurboChef would be welcome in my kitchen, but I’d still want a regular oven for low-and-slow cooking. Impatient cooks will adore it, and what carefree cook isn’t occasionally in a rush, too?

Thermador: Rotisserie

Thermador: Professional Series Deluxe Single 30-inch wall oven
$3,850; 800-735-4328 or thermador.com.

Thermador: Rotisserie Oven

I’ve always wanted to make lemony, garlicky Peruvian-style chicken at home, but I have lacked the essential tool for 360 degrees of crispy skin: a rotisserie. Ovens with rotisserie attachments have been around for decades, but Thermador’s new Professional Series ovens come with a heavy-duty rotisserie that can spin up to 12 pounds of meat. Pair that with what Thermador says is the industry’s hottest broiler—a 5,000-watt heat element that spans the width of the oven, which is a boon when browning large pieces of food—and you have the ultimate home rotisserie.

When testing the Thermador for myself, I decided to try making Peruvian chicken, with a twist: After affixing a marinated, trussed four-pound chicken onto the spit, I skewered on a whole pineapple rubbed with brown sugar and chile powder. The result looked like a chicken with a pineapple for its head (The Legend of Sleepy Fowl?). Once I started the chicken spinning, I noticed that I hadn’t fixed the neck end tightly enough, so my bird wobbled as it whirled. No matter: Every few minutes, the oven hit the bird and pineapple with blasts of heat from the broiling element, and its efficient convection took care of the rest. After about an hour of watching my lunch pirouette, I pulled a perfectly browned chicken and a caramelized, juice-oozing pineapple “shwarma” from the oven.

Final Verdict

For spit-cooked meat, Thermador’s rotisserie is the largest and most user-friendly I’ve seen in a home oven. Plus, the oven’s wide, superhot broiler is an asset for all kinds of cooking.

Wolf: Dehydration

Wolf: E Series Single 30-inch wall oven
$3,300; 800-332-9513 or wolfappliance.com.

Wolf: Dehydration Oven

Store-bought beef jerky and fruit “leather” have nothing on the homemade versions. And I’ve always wanted to re-create the fruit and vegetable chips that chefs love to use as garnishes these days. The trouble is that most ovens—even those with “dehydrate” modes—either fail to hold the ideal temperature (between 110° and 160°) or work only with the door closed (which creates steam, and thus, flimsy apple chips). The new Wolf E Series oven solves both problems. With the purchase of a $135 add-on kit consisting of three wire racks and a rubber block to prop the oven door open (the price seems inflated, but so does the price of rustproof coating on a car, and we buy it anyway), the E Series becomes a high-capacity food dehydrator.

I brought an assortment of produce to the appliance showroom, where Wolf corporate chef Coleman Teitelbaum explained what the E Series does best. Thanks to a convection system that combines two fans and heating elements on three sides of the oven, “I can bake 12 dozen perfect cookies in there all at once,” he says. In dehydrate mode, the fans kick into high speed, ensuring precisely controlled temperatures—important when dehydrating delicate foods, lest they cook but not dry. The precious rubber stopper props open the door just enough to allow moisture to escape.

I turned the oven on and started drying. What’s startling about the E Series is what it doesn’t do: make noise. Even with both fans running, it’s the quietest convection I’ve ever heard. But I failed to think this test through: Dehydration is a long, slow process—we’re talking double-digit hours—and my dreams of homemade fruit leather vanished when I couldn’t convince the showroom to let me stay overnight to perfect my recipe. But I saw enough to know that if I had, it would have been darn fine fruit leather.

Final Verdict

Fruit chip– and jerky-lovers of the world, this is your machine. Wolf takes dehydration seriously, with an oven that creates the optimal conditions for drying food—although it will cost you a few extra bucks to take advantage of them.

Viking: Steam

Viking: Combi Steam/Convect 27-inch oven
$3,600; 888-845-4641 or vikingrange.com.

Viking: Steam Oven

Steam ovens (often called “combi ovens,” because they cook with a combination of steam and dry heat) are a chef’s secret weapon. They can quickly and gently steam vegetables and fish, roast and braise meats and bake flawless breads, pastries and custards. And nothing’s better for reheating a plate of food (ask any banquet chef). But manufacturers are just beginning to realize that this technology is useful in home kitchens as well, which is why I was excited to test out Viking’s new Combi Steam/Convect oven.

I was also nervous. There aren’t many recipes out there written for the home steam oven. So I decided to experiment: In addition to the whole branzino and baby potatoes I brought to the showroom, I grabbed a dozen eggs, which I planned to poach—without cracking open a single one. Thanks to our friends in molecular gastronomy, we know that an egg immersed in around 140 water for 45 minutes or so results in a perfectly poached ovum with a custardlike consistency. Chefs usually use a lab-quality immersion circulator for the task; I wanted to try it out in pure steam. When I explained my plan to Marilyn Scher, the Viking showroom manager, she couldn’t understand why anyone would want to poach an egg for an hour. “But go ahead,” she said, “I can’t wait to see what it looks like.”

First, the branzino. About the size of a microwave, the Viking combi oven is best for smaller foods—fish, chicken, custards (no water bath necessary) or diminutive loaves of bread. It, too, has several cooking modes, which combine steam and/or dry convection heat, depending on what and how you want to cook. For my whole fish, I used the TruSteam mode, which lets you decide how long to steam the food before switching to dry heat (the oven’s manual is very helpful at guiding you along). Since I would’ve used the same method for my potatoes, I threw the whole lot in at the same time. I added steam for the first 10 minutes of cooking, then let the dry heat take over for the last 20 minutes. The result was astounding: crispy-skinned, moist-fleshed fish and potatoes in about 30 minutes.

Encouraged by my success, I placed the eggs—plastic carton and all—in the oven and turned it to full-steam mode. I sent the temperature to 140. Forty-five minutes later, I pulled out the warped-but-intact carton (next time I’ll use a tray) and cracked open a shell. Out plopped an ethereal egg: just-set whites, runny yolk. “Wow!” Marilyn said. “Can I keep that?”

I know that poaching an egg for an hour isn’t the best use of my time. But if I had three dozen eggs to poach, I can’t think of a better way. Plus, I had introduced Marilyn to the wonders of molecular gastronomy—and what’s the use of cool technology if you can’t push it to the limit?

Final Verdict

In addition to being a health fanatic’s optimal cooking vessel, a steam oven is a great piece of technology for virtually all kinds of cooking, though it will require some experimenting and practice to take full advantage of it. I can’t wait for a larger version.

Published March 2008
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