What is "convection" cooking?

If you're in the market for a new range or wall oven, you may have noticed that some ovens have a feature called "convection." For those who have never heard of this feature before, or have never used it, you may find this to be one of those features you never knew you needed until you got it. I'm going to describe the three kinds of ovens (conventional, basic convection, and true/European convection), and by the end, you should understand each style and have a good idea which kind you'd like.




CONVENTIONAL

Conventional ovens consist of a cavity into which the food to be cooked is placed. A heat source is present beneath the food. Heat from the burner or element (depending on if it's gas or electric) radiates up to the food, with the majority of the heat circulating back down to the bottom while some escapes up the sides of the oven to the top of the cavity. Because the majority of the heat is blocked and absorbed by the first large heat-absorbent item it encounters, conventional ovens are generally limited to one rack of cooking at a time (I'll get into work-arounds in a minute).

Cooking times in a conventional oven can be rather long, depending on the size of the food and its starting temperature. Results are often decent at best, though the bottom of foods tend to cook faster than the top, and the outside of the food is often not as done as it ought to be compared to the inside (or, in other words, the inside gets too done versus the doneness of the outside).

Now, technically you can use more than one rack at a time. For instance, if you were doing two sheets of cookies, you'd start one above the other, then switch their positions halfway through. The problem with this is that it causes uneven cooking, heat loss from opening the door, and inconsistent results. Increasing the number of pans beyond two just compounds these problems.

BASIC CONVECTION

Basic convection is similar to conventional, except a fan is introduced into the back of the oven cavity. This fan circulates the hot air created by the heat source at the bottom of the oven cavity, which distributes heat more evenly around a single food item or cooking sheet. The result is better browning, slightly faster cooking, and improved surface texture.

The only downside of basic convection is that it is still limited to one rack of food, as a high proportion of heat is still below the food. Basic convection is a great step up from conventional ovens, as the results are nicer, but if you do a lot of baking, roasting, or are serious about having your recipes come out as well as possible, you'd be much happier with an oven that has...


TRUE/EUROPEAN CONVECTION

True convection, also known as European convection, is the same as basic convection except for one major addition: a heat source for the fan. This heat source, often an electric element that encircles the fan, provides heat for the upper part of the oven cavity to complement the heat in the lower part. Combined with the circulation provided by the fan, food is completely enveloped by heated air.

Moisture is drawn from the food's surface faster, providing breads a better crust, making roasts crispier on the outside, giving turkeys a beautiful golden brown outside, and even making dehydrating food a snap. Food cooks properly inside and out without having to fuss with it.

And, with a cavity full of heated air getting circulated constantly, the only limit to the number of racks you can use is the number of racks the oven will accommodate. No opening the oven to switch the food around, and no more batches of cookies that take hours to finish. Bake sales will be a breeze when you can fix up dozens of cookies, cupcakes, or brownies at the same time.


OTHER CONSIDERATIONS

Ovens with true/European convection often have a conversion function. This is so you don't have to figure out at what temperature, and for how long, you have to cook your food. Simply input the recipe's temperature and time, and the oven will adjust the temperature and cooking time, and even remind you to check the food before it's supposed to be ready to be sure it's done properly. Generally, true/European convection will reduce cooking time by 25-35%. That means your turkey will be done in 4 hours instead of 6 hours!

Some models with true/European convection have more than one fan, providing additional circulation and heat, which can further reduce cooking time while still making your food come out great.

Ranges with conventional ovens are generally lowest priced, from $300-800. Ranges with basic convection often retail for around $700-$800. True/European convection models often sell for $900 and up.

Built-in ranges are often priced higher than free-standing models anyway, so you can usually increase the price for each style by 75-100%.

If you're looking for a wall oven, you will find far more options in electric (as a rule), but you will also find that the vast majority of wall ovens with convection are electric. This is mainly because people who buy wall ovens are usually looking for high quality cooking, and electric is the optimal heat source for baking because of its steady temperatures.

Installation for ranges or wall ovens with convection or true convection is the same as conventional models. No special wiring, cords, or ventilation is required.

While models with some form of convection have higher prices than conventional, the quality of cooking they offer may make up for it. If baking is a big deal for you, you're serious about gourmet cooking, or you just want the best performance possible, true convection would be the best choice. If you don't bake much at a time but still want improved performance, basic convection would fit the bill. If you don't cook much at all, and you aren't concerned about your food being the best it can be, a conventional model would do just fine.