After moving into our lovely Cuencan house with its fabulously appointed, modern kitchen, we invited some friends for dinner. I decided to make a simple roasted chicken with vegetables. I prepared the bird, slipped it into my fancy new oven and sat down with our guests and a glass of wine to wait for the chicken to become a juicy, golden-brown football. But an hour later a meat thermometer proved that it was nowhere near ready to eat. I cranked up the heat and we opened another bottle of wine. After another half hour at 400°, I tested it again. The meat remained an inedible and unappetizing dark pink color. Back into the oven it went.
Later, an aroma filled the kitchen. Unfortunately, it was not the redolence of roast chicken but the smell of the plastic chopping board that had (unnoticed by me—perhaps the second bottle of wine had something to do with that) become stuck to the bottom of the roasting pan when I set it on the kitchen counter. It now lay as a pungent, bubbling puddle in the bottom of my oven. I don’t remember now whether we went out for pizza, or instead, just opened another bottle.
HOW CAN AN OVEN MELT A HALF-INCH SLAB OF PLASTIC INTO SOUP BUT NOT COOK A CHICKEN?
Such are the mysteries of ovens in Ecuador. They are different here. For one thing, ovens tend to be small and have only one baking rack. You may find that your cookie sheets, turkey roasters and Lutheran-church-supper-sized lasagna pans simply won’t fit. Also, unless you live in a large apartment or condo complex, most ovens are gas-fired, requiring that the cilindro be exchanged for a full one now and then. Some have temperamental gas jets. I often keep my oven door propped open a bit in order to provide enough oxygen to keep the flame going. If it even exists, the broiling feature may not work very well. But the most frustrating difference is that the temperatures marked on the dial often have little correlation with the temperature inside the oven.
Why? Because heat escapes. In higher elevations, lower air pressure allows heat to travel upward faster. It takes longer for your oven to get hot. Some brands of ovens are not as well insulated as others and temperatures within the oven can be unreliable. A friend of mine was recently shocked to discover that one side of her oven is 50 degrees hotter than the other! Different and temperamental ovens are the reason why in my book, “What’s Cookin’, Cuenca? A Gringo Guide to buying and preparing food in Ecuador,” I didn’t bother putting cooking times and temperatures with many of the recipes.
What can you do? You can invest in a convection oven. If you do you will probably have better luck with accurate temperatures and reliable cooking times. Or you can learn to love your Ecuadorian oven, the way you have learned to love everything else about Ecuador. After two years, I know the personality and weaknesses of mine, and I have learned to like my cranky pal. I know and expect that it takes longer to cook things.
Here are some helpful hints:
Avoid opening your oven door when in use. Doing so adds lots to your cooking time.
Purchase an oven thermometer to find out the “real” temperature of your oven at different settings.
Use your nose to bake. I know when my roasted sweet potatoes are ready by their aroma.
Use the right baking tools. Transparent, tempered-glass pie pans will allow you to see whether your quiche crust will be flaky golden-brown or a soggy, white mess.
Experiment! Some baked goods don’t require an oven. You can make cornbread and English muffins in a skillet.
Have fun, good luck, and Good Cookin’, Cuenca!
Frances Augusta Hogg is an editor, writer, and volunteer teacher and animal rescue worker. She is the author of What’s Cookin’, Cuenca?: A Gringo’s Guide to Buying and Preparing Food in Ecuador.