Unconventional Ovens

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The inventor of the Easy Bake Oven, Ronald Howes, died last week, as you may have heard. The news made me finally pay attention to those little ovens, a toy I neither owned nor noticed with any interest as a child, and I was startled to realize that baking temperatures can be achieved with a simple lightbulb. That's because ordinary incandescent lightbulbs are inefficient; they give off most of their energy as heat rather than light. (Which is a very good argument for switching to more energy-efficient bulbs in your home light fixtures, but I digress.)

Easy-Bakes aren't the only unconventional ovens on my radar lately. During the recent blizzards in DC, a coworker whose power went out cooked his dinner over a cluster of tealights! Well, "cooked" and "dinner" are loose terms; he heated up some frozen White Castle cheeseburgers in tinfoil. But still rather impressive.

There was another option he didn't consider (although it probably would have required too much shoveling to be worth the effort): Cooking in his car. I blogged about this concept a long time ago, but I had forgotten about my plan to try it until I listened to NPR's The Splendid Table a couple of weeks ago. The episode included an interview with the author of "Manifold Destiny," a jokey-but-authentic guide to cooking various tinfoil-wrapped feasts using only the heat of one's car engine. (Sorry to say that I probably still won't be trying this anytime soon, as I no longer have my own car, and my husband's response to the notion of messing with anything under the hood of our perpetually persnickety Dodge Neon was, well, cool.)

If you have a fireplace at home, that's another type of oven you may have been ignoring. The Washington Post's food section included a fascinating piece about fireplace cooking last week, in which the author experimented with cooking and baking in her home fireplace using simple tools like a steel-framed Tuscan grill, string and bricks. Chicken turned out well; cake...not so much.

You could even put a solar oven in your backyard, as my colleague Bruce Hathaway has done—basic models cost under $150, and the fuel is free.

I've also read that you can steam fish in a dishwasher, though I've never tried it.

Maybe such things intrigue me more than the average person because I don't have a conventional oven myself. As I mentioned last fall, we rent an apartment that's lovely in many ways but lacks an oven—there's only a four-burner range, with a microwave above it that doubles as a hot-air convection oven.

Many of you responded at the time that you could never live without an oven, but to be honest, it's much less inconvenient than I'd expected. We make everything from lasagna to popovers, albeit in small batches, and can broil even smaller batches in the toaster oven. Still, now I'm thinking an Easy-Bake or two might make a nice addition to the living room...heck, even Oprah's personal chef, Art Smith, has used one.

Have you tried any of these things, or other alternatives to conventional ovens? Feel free to share your experiences in the comments field.

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