WILL THIS year's chic Christmas Gift, the convection oven, end up gathering dust on kitchen countertops in Georgetown, Spring Valley and Kalorama like so many chic, expensive Christmas gifts of years past? Or will owners abandon their conventional ovens in favor of these countertop cookers?
The convection oven is a scaleddown, portable version of a 25-year-old concept in professional cooking that cooks food by blowing the hot air in the oven around it. Is it a great advance in home cooking, or, as critics claim, is it "very experimental" with "a lot of problems to be ironed out"?
The results certainly are not in yet. But chiefs who have used both the professional and portable versions agree that while the principle is the same, there is very little relationship between them. Home versions "are not anywhere near as consistent."
Consumers Union thinks the claims made for convection ovens, sales for which may pass the million mark by next year, contain "almost as much hot air . . . as the ovens." The manufacturers dispute the finding which were published in the November issue of Consumer Reports.
Others who have tested or worked with convection ovens feel there are a number of unsolved problems, but that for certain kinds of cooking, they do an excellent job. And for those who need a second oven, but have limited space, the convection oven could be an answer.
The greastest problem with the ovens may not be the ovens themselves but the ads for them which promise more than they can deliver: "Everything you roast, bake or broil will come out of this oven looking like it came out of a magazine. In less time, with less work, and for less money."
". . . Baking, broiling and roasting . . . and in one quarter less time." "Continuous self-cleaning feature for no-mess cooking." Food cooks up to one-third faster than in regular ovens -- that's convenient and energy saving." o. . . Roast up to an 18 lb. turkey."
It's not that these claims are untrue: They just aren't true all the time.
Of those interviewed, manufacturers included, no one claimed that everything cooked more quickly in a convection oven than a conventional oven. Even the company which advertised that its oven would take a turkey weighing up to 18 pounds offered the following caveat: "It depends on the plumness of the breast. If it's bird with a flat breast you can get up to a 20-pound turkey in. In our newly revised use and care book the instructions say for 16 pounds plus."
While the ads emphasize the spaciousnes of the ovens, the lack of space was another complaint, even from those who like the ovens. And the energy saving, if it exists, appears to be limited and variable.
Such inflated claims are among the reasons Consumer Reports gave low marks overall to the three convection ovens -- Farberware, Maxim and Cuisinart -- it compared to a conventional General Electric oven. The convection ovens cost between $150 and $300; the Ge is about $500.
Critics of the report say that such a comparison is unfair because "most people do not have the top of the line, energy-saving model (conventional oven)," as one manufacturer pointed out. Walter Nachtigall, vice president of the company which manufactures Maxim ovens, said what Consumer Reports did is "like judging a Ford compared to a Rolls Royce."
Results in Consumer Reports were mixed and so were others' reactions to the results. But, in general, there was agreement that "claims for faster cooking in convection ovens don't always hold up. No one oven -- including the GE range oven -- was consistently the swiftest or slowest," said the said the magazine.
Eloise Sanchez, who has worked extensively for kitchen Bazaar with the Maxim said, "Time is not consistently shortened." It depends on what is being cooked. The most consistent saving of time appears to take place when meats or poultry are roasted.
According to Consumer Reports, "Convection ovens don't have a clearcut advantage when it comes to energy consumption either. In our tests, the most energy-efficient oven overall turned out to be conventional GE."
Such might not be the case if the convection ovens had been pitted against older, less well insulated conventional ovens. According to Nachtigall, 3,300 watts are required to heat up a conventional electric oven; approximately 1,600 watts are used in heating up convection oven, on the face of it, an obvious saving. But Nachtigall explained, since the convection ovens are not as well insulated as the conventional ovens, "from an energy point of view they are not necessarily as efficient."
But because many things are cooked at lower temperatures than in a conventional oven, some energy savings should accrue. There do not seem to be any scientific studies which carefully compare the energy efficiency of the two kinds of ovens. If you by a convection oven in the belief it will save you time and energy, you may be disappointed.
Consumer Reports also found fault with the design, the cleanability, the fan noise and the extremely hot surfaces of some of the appliances.
The November issue of Cuisine magazine had better things to say about the five countertop convection ovens it tested, the three tested by Consumers Union plus the Moulin-Air and Toastmaster. But it also pointed out the faults: "In some cases, foods browned too rapidly on top; some cake layers cracked and were tough in texture, although other users reported evenly browned cakes. Delicate foods, such as souffles and meringues, occasionally were drier than usual."
To understand how little consensus there is on many aspects of convection oven cooking, consider these additional comments about souffle baking: Professional cook and caterer Carol Mason says, "A souffle is fantastic" in her convection oven. But Francois Dionot, a cooking teacher and professional chef, says, "You could never make a souffle in a convection oven."
Cuisine goes on to say that even though most models are "advertised as continuous cleaning, we found these systems generally unsatisfactory."
Consumer Reports say that "heavy stains do not vanish and were impossible to remove conpletely."
Testing another claim, that "convection units can cook more food in a comparable period of time than microwave ovens, and faster with a lower cooking temperature than conventional ovens," the Cuisine test kitchen had "mixed results."
The magazine also was concerned about the lack of insulation in some of the ovens. "In view of the fact that the oven can be in operation for hours at a time our staff felt that poorly insulated models may pose a safety hazard."
In some of them it is difficult to reach the controls without coming in contact with the hot surface, and the oven must be opened with great caution because, unlike the conventional oven which is vented, the convection oven traps all the heat and the steam.
Using a convection oven requires some experimentation, as Cuisine noted: "Although instruction booklets gave directions for converting recipes to convection cooking, the instructions were general, and our staff had to experiment with cooking times, temperatures and rack positions in order to achieve a successful product."
Said one expert: "Some of the guidebooks are not good. Some of their recipes are not sufficiently tested."
Overall, Consumer Reports concluded that it might make more sense to use a toaster oven or a counter top broiler for small jobs than to buy a convection oven. But others do not agree.
Despite the litany of complaints, there appear to be a number of cooking operations which many people feel convection ovens do well. And convection ovens have the further advantage of running on ordinary household current.
Unlike microwave ovens, convection ovens require no special cooking equipment and they brown foods, "often more evenly than conventional ovens," Cuisine notes. There is less shrinkage in meats; both meats and poultry are moister. And unlike microwave ovens there are no questions about their safety.
Almost everyone agress that yeast breads and pastries are superior in a convection oven. Dionot says, "For things which need to be crispy and crusty on the outside, for puff pastry, for en croute dishes it is excellent."
Those who use them say they do keep the kitchen from heating up the way it does when a conventional oven is in use. Mason said she did not have to turn on her air-conditioner this summer when she cooked in her convection oven.
Where does all this conflicting information leave the potential purchaser?
Except for the manufacturers, none of the experts recommended buying a convection oven in place of a conventional oven. And which kind to buy depends on the kind of cooking you do most. Mason bought hers because she needed a second oven, not because "it saved time or produced better quality. The quality is the same whether you use a conventional or a convection oven," she said.
On the other hand, Eloise Sanchez says if convection ovens are time or energy savers, that's incidental. She believes in them "because of the quality of the finished product."
Dionot says if he had to make a choice between buying the top quality conventional oven or a less expensive conventional oven in order to have enough money left over to buy a convection oven, he would "buy a good oven first and then make some more money and buy a convection oven. You should never compromise in buying an oven," he said.
As an accessory, as a second oven, especially for those with limited space, a convection oven has its uses. Said one expert, "The primary advantage of a convection oven is as an auxilliary to a conventional heating unit. It is fine for someone who feels a need for an additional heating source for pastry, breads, roasts."