Convection or no: which one should I bake with?

Recently I got this email from my sister-in-law:

Susan,
Do you see a benefit to using a convection oven vs. a traditional oven?  I understand that the convection oven distributes the heat more evenly, and there is a cost benefit because it cooks faster saving some electricity.  With better oven design and manufacture is that even a thing still?
– Juliana

Shopping for ovens can be bewildering. It used to be simple: gas or electric. For what it’s worth, our test kitchen ovens are all 30″ wide and mostly electric. The second heating element above gives us a slightly more even heat and quicker preheating time. We have a gas oven under our stove, and we tend to keep the baking stones in there.

Sales people at appliance stores will go on and on about the time and energy-saving advantages of a convection oven, and how you can cook a gazillion cookies at once, and how could you possibly live without one…

Here’s the deal. Convection ovens are insulated boxes, just like any oven. They have a fan in the back, and sometimes an additional heating element tied to the fan. The fan pushes the heat around the inside of the oven, making cooking go faster.

muffinblowoutEarly convection ovens (and even some today) have been known to do things like this to your food. As this muffin rose, the blowing hot air set the outside of the muffin, while the wet inside was still rising. Eventually it just plain busted through to the outside. We’ve heard tales of cookies being blown off their baking pans onto the oven window; a shot I’d dearly love to reproduce, but so far haven’t managed.

Wetter batters or doughs can literally be blown sideways by the fan as they’re rising.

windblowncupcakeNote that the wind in this case was blowing from the east.

One frequent complication for new convection owners is how to adjust their recipes, all of which are written for still ovens. The rule of thumb is this:

Reduce the oven’s temperature by 25°F. Make your first check of baking time 10 minutes earlier than the recipe says.

You can always bake it more, but you can’t bake it less.

Some models of convection oven will do the adjusting for you, which is downright confusing. You set the temperature for 375°F, and if you press the convection setting, it automatically preheats itself to 350°F. My advice when shopping is to have a recipe you make a lot in mind, and while you’re at the store, fantasy-bake it using the controls of any model you’re considering. You’ll see soon enough if it’s an oven you can be friends with.

Ironically, for all the “even-baking” hoopla, I find most convection ovens have a hot spot toward the front; the air blowing across hits the door and bounces back, and often the food at the front of any baking sheet is done significantly before the rest.

Here’s how I answered Juliana:
I think it’s a feature worth having, because convection can do some things that a still oven can’t.

First thing to know is any oven you buy with a convection fan doesn’t have to be used that way. Make sure whatever oven you do buy (especially if you only have room for one) is capable of baking without the fan coming on. We’ve had issues with this on the pair of ovens we bought recently.

Most have settings for the following:
•Bake;
•Convection bake (lower fan speed, so you don’t end up blowing cookies across the pan, or putting tilted “hats” on your cupcakes);
Convection roast (higher fan speed);
Broil.

I’ve seen some convection broil, as well, which is a little weird, because broiling is a radiant heat method, and the fan is of little use there, but whatever.

It’s about a $100 up-charge to get the box with the fan in it, but there’s some resale value to it, and it does significantly increase the number of things you can do.

Convection bake at a very low temperature is nice for dehydrating; you can get beautiful oven-dried/roasted tomatoes with it. Convection roast is nice for any kind of chicken or chunk of meat where you like crispy outsides, and I’ve been known to go there for airier pizza crusts. Also the bomb for nicely caramelized roasted vegetables.

At higher temperatures with water in the bottom, it’s a good setting for baking artisan breads: quick oven spring and usually a better crust.

When I buy ovens for the King Arthur test kitchen, I get double-wall units –  convection on top and regular on the bottom – which give us a lot of options.

I hope this helps.
– Susan

If you need a short list, here’s my best advice (keep in mind there’s a lot of room for variations and personal choice here, given the many different combinations you’ll find in oven designs). Also, don’t forget to adjust your oven’s temperature and time.

A convection is good for:

  • A quick roast chicken with nice, crispy skin
  • Roasted root vegetables
  • Artisan breads
  • Pizza
  • Drying meringues if it will hold a low (below 200°F) temperature
  • Drying fruits and vegetables
  • Making a gazillion cookies at once; but don’t expect them to cook evenly
  • biscuits and scones

Bake these things in the oven with the fan off:

  • Quickbreads
  • Cupcakes and wet muffin batters
  • Cakes: layers, angelfood, loaf
  • Sandwich breads or sweet yeast baking

To finish the story, I asked Juliana if she bought another oven. Here was her reply:

Dave took the whole oven apart and fixed the door. Originally he didn’t think he could, so he had me research new ones.  We didn’t buy a new oven after all.  But, if I do sometime in the future, I will definitely buy convection.
– Juliana

Susan Reid
About

Chef Susan Reid grew up in New Jersey, graduated from Bates College and the Culinary Institute of America, and is presently the Food Editor of Sift magazine. She does demos, appearances, and answers food (and baking) questions from all quarters.

comments

    1. The Baker's Hotline

      Hi there! We’ve found that it is best to bake things like sandwich bread and sweet yeast baking with the fan off, but you’re more than welcome to experiment! We’d recommend keeping an eye on the doughnuts to ensure that they’re baking and rising evenly. You’ll also want to lower the oven temperature by 25°F. Best of luck! Morgan@KAF

  1. Susan Bly

    I am moving from my home oven to a Blodgett gas convection oven. I am starting a Kolache/Klobasnek trailer. I was thinking convection due to quicker bake time and now have convection. There is not an option to bake without the fan as it is. Because the fan only blows in one direction, am I going to have to rotate pans to get an even browning? If so, how will that affect baking times? I am also afraid of my dough drying out with the fan on. If we can disconnect the fan, will I still be able to bake multiple sheet pans and still achieve even browning on all? I do not want my product to be changed just because of the oven but I do need higher production volume. Any help would be greatly appreciated! Thanks

    Reply
    1. The Baker's Hotline

      Hi Susan, in general, things will bake hotter and faster so you’ll want to always lower the oven temperature by 25°F and check things a few minutes early. Several pans shouldn’t be a problem. The need to rotate pans for an even bake varies from oven to oven so try a test with something light like sugar cookies so you can easily see where they’re browning and whether or not the back is baking hotter than the front. It’ll just take some experimentation to figure it out. As for breads, bake them covered if possible so the steam can be trapped. Dutch ovens are perfect. Rolls will be OK. Annabelle@KAF

  2. Jonthan Villalobos

    HI Julia,

    I am about to buy a kitchen and their is two options Gas and Electric oven, this is a Frigidaire kitchen. The Gas oven has a system on the top on the oven in which a flame is out.

    I want to bake cookies, pastry and cakes. Maybe some loaves. But I am not sure if Gas will broil and make my goods to be brown just as the Electric ovens usually does.

    What do you think is the best deal_?

    Reply
    1. The Baker's Hotline

      Hi there, Jonthan! Its truly baker’s preference when it comes to electric versus gas ovens. Either way, there will be a learning curve as you get used to your new oven and figure out what works best for your specific appliance. Most often bakers choose electric ovens, but that isn’t to say that a gas oven won’t bake evenly. You’ll just have to feel things out. Best of luck! Morgan@KAF

  3. Lisa Bell

    I am a gluten free bakery getting ready to be moved from my home using a conventional oven to commercial setting. Has the convection ovens improved at all? How do they bake gluten free cupcakes, cakes, pies, bread? Are their any commercial convection ovens I can turn the fan off? Any help you can give me will be greatly appreciated! Thanks!

    Reply
    1. The Baker's Hotline

      Lisa, it really depends on the brand of the oven! Some have fans you can turn off, some don’t. Some have multiple settings. In general, you’ll want to turn the temperature down by 25°F, but in the end it will come down to trial-and-error with the specific oven you end up with. Happy baking! Kat@KAF

  4. Lisa

    I have double ovens at home. The top is convection if I choose to use the fans. It’s a feature I rarely use. Recently I started baking for a small establishment that wants pound cakes, layer cakes, cookies, and bars. The ovens are convection, and the fans cannot be turned off. If you love to bake anything other than cookies and scones, DO NOT buy a convection oven that won’t allow you to completely shut off the fans. Bundt cakes are a disaster. Even with the oven turned down 25 degrees and watching the cakes diligently, the insides of the more dense batters end up raw and doughy while the outside is unpleasantly dark. If you only want to bake using sheet pans or cake pans with 2″ sides go convection, otherwise skip it!

    Reply
  5. Jenny Burdette

    I have been making pound cakes with the same recipe for at least 20 years with great results until recently. In the past couple of years my cakes have started having a top that separates from the cake as it cools. It tastes delicious but the “crust,” for lack of a better term, crumbles and falls off the cake. I have tried using different methods of greasing my pans, changed temperatures and converted to a weight vs volume method of measuring my ingredients with no change. I use small 1/2 size angel food pans to bake my cakes so I get 2 smaller cakes per recipe which are perfect for gifts. I had a convection oven before and didn’t have this happen but I am wondering if it is the convection bake setting that is causing this problem. Any ideas? Thank You

    Reply
    1. The Baker's Hotline

      Hi Jenny! Convection isn’t ideal for cakes as the blowing hot air can dry out the exposed cake and create a crust that doesn’t want to stay attached to the soft, fluffy interior. Have you tried baking your cakes tented with foil? This will keep the moisture inside. You can remove it for the last 10 to 15 minutes if you want the top to be brown, but this should help prevent that crusty layer. Annabelle@KAF

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