I hope you enjoy Starting from Scratch, my second book, published each week online, one chapter at a time. Before the book’s final publication, I hope to sprinkle readers’ thoughts, opinions and advice throughout. After all, you each have helpful systems and solutions in the kitchen worth sharing. By making a contribution, your comments will be printed, crediting you and/or your blog, and you’ll get free copies of the book. In addition, for each section, I’m consulting an expert blogger – for this excerpt, it’s Shaina Olmanson, home cook and author of Food For My Family.
What appliance in your kitchen is most meaningful to you?
For me, it’s the gas range. After 40-something years of life, I finally have a range I adore. Over the years, I have had a slew of ranges – some old, some new. Some good, some bad. We move from dorm to apartment, from apartment to home and from home to home; and along the way, we encounter an array of cooking ranges, each with their own personality and quirks. Regardless of age, we have to adjust our cooking habits and styles to the strengths, talents and limitations of this primary cooking appliance.
And safety plays into the cooking equation, too, especially with little ones in the house. My spouse and I have agreed to disagree about how close in proximity our child should stand near the stove. I believe, with close supervision, Luke should know how to be near a stove, what not to touch, and when to steer clear away. The repercussions of not knowing could be far worse. Rob believes anyone under the age of ten shouldn’t be near a stove, especially children with moms as forgetful as I.
Whether it’s a lesson of safety or general education, there’s much to learn about ranges (and that includes me). And as Shaina advises, “Start simple. Don’t walk into a new kitchen and expect to get a finicky cake to rise on the first day. Instead, make a batch of cookies and watch how they cook.”
It’s also helpful to understand what type of stove and/or oven you’re using.
Gas Stove Tops
The one which could be potentially dangerous to children and adults is the gas stove top, which also happens to be my personal favorite. And though I have caught many towels, utensils and containers on fire, I still stand by my love for gas. This is largely because I can control the amount of heat I allow a pan or skillet to have.
Beginners beware! If you turn a gas burner on high heat, things will cook very fast!! And in fact, if the stove doesn’t have a simmer setting, sometimes it can be problematic to find a heat setting that’s low enough to cook something as slowly as you might like. In between the high and low settings, however, you aren’t regimented to a numbered heat system. You can play all day with the ebb and flow of the flame.
Electric Stove Tops
Many prefer electric stoves with radiant, coiled elements. This type of stove top can cook food in record speed if the setting is affixed to high heat. Generally speaking, the higher priced the electric stove, the more flexibility you’ll have with temperature.
Another type of electric stove has gained popularity in recent years due to its sleek, elegant look and ease of cleaning. These are smooth top elements covered with ceramic glass. Though most heating elements have a warning system to suggest they’re hot, for some, like myself, the warning is not idiot proof. Recently, when I visited my friends and offered to cook dinner for them, I accidentally laid a plastic measuring cup on the heated element. Not only did my meal turn out sub-par, but their house smelled like burned plastic for three days. Even though a flame is dangerous, at least you can see it!
Gas or Electric Ovens
Not only can stoves vary in dramatically in temperature, aesthetics and what I’ll call “the danger factor,” ovens also require attention and time to get to know. The calibration for heat settings, or temperature, varies greatly from oven to oven, whether it is gas or electric. Specifically, 350 degrees in one oven might be hotter or cooler than 350 degrees in another. As a result, recommended cooking times can vary. One way to circumvent this variation is to use an oven thermometer to get an accurate read on the temperature. Another suggestion, if given a specified interval for baking, is to undercook and check. You can always cook something longer, but you can’t bring back lost time or recover a burned, dry and tasteless dish!
Even these cautionary steps, however, may not alleviate the issue of hot spots. As Shaina recommends, “If you notice one edge of the pan getting done faster, make note of it and you may need to rotate food that needs to cook more evenly, like quiche or cakes.”
I now have my dream range – a 36” GE Monogram gas professional range with convection oven. Convection means that a fan shortens cooking time by circulating hot air uniformly around the food. The first time I ever used my convection setting, I burnt my dish to a crisp. Now we use it selectively when we want to speed up the cooking process or prefer a crispy texture.
Getting to know your range, its temperamental behaviors and heating temperatures can take some time. Be patient and take care of this important appliance in your kitchen. And another thing. If you offer to cook in someone else’s kitchen, make no assumptions and be extra careful! And try not to burn down a friend’s kitchen like I almost did!