I AM LEARNING to cook all over again. It is called adjusting to a new oven and a new cook top. For the past month I have been cooking with a dual-fuel setup, a Dacor with gas burners and an electric convection oven.
The experience has both reminded me of my past and forced me to try the new, bake-it-with-moving-air approach to cooking. I grew up on gas, watching my mother cook eggs on gas burners and bake cakes in the gas-fired Roper oven.
Lighting the oven was an event. It required a match and a steady hand to ignite it. Nowadays, this is all done with electronic gizmos. But as a kid, I remember it was a small sign of accomplish- ment when your mother judged that you, under her watchful eye, were old enough to light the oven.
As a kid, I didn't cook much, mainly grilled-cheese sandwiches. But I learned what a low, medium or high gas flame looked like. This accumulated wisdom went out the window years later when my wife and I bought a house in Baltimore that had an electric stove and oven, a Jenn-Air.
This forced me to learn to "cook electric." The oven was relatively easy. I simply set the temperature dial and waited for the oven to warm up. Learning to cook on the electric burners was another matter. They were slow to get going, but once they warmed up, they were sizzling.
It took me a while to be patient and trustful, to accept the fact that adjusting the burner dial to an 8, out of a possible 10, meant I would end up with a very hot skillet, even if it took several minutes to get there.
Eventually, I learned to cook Sunday-morning pancakes in a skillet set on the 5-7 range. I also learned "the shuffle." When the skillet got too hot, I shuffled it to another burner, as I dialed down the first burner and waited for it to cool.
Additionally, I became acquainted with the "pop out." In the cook top's declining years, the weight of a heavy pot would cause the electric coil to pop out of its socket, and stop cooking. After trying to get many pots of spaghetti water to boil on popped-out burners, it became apparent that after more than 20 years of devoted service, the time had come to replace our old electric oven and cook top. So this fall, counseled by Harvey Cummins, a patient, silver-haired man who owns an appliance business in Pikesville, we bought into the new world of dual-fuel cooking.
I learned that these days it is not enough to merely have hot air in your oven; the air has to be moving, and the more movement the better. The new oven has a convection mode, which moves the hot air around the oven chamber with a fan.
Moreover, it has devices that clean and reheat the air as it passes through the fan. It sounds like a turbocharger to me. What all this turbocharged air is supposed to do, the oven manual tells me, is cook things faster and more evenly.
But adjustments have had to be made. When I am in the turbocharged, convection-baking lane, I am learning to dial down my usual baking temperature by 25 degrees and cut the cooking time by 10 percent to 15 percent.
It has been a gradual adaptation. For instance, when I bake bread, I cook two loaves, one using the old style in 400-degree, standard-bake, no-air mode of operation. I cook the other loaf at 375 degrees in the convection mode, the one that makes the oven sound like a wind tunnel. Both produce excellent loaves, but the crust on my wind-tunnel loaf needs work. The big success has been the turbocharged roast chicken. It was wonderful, with crisp skin and moist meat.
Meanwhile, up on the range, I am reacquainting myself with the techniques my mother taught me of cooking over a gas flame. I burned the first batch of gas-burner, Sunday-morning pancakes. But the second batch was better, and the third batch was perfect. The flames also have a take-no-prisoners mode that is powerful enough not only to quickly dispatch pots of spaghetti water, but also, I bet, to boil a moose or two.
What this proves, I guess, is that you can teach an old cook new tricks, if you give him a new oven and several months to adjust to it.