Now I know it can be tempting to go ahead and press the snazzy convection button you just discovered on your oven. BUT, there are some best practices you should always follow to ensure your treats have the ideal oven conditions for a proper bake.
Why do you need to even out the heat?
While you may find that some ovens turn their fans on briefly during standard bake cycles (mine actually does this, which means I can’t technically bake with the fan fully off), in general, the effect of those brief fan bursts is minimal.
So in a standard bake, your heat source is fairly concentrated around your heating element. This means products close to those elements (usually on the top and/or bottom rack depending on your oven) will bake significantly faster than those in middle of the oven.
Multi-Pan Baking: Use Convection
This is especially apparent when baking with, say, 3 trays of cookies in the same oven. You’ll notice that the top and bottom trays often block heat from getting to the middle tray. This usually results in the middle tray of cookies looking like they were baked in an oven that wasn't hot enough.
So when baking a full oven, with multiple pans, I find the convection setting to be really helpful. Using a convection fan helps even out the heat flow and allow every tray to bake on the same schedule.
Quick and Fast Bakes: Use Convection
As mentioned before, convection baking is harsher than standard radiant baking. This leads to faster, stronger browning in less baking time. This can result in the center of your product remaining raw, even if the surface looks done. But the beauty of this (sometimes) problem is that we can use it to our advantage!
You’ll probably notice me using cookies as an example a lot. That’s because I have a serious addiction to convection-baked cookies. There’s nothing better in my book than a convection-baked chocolate chip cookie with a beautiful golden brown edge. Those edges crisp perfectly upon cooling, contrasting beautifully with the doughy and molten center.
This is all thanks to the quick and harsher bake of the convection setting. If you’re into this type of half-baked, crisp and chewy cookie, convection baking is your new best friend. I highly recommend playing around with convection bakes to see if you can bring out those deliciously contrasting textures even more in your favorite cookie recipes.
Cakes, Loaves, and Breads: Better on Standard
Convection baking is sounding pretty cool at this point, right? So you should use it for everything, right? Naaaah....unfortunately it’s not quite that easy.
The recipes where standard baking really shines through tend to involve delicate batters and products requiring a low and slow bake.
Cake batter is generally pretty thin, and often very delicate until the eggs are fully set. If you’ve ever relocated a cake mid-bake, you’ve probably seen its rising dome is quick to fall if disturbed. A constant wind tunnel in the oven box is far more disturbing than your delicate shifting of the pan.
So if you do use convection (aka a mini wind tunnel), you’ll likely find at the very least, your cake dome is off-centered. At the worst, your cake won’t rise to its full potential, or will rise and quickly fall. You also may have a cake that’s overly browned on top by the time the center is cooked through.
Needless to say, you’re better off baking your cakes on the standard baking setting.
On occasion, I’ll use the convection setting for cupcakes (particularly minis, which are meant to bake quickly). I'm even more likely to use convection for cupcakes if I’m baking multiple large pans at the same time.
But for standard-sized cupcakes or baking just one pan at a time, I’d recommend sticking with a standard bake.
(Although it can be fun to experiment if you feel like playing around with convection options. On some occasions, I’ve found convection can help to get a really quick and pretty “pop” out of mini cupcakes, which makes for a beautiful dome. There are exceptions to every rule, and that’s why there’s always more to learn in baking!)
Quick Breads and Loaf Cakes
Quick breads or heavy loaf cakes (like a classic pound cake) are another great example of recipes that bake best on a standard setting.
The batter in a loaf pan is obviously very dense compared to a cupcake, for example. With so much in one pan, only a small portion of the batter directly contacts the hot surface (either the pan or the air) during the entire bake. This basically means it'll take the heat a while to fully penetrate the batter and cook your product all the way through.
Baking these treats on convection would stunt the rise by creating a crust too soon. Your loaf would also be over-browned on top by the time the heat finally cooks the loaf's center.
As a rule of thumb, the slow and steady bake of standard radiant heat is the way to go for these types of products. Standard settings ensures that the outside and inside of your loaf will both be ready at the same time.
Last but not least, we must discuss the yeasted products. Yeast-raised products are typically meant to bake low and slow, either to develop flavor or to slowly solidify their structure. And we now know "low and slow," means "standard and radiant" heat only.
This of course includes enriched sweet breads like cinnamon rolls, brioche, and challah. But, it also includes standard bread loaves that need a lot of time to rise before their crust sets, stunting any further growth.
Convection baking will not only stunt the rise of these types of products, but it can cause the loaf to rip during or after baking. This is caused by expanding gases from the raw center trying to make their escape from a prematurely set crust.
So where yeast is involved, it's always best to stick with standard settings.
The Short + The Sweet
Convection baking has many benefits, but it isn't always the best choice for the best bake.
It can give you a faster bake, and a quicker “pop” for certain products. It can even add a beautifully caramelized surface to a cookie while maintaining that deliciously gooey center.
BUT, you must be wary of the harsh and fast bake, which can cause issues for delicate products or those requiring more time in the oven. Cakes can get blown and dome off-center. Quick bread loaves can be burnt on top by the time their centers set. Yeasted doughs can rip through their prematurely browned crusts.
For these types of recipes - delicate batters/structures, super dense and large single products, or yeasted breads - you'll want to stick with standard baking methods.
In our next oven chat, we'll look at recommendations for ovens in general. I’ll even talk about the specific model that I currently bake with in case you're in the market for a new one!
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