Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Dream BIG Little Toaster Ovens

Everyone, meet Wilbur.

He has been a close friend of mine for nearly my entire time in Korea. He gets a bit hot at times, but that's fine because he cools off really fast. At 40cm wide, 22.5cm tall and 23.5cm deep, Wilbur is a bit portly, but it suits him given his job. He could also use a good wash, but that's more my fault than his.

Wilbur is a basic toaster oven, but don't call him that. It makes him mad. He thinks he's an oven — a real oven!

Wilbur says, "hi."
While most toaster ovens are browning bagels and heating up slices of leftover pizza, Wilbur is busy doing things like baking stuffed zucchini, banana-nut muffins, chocolate chip cookies, meringue, and even apple-quince pies. He's pretty good at it too. He has not yet been given the opportunity, but he even thinks he could bake small chickens or even a roast.

Perhaps he's delusional, thinking he is an oven. He isn't even an advanced toaster oven like his more expensive cousins with their convection fans and multiple settings. He's just a base model with only two functions: toast and bake. But as long as he is aware of his limits, he and others like him can bake with the best of them.

The most obvious drawback, of course, is size. You're not going to dance your Thanksgiving turkey around and then plop that sucker in your toaster. So, you need to treat your toaster oven more like the Easy Bake Oven you or your sister probably had in the '90s. But small size adds more problems than meet the eye. It also places the heating elements closer to your food. The closer you get to the top element, the less evenly distributed the heat will be and the top of whatever you're cooking will cook faster than the rest of the food and eventually char.

Wilbur's banana-nut muffins 
The solution is simple, but not without its own drawback. Scaling down what you're cooking or making multiple batches will solve these problems, but it can extend the amount of time spent cooking. For instance, Wilbur and I recently made chocolate chip cookies. Unfortunately, Wilbur's sheet pan only held four cookies. They were four chocolatey, chewy centered cookies that would beat Paris Baguette cookies any day. However, at four cookies a pan, that's a lot of baking time for a full recipie. So unless you are willing to settle for something different, like sheet cookies or less cookies, you may need to get ready for some quality time with your toaster oven.

Size doesn't have to be a handicap, though. Cookie dough, for example, keeps for a couple days in the fridge and up to half a year in the freezer. Instead of cooking it all at once, your toaster oven could bless your home with small batches of freshly baked cookies throughout the week.

At least in Korea, bakeware is another hurdle for toaster ovens. Sheet pans and six cup muffin tins are easy enough to find. But if you want to bake a pie or, heaven forbid, a bundt cake, good luck finding a pan to fit in your toaster oven without resorting to Google. And if you are like me (ridiculously cheap with no room in your kitchen to store lots of pans) you have to find alternatives. For example, some Christmases ago I wanted to bake an apple pie. However, I was not able to find a pie tin small enough for Wilbur. At the time all I had was a mini cake pan. So I made apple-quince pies in a cake pan. Alternatively, when I made cookies I only had one sheet pan. But a buttered and floured sheet of aluminum foil worked just as well, better actually.

Toaster ovens don't have precise temperature controls.
Temperature and cooking times are yet another thing aspiring ovens need to consider before baking. Unlike normal ovens which control temperature reliably, toaster ovens, at least the cheap ones, are not exactly precise. Just look at Wilbur's temperature dial. Because of this, you need to take your recipe's temperature and cooking times with a grain of salt. I tend to set Wilbur a little hotter than where I think the actual temperature is. And that has worked for him. Toaster ovens are as varied as people, so experiment with your toaster oven to figure out what works best for them. As for time, even with a normal oven, cooking times can vary. But with the unpredictability inherent in a toaster oven, it is even more important to keep an eye on whatever you're baking.

Not the prettiest toaster-oven apple pie, but still delicious
Baking with a toaster oven is more than possible. Yet some may wonder why bother indulging their cheap toaster oven in such a fantasy when they can use an oven. Full ovens, though, are not a standard kitchen appliance in South Korea. It makes sense too. In a culture where typically only foreign food is baked, why install an oven in every kitchen? As a result, the majority of expat kitchenettes are oven-less. What do you find under your stove? More cabinet space.

If you really enjoy baking, you could buy an oven. They aren't easy to find, though, and they are quite
expensive. My local HiMart, a Korean appliance store, didn't have any conventional ovens on display, but if you can afford ₩598,000 or ₩690,000 they do offer a steam oven. Even if you do find a normal oven, if you're only planning on staying in Korea a year or two, the investment can seem a bit much. A toaster oven, though, is an inexpensive appliance. I bought Wilbur at Lotte Mart for ₩50,000. That's around $50. And while basic toaster ovens are not ideal for all kinds of baking, they are far more versatile than commonly used. And, as I said, if you know your toaster's limits, with some luck, patience and a dash of ingenuity, you and your toaster oven can pull off some pretty amazing feats of baking.

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