A finicky guy's exploits in finding gustatory (and other) satisfaction in his kitchen, his neighborhood, and beyond.

Monday, January 10, 2011

Should you buy a countertop convection oven?

Connie's Story: I may be filthy and full of hot air, but you can't live without me!

Note: Out of respect for sensitive viewers, this photo of our subject has been air-brushed to minimize the impact of her grime.

A few readers have been asking questions about Connie, my trusty counter-top convection oven, so I thought I'd dedicate today's post to her.  Actually, the Connie you will see and read about is not exactly the Connie I met several years ago.  Just as your cells are being continually renewed, so that your entire body contains perhaps very little of the material that constituted it 10 years ago, while some aspect of "YOU" has been retained -- is this material too esoteric for a cooking blog? -- many of Connie's parts have been damaged and subsequently replaced over the years.

I'd been introduced to counter-top convection ovens by a previous boyfriend, R., who'd found one in a Salvation Army to furnish his tiny kitchen, which was too small to contain a "real" oven.  We did all our baking in this convection oven, until an outburst of R.'s, in which he screamed at the top of his lungs that he was sick and tired of all my "f**king vegetables" (I was vegetarian then), caused me to seriously rethink that relationship.  Luckily, my love for counter-top convection ovens outlasted my ability to tolerate being in the same state with R.   By the time I moved in with Peter, I had been searching in vain for my own little counter-top unit in thrift stores and flea markets for years.

Now that I've provided a little background, let's move on to more recent history. . . .  We'll examine my first meeting with Connie, which constituted a small miracle, the thought of which still arouses chills down my spine.  The setting for this inspirational tale is the annual outdoor flea market put on in the co-op where Peter and I live.  At that time, several years ago, we were engaged in a more acquisitionary stage of our lives.  (Now we're desperately seeking to offload a lot of extra crap find good homes for a number of lovely collectibles we've accumulated.  Anyone looking for dinner service for 4 in a lovely mid-century modern pattern?  We have complete sets in 2 different colors, folks.)  We had looked forward to this flea market all year long and were among the first attendees.  Actually, we arrived before many of the vendors, such was our desire not to be beaten out for the best items by other obsessive purchasers.

We were getting ready to split up, dividing forces so that we could cover more ground quickly.  As Peter left to scour his assigned area, I -- already scanning tables madly for wildly underpriced treasures -- called out to him across the pavement, "Don't forget: I'm looking for a convection ov---"

At that point in the middle of my sentence, my eyes suddenly alighted on Connie.  (Actually Connie's box.  The original box.)  It was as though Eureka, the goddess of amazing finds, had finally heeded my prayers.  I barely breathed, as I walked towards Connie, blind to everything else on the street, like Tony when he first glimpses Maria during the Dance at the Gym.

As I confirmed that Connie was EXACTLY the model of convection oven I'd used to cooked meals for that Upstate whackjob, I thought about the money in my wallet.  I'd set aside about $120 for today's buying spree -- how much of that would I be willing to part with to obtain Connie?  I had mentally decided to go as high as $40, when the woman standing behind the table noticed my evidently poorly concealed interest and said, "PLEASE take that thing off my hands -- four bucks."  I'm sure my delight was written all over my face (remind me to stay away from the poker table), so I didn't even try to barter her down to $3.50.  I rushed home with Connie and have used her to cook hundreds of meals ever since.

In fact, we haven't used our actual oven in years, other than as storage for the wok and several sizes of frying pan.

Connie, like many counter-top convection ovens, consists of a big, flat-bottomed bowl in which you put the food to be cooked and a lid that contains the heating element, fan, and temperature/time controls.  She served us well for over a year before I broke her bowl while washing her out.  We ordered a replacement on Amazon -- for well over $4, but by this time we'd grown completely dependent on her.  The new unit worked just as well as Connie, although we didn't like the layout of the controls as much.  After several months, Peter cracked the new lid by dropping it, and we restored Connie's lid onto the still-undamaged bowl of the newer unit.  It was joyful, reuniting with Connie's familiar old face!

It's that beautiful -- if grimy -- face you see pictured at the top of this post.  Below is the "new" bowl, along with some rather nice accessories that came along with it (removable stand, wire rack -- there's also a second, higher rack -- and that ingenious white metal contraption attached on the left side, which holds the hot lid when you're taking food out of the bowl.  (Previously, I'd used an empty stockpot to rest the lid on, after struggling for months, trying to hold the dangerously hot lid in one hand while scooping food out of the dangerously hot bowl with the other.  NOT RECOMMENDED.)

So, why do I love cooking with Connie so much?  Here are the top benefits of counter-top convection ovens:
  1. They are the perfect size when you're cooking for 1-2.  No need to heat up a huge oven for one baked potato.
  2. You can see through to the food as it cooks, and because it's right in front of you, you can keep a close watch on your food while attending to other tasks.
  3. Food cooks fast and evenly because of the circulating air.
  4. Food cooks beautifully in it -- baked goods, veggies, broiled meats, everything.  Fish in particular comes out better than by any other baking method; it never seems to dry out.
  5. You can bake "dry" or "wet" -- for a moister cooking environment you can pour water right into the bottom of the bowl, which creates a sort of culinary sauna.
  6. You never have to lean down into the oven on your range again.  (Until you need that wok.)
  7. I can't vouch for all convection ovens, but Connie makes a delightful soft ticking sound as she works, and sings out completion with a cheery "ding"!
  8. You can reheat leftovers in it in not much more time than a microwave would take.  (In fact, we dumped our microwave when it became clear that there was room for only one or the other.)
  9. Clean-up is easy.  You would think I would do more of it.
Like anyone, Connie has her foibles.  Here are a few [mild and IMO forgivable] disadvantages to cooking with her:
  1.  That blowing air current tends to scatter lightweight ingredients.  You can't partially cover a baking dish with foil, either, as the air gets under the loose bit and blows the whole thing off.
  2. She gets hot!  It becomes a test of bravery to stick your arms within her bowl and stir your dish or extract a serving.  (That sentence reads like sublimated porn from a bad Victorian-era romance novel.)
  3. It's difficult to remove the entire baking dish once it's heated without burning yourself, which is why I find myself resorting to the test-of-bravery method.  Connie did come with a nifty-looking tool for lifting hot dishes out, but it feels secure only when your dish has a lip around the edges to give the tool a decent purchase.  Otherwise, it just feels like another test of bravery.  (Note than in the demo pic below this list I'm hoisting a cool, empty dish with a prominent lip.)
  4. She uses up counter space.
  5. You'll never get the Thanksgiving turkey in there, never mind those 3 pies.  (She does do a beautiful job on a whole turkey breast or a single pie, however.  Do I sound defensive?)
  6. The glass parts are breakable.  (See above.)
  7. If you forget to plug her in, you'll end up cooking your food at room temperature.  (You think I'm a complete dodo?  Well, she ticks and dings even without power, so it's an easy error to commit.  Why wasn't she plugged in?  This is an NYC apartment -- she  has to share an outlet with the phone recharger.)
Test of Bravery: Simulation Only!

Over the next couple of days, I will post some recipes that Connie cooked for me.  Tune in, and be amazed by her talents!

I hope I've answered most of your questions, Readers.  If not, feel free to make further inquiries in the comments.  I'd also love to hear from any of you who have used counter-top convection ovens yourselves -- did you like the experience?  Why or why not?


  1. My oven has three racks (high, medium and low). The temperature is higher at the top than the bottom. I put onions/carrots/squash on the bottom, potatoes in the middle, and (after an appropriate interval) meat or chicken on top. The meat bastes the vegetables, yum. The nifty lifter works well for lifting out the racks. I put a piece of baking paper in the bottom of the oven to keep the glass bowl clean, and then the only cleaning chore is the racks. Faster and easier than buying takeaway.

  2. Great story! Thanks for all of the details, even some I didn't know I wanted. ;-) I love my convection oven (which is actually a full-size wall oven), so I can imagine how you feel about Connie.

    As to the danger aspects requiring acts of bravery — I'm thinking custom to-the-elbow oven mitts would protect you from burns. Hmmm. Know anyone who can sew you some?

  3. Hmm, we have a different type of countertop convection oven--a Cuisinart that also toasts. But I'd love to see some recipes!

  4. I can tell that you love your Connie as much as I love my toaster oven. She's big enough to bake a cake, one layer at a time. She bakes wonderfully, just turn the temp down by 50* and keep an eye on her. But, I've been looking longingly at your Connie and wondering if there's one in our local thrift store. I love a good gadget. Lane

  5. Connie? Seriously? Just don't call Revere Ware Potty.

  6. Some day, when one of my stoves dies, I will buy a matched pair with real convection ovens. I will threaten my husband that I'll hold my breath until I turn blue if I can't have them, and I'll never cook again if I don't get what I want. Think he'll buy it?

  7. Thank you so much for the info on connie. Makes me lust after one for my own kitchen! I do understand the need to unload some of the "things" that accumulate in our homes over time. I can't imagine why I thought some of them were such necessary purchases? Or why some of them were gifted to me? I try to make the best of it, though. My 25 gallon soup tureen currently holds a 5 year old lime tree!

  8. @Marjie: I think your proposed approach to getting your way with your husband is subtle and elegant. I will have to try your methods on Peter....

    @pikojiko: A lime tree -- how delightful! Does it bear fruit? What kind of lime is it? -- some types produce aromatic leaves that flavor dishes wonderfully, especially if there's coconut milk involved.

  9. @Debbie: I believe Cathy has some elbow-length opera gloves stored at our place. Maybe Peter can design me some protective convector oven gear based on them.

  10. I did not know there was such a thing! Now I may have to keep my eyes open wider at thrift stores.
    Love your writing, michael.

  11. I WANT this now. Hmm, must find one that works with our voltage...

  12. My father has one and it's great but I'm too in love with our slow cooker. I have to feed five and no matter how chep*coff* the meat is I never have a bad meal. But we do only use it on busy work days.

  13. I have never used a slow cooker -- can you believe it? I am intrigued by your claims of constant success, though, and want to give slow cooking a try. (How cool would it be to throw some ingredients into the pot in the morning and be able to serve up a delicious stew right after finishing with my last student of the day?) Can't wait until they reopen our local Salvation Army, which has been undergoing a major renovation for what seems like months now!

  14. Hey, saro, where do you live, with your exotic voltage?

  15. Afghanistan, I'm here for at least a year doing rule of law work. They're on 110 voltage. you can find some random things here, so I'll keep a look out for the convection oven. It would solve alot of my problems (we only have a gas stove now).

    I found your partner's blog when trying to decide if I can learn how to sew on a hand-crank sewing machine (the only kind they have here)...

  16. Wow, I never imagined that my blog would be read in Afghanistan. That is really interesting....I'd love to hear more about your food-related (and sewing-related) experiences over there. I admire how you are really digging in to find out how to be self-supporting in a foreign environment, even though you're only there for the short term. Your stories would make a great blog, I'll bet.

    Have you discovered any wonderful new foods in your temporary home?

  17. Well, I was born here but left when I was two years old (and grew up in the American south), so I'm used to the food. There is a really nice blog run by two women, one Afghan-American and another American, that you will probably like - called Afghan cooking unveiled.

    I did have a blog about my experiences here once upon a time.I've been here, on and off, since 2003, so everything seems pretty run of the mill now. I've considered setting up a food/sewing blog. Will consider it again. I have to get my hands on a sewing machine first!!