If anyone knows> her way around a kitchen, it s celebrity chef Cat Cora. With dozens of ingredients spread out, she s preparing a Thanksgiving feast for us. She s got Cornish game hens with pomegranate glaze and sweet potatoes with fresh oranges plus a dash of rosemary. But something s holding her up. Staring at the wall oven, she s baffled: How do I get this to broil?
It s official: Betty Crocker s favorite appliance is getting a high-tech makeover. Old-school oven controls the basic temperature dial and clock are fast going the way of the mortar and pestle as the $4.3 billion American oven-and-range industry has transformed the humble hot box into a digital dynamo. The goal? Taking the guesswork and the wait out of cooking. Today s new wall ovens promise lightning-fast preheats, energy-saving cooking times (up to 30 percent shorter) and smart meat thermometers that turn the oven off before that holiday bird goes dry. Not sure of the optimum temperature for tonight s dinner? Some models feature up to 300 built-in settings, from frozen pizza to chicken cordon bleu.
But as our chef discovered, all those bells and whistles can get a little confusing, especially if all you want to do is melt cheese on a tortilla without setting off your smoke detector. After a big surge in 2007, the overall market for electric wall ovens dropped 27 percent in the first half of this year due in large part to the slowing economy, ailing real estate market and drop in lavish renovations, says Chris Ahearn, spokesperson for the Lowe s home-improvement chain. Wall ovens can cost up to three times more than their conventional counterparts, with some reaching as high as $6,000. (High-end manufacturers like Miele and Wolf, however, report steady sales.) To help clear the field in time for Turkey Day, we set out to test five of the latest models, with the help of Cora, the first and only female Iron Chef and a cookbook author. After preparing our Cornish game hens and potatoes, we slide identical trays into each oven, keeping setting (convection roast), temperature (350 degrees) and duration (45 minutes) constant. To finish our trial, we leave the potatoes in to evaluate each oven s broiler. As the sweet smell of rosemary and citrus fill the air, we anxiously await the ultimate test the taste test.
We re off to a good start with the Gaggenau single oven ($4,000); its seven-minute preheat performs as promptly as promised. But when Cora awkwardly reaches for the right-side door handle, as she would for a refrigerator, she says the ultramodern design is cumbersome. Inside, the oven s 4.4-cubic-foot cavity seems spacious (the industry s biggest, offered by appliance brand Bosch, is 4.7 cubic feet), and there are three heating elements. Impressive, Cora says. The glass door offers a clear view of our roasting hen, but its lack of shading could cause the kitchen to heat up, particularly if sunlight is streaming in or guests are crowding about, Cora explains. And the oven s two dials, with no labeling, offer little direction. This is geared to the superfoodie and is too confusing, she says. Forty-five minutes later, we take out the game hen and finish the sweet potatoes with a broil which takes Cora two tries to work. The hen s exterior isn t as even as we d hoped, and inside we find some pinkness near the bone. Unacceptable, according to Cora. (A Gaggenau spokesperson says perhaps the chicken should ve stayed in the oven longer.)
On the other hand, Miele s MasterChef oven ($3,500) seems foolproof, with hundreds of user-friendly settings to choose from. Cora says this can be especially valuable for novices or those with a propensity for demolishing recipes. Its design is sleek, but at 3.62 cubic feet, its cavity is smaller than other models . And our taste test leaves a bit to be desired. The hen hasn t cooked evenly; the meat is tender but not as moist as Cora had hoped. (A spokesperson for Miele is surprised, explaining that the oven s convection system is designed to prevent dryness.) And the broiled sweet potatoes are on the lighter side, with some uneven caramelization. Not bad, but I m not exactly blown away, Cora admits.
The GE Monogram Professional Convection oven ($3,150) touts its reverse-air convection technology, which moves air counterclockwise for optimal circulation, as its premier feature. But frankly, it s the most basic oven of the batch, with two easy-to-use dials and modes that get only as complex as convection roast and thermal bake. It s all too simple for my taste, Cora says. Then again, maybe my parents would like it. The oven s three racks slide all the way out on ball bearings, which are treated with a lubricant that can withstand self-clean temperatures convenient, you don t even have to remove them to clean the oven, Cora says. But when you get into foodie land, you re going to want features that are a little more substantial. Despite her initial skepticism, our cooking results exceed expectations. The color of both the game hen and potatoes is even, and the inside of the chicken is super juicy and moist. For a basic, no-nonsense wall oven, this is the way to go, Cora says. But if you re going after style or sophistication, keep looking, she urges.
Next up: the Thermador Professional Series ($3,650). Its speed convection mode reduces cooking time by up to 30 percent, though this feature is better for frozen foods and prepared casseroles than for gourmet recipes, a company spokesperson says. In addition, the company claims its 5,000-watt MaxBroil is the most powerful in the industry. Cora is sold, namely because the commercial style of the oven is exactly what everyone wants these days. With the straightforward, restaurant-style controls, anyone can walk into the kitchen and use this, she says. The big commercial-grade oven door isn t heavy at all, and the lower rack automatically slides out when you fully open the door. This offers the most bang for your buck and looks durable enough to last forever, she says. When the recipes are ready, the chicken looks more even and crisp than any of the others, though the meat is slightly dry. The potatoes? Nearly perfect.
When we test the Wolf L Series oven ($3,850), Cora is initially unimpressed. For starters, the preheat takes 20 minutes (Wolf says preheat typically takes 15 to 18 minutes), and she thinks the oven s rotating control panel that disappears into the wall is frivolous. How many times am I really going to flip the control panel over? When guests come over? Cora says, laughing. But she thinks the oven door, designed to gently descend on its own, and the lower rack that slides onto the door are more practical features. When the results are in, Cora is glad she kept an open mind. Her recipes have never been so tasty! The hen cooks beautifully, and the potatoes, which have reached a perfect crisp and the most delicate balance in browning, are incredible. These are rockin , she says, adding that the chicken is incredibly juicy. At this point, she won t budge in her opinion. I absolutely rate this the best, she says. Now, if only she could bring it on set for Iron Chef America.