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Nathan Myhrvold's Recipe For a Better Oven 228

Tekla Perry writes: We cook our food today using technology invented to bake bricks. We can do a lot better. Nathan Myhrvold explains what's wrong with today's ovens and challenges oven designers make them better. He says, "Oven designers could do a lot to make ovens heat more evenly by taking advantage of the different ways ovens transfer heat at different cooking temperatures. At 200 C or below, convection moves most of the heat. But at 400 C, radiant energy starts doing a fair amount of the heat transfer. At 800 C, radiation overwhelms convection. Why couldn't we have an oven designed to cook primarily by convection at low temperatures that switches to radiant heating for high-temperature baking? ... The shiny skin of raw fish reflects heat, but as the skin browns, it reflects less and less energy. That’s why food under a broiler can seem to cook slowly at first and then burn in the blink of an eye. But technology offers a fix here, too. Oven designers could put optical sensors in the oven chamber to sense the reflectivity of the food, and then the oven controller could adjust the heat automatically or at least alert the cook as the surface browns. And a camera in the oven could feed to a color display on the front panel, giving the chef a clearer view of the food than a small window in the door can. Indeed, a decent optics system could allow designers to dispense with the glass in the door altogether, reducing the gap between the hottest and coolest corners of the oven and obviating the need to open the door and rotate the food midway through cooking.
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Nathan Myhrvold's Recipe For a Better Oven

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  • Cost (Score:4, Insightful)

    by jbeaupre ( 752124 ) on Tuesday July 01, 2014 @05:01PM (#47363633)

    Because the incremental improvement adding all of these optics and electronics, make it robust, and make it work is not cheap. And most cooks do pretty darn good with just what they have.

    Small benefit vs big cost => no change

  • Dollars. (Score:5, Insightful)

    by queazocotal ( 915608 ) on Tuesday July 01, 2014 @05:02PM (#47363645)

    How to improve the oven has been known for ages.
    The problem is that it's costly to do right, especially if the oven needs to actually be a reliable oven and last at least 10 years daily use.
    For example 'optical sensors can be placed in the oven to ...'

    How do you keep these clean after the four hundredth time they're spattered with grease at 250C and it's burned on to a nice black film.
    How do you determine what the food is, and what the surrounding dish is in order to pick what needs to be browned.

    The 'right' way to do this would be with thermal IR cameras.
    Unfortunately, this raises even more cost issues.

  • Re:Cost (Score:4, Insightful)

    by Wycliffe ( 116160 ) on Tuesday July 01, 2014 @05:12PM (#47363725) Homepage

    In order to see a real change you really need a few "killer apps". i.e. some dishes that are significantly easier, better, faster
    if prepared using this new oven. A single incredible dish that can only be cooked in this new oven would be a start but I'm not
    sure very many people would buy an oven for a single dish. The microwave became popular because it was faster than the
    oven for a whole range of things.

  • by Dzimas ( 547818 ) on Tuesday July 01, 2014 @05:31PM (#47363871)
    Lead melts at 327.5 degrees, zinc melts at 319.5 degrees, tin a bit less than that. You could have some serious metalworking fun in the kitchen -- get it up to 1200 degrees and you could liquify gold, silver and even copper. I seriously hope that the numbers in the summary were just an awkward conversion error, because the notion of your very own kitchen smelter is terrifying.
  • by jfengel ( 409917 ) on Tuesday July 01, 2014 @05:31PM (#47363877) Homepage Journal

    Something cookbooks harp on: most ovens do very poor temperature regulation. Baking books in particular recommend getting a separate themometer, and adding thermal ballast (such as stones) to your oven to get it to keep an even temperature.

    That's not just for ultra-high-end stuff; that's for just making good bread. Bread is fairly sensitive to temperature, because you're trying to orchestrate a complex set of reactions including yeast production, internal steam, setting the internal protein structure, and browning the crust. Swings of 25F are enough to throw off that balance, yielding loaves that are too high or too low or too brown or other problems.

    Most home ovens do it very badly. It seems to me that's a much more fixable problem without spending a fortune on the ultimate oven.

  • Better question... (Score:5, Insightful)

    by raydobbs ( 99133 ) on Tuesday July 01, 2014 @05:45PM (#47363965) Homepage Journal

    Why the fsck should we listen to anything this dishonest vulture says or wants? He has worked to single-handedly ruin everything about anything we could ever care about. Intellectual Ventures is the scum of the Earth, and is akin to the mafia coming to you and mentioning that they need some money else something bad could happen to your precious new business venture. Everything this man and his cohorts touch is tainted - Intellectual Ventures and Mr. Myhrvold needs to be removed like a cancer before they can spread even further.

    Fsck Intellectual Ventures.
    Fsck Nathan Myhrvold.

    In some parts of the world, they'd cut off his thieving hands. I wouldn't take one of his new ovens even if they gave it to me - except maybe to smash the crap out of it on YouTube.

  • Re:Cost (Score:5, Insightful)

    by AthanasiusKircher ( 1333179 ) on Tuesday July 01, 2014 @05:47PM (#47363989)

    Because the incremental improvement adding all of these optics and electronics, make it robust, and make it work is not cheap. And most cooks do pretty darn good with just what they have.

    This is spot-on. The suggestions in this article mostly range from the impractical and expensive to the barely useful and ludicrously expensive.

    I do a LOT of baking, roasting, braising, etc. in my oven. I'm also the kind of guy who owns multiple probe thermometers with different sensitivities and speeds, multiple kitchen scales with different accuracies for different quantities, a pH meter for kitchen use, hydrometers for fermentation, miscellaneous lab glassware for accurate measuring (and often convenient pouring), etc.

    Basically, I know there's a lot of room for precision in the kitchen, and I make use of it all the time.

    On the other hand, I'm also the kind of guy who throws in a handful of some herb and a couple pinches of another spice while I'm cooking or baking -- I recognize that there are sometimes when precision is warranted, and sometimes when it doesn't really make a huge difference becauses there are other variables in play. (How fresh is the herb or spice, is it small new leaves or large old leaves, etc.? -- sure, I could weigh a small amount of it, but those variations mean that a "handful" is probably about as reasonably precise as I'm going to get in terms of flavor potential.)

    Cooking and baking generally involves a lot of ingredients that have significant variation to them -- it's not like you order "laboratory grade" spices that have stable flavor profiles and are 99.99% pure or whatever. And kitchen conditions are variable enough in temperature and humidity that even if you had the perfect yeast that always started out exactly the same, by the time your dough ferments for a couple hours in your kitchen, each batch is going to be a little different. (Even with my temperature-controlled proofing box for proofing dough, my pizza timing and process will require adjustment from batch-to-batch.)

    So why exactly am I going to pay a ridiculous premium for these features on my oven? Most of them can be easily approximated with cheap fixes for those who care. If I want to have higher humidity in my oven, I put a steam pan in. Great. Whee. Cost of a few bucks for a cheap pan. If I want bursts of steam like a commercial bread oven, I can use a water kettle and a piece of tubing that costs me a couple bucks -- a valve too, if I want to be fancy about it. Myhrvold worries about how some of these "fancy" ovens can produce high humidity, but what if you want to brown your food and need to get rid of the humidity, which the oven isn't designed for. What the heck? Take my $5 steam pan out of the freakin' oven after I'm done with the steaming phase. What is so hard about this?

    Or I could spend hundreds or thousands of dollars for some ridiculous improvements to have precision equipment when I'm not generally using ingredients or cookware or whatever else that are built to the same precise tolerances... so I'm wasting money. The biggest improvement to my pizza-baking, for example, came NOT from precision measuring instruments for ingredients or from my special proofing box (both of which need to be adjusted according to variances in ingredients and kitchen conditions), but from buying a cheap steel plate to bake my pizza on (a suggestion that originated with Myrhvold's book, by the way).

    I'm not saying that ovens can't be improved. Many of his ideas would be interesting for general features, but his obsession with precision is just ridiculous.

  • by serbanp ( 139486 ) on Tuesday July 01, 2014 @05:59PM (#47364045)

    Not only it's not obvious what "better" means when baking is involved, but he's showing his Microsoft roots here, stupid "improvements" that make the whole system break so much easier.

    It's a known fact that most "modern" residential ovens, the ones with displays, lots of buttons to set baking programs etc, should never use the self-clean cycle. The thermal insulation is not good enough to protect the electronics (a.k.a. control board) and the oven fails, typically after a high-heat cycle (the self-clean reaches 700-800*F). This is equally true for GE and Whirlpool as well as for Viking and Ilve.

    Adding more electronics to a hot environment is asking for more and expensive trouble.

    Commercial appliances are better built though, are they Myhrvold's target? In any case, his post is just a petulant rant showing overkill application of technology, just because "he can". Zapping mosquitoes with laser beams sounds more realistic...

  • by WrongMonkey ( 1027334 ) on Tuesday July 01, 2014 @07:06PM (#47364599)
    *Co-author* of Modernist Cuisine, along with two other co-authors, 50 staff, 36 researchers and14 outside experts. He may have financed the project, but its not as if he wrote the bulk of the material himself.

    His "award-winning BBQ" was one cook-off in 1991, where he won in a pasta category.

    The guy is a professional self-aggrandizer and that's about it.

  • by AdamHaun ( 43173 ) on Tuesday July 01, 2014 @08:41PM (#47365135) Journal

    The article footer implies that he's some kind of cooking science wizard, but I have trouble believing that Nathan Myhrvold has ever done more with an oven than toss a slab of meat in it. I'm no expert, but I've baked an awful lot of cakes, cookies, breads, and pastries, and I find this article very confusing:

    Most of us bake, roast, and broil our food using a technology that was invented 5,000 years ago for drying mud bricks: the oven. The original oven was clay, heated by a wood fire. Today, the typical oven is a box covered in shiny steel or sparkling enamel, powered by gas or electricity. But inside the oven, little has changed.

    Weird condescension towards "brick dryers" is a running theme of this article. To see how ridiculous this is, I invite you to consider a nineteenth century cake recipe [] with its many methods for determining correct oven temperature and shielding parts of the cake from the oven walls so that it bakes evenly. Turning a knob to set an arbitrary temperature, while imperfect, is a *vast* technological improvement over wood-fired ovens. (Remember: just because it's analog (or non-electronic!) doesn't mean it's not technology.) Likewise, the metal that the oven is made from represents thousands of years of technological advances in itself.

    Preheating always seems to take an unreasonably long time because ovens waste most of the hot air they generate. The actual amount of energy required to reach baking temperature is quite small: Just 42 kilojoules will heat 0.14 cubic meters of air to 250 C. The heating element in a typical domestic electric oven supplies this much energy in a mere 21 seconds. Unfortunately, the heat, which originates in the heating coils of an electric oven or the burner of a gas oven, must pass through the air to get to the walls, and air is an awful conductor of heat, only slightly better than Styrofoam. Even worse, air expands when heated, so much of it flows out of the vent, heating the kitchen rather than the oven.

    But the oven walls will heat the air anyway, so how much energy would we really save by heating the walls directly? Pre-heating is only a fraction of the oven's total operating time. And wouldn't an electric burner also produce radiant heat? And then a few paragraphs later:

    As soon as you open the oven door to adjust or check on the food, nearly all the hot air spills out. The puny electric element or gas burner is no match for such large surges of cool air, so the temperature in the oven plummets, and it recovers slowly.

    which is totally inconsistent with what he said earlier.

    At 200 C or below, convection moves most of the heat. But at 400 C, radiant energy starts doing a fair amount of the heat transfer. At 800 C, radiation overwhelms convection. Why couldn’t we have an oven designed to cook primarily by convection at low temperatures that switches to radiant heating for high-temperature baking?

    As others have mentioned, this is a Fahrenheit/Celsius error at best and a non-sequitor at worst. The highest normal baking temperature is around 500 F (260 C) unless you're going crazy with pizza. If the article's numbers are correct, we should totally ignore radiant heating! (I don't think they are.) And I'm not clear on how the oven is supposed to "switch" to radiant heating. If the walls are hot enough to radiate, you get hot air for free. If the air is hot, it heats the sides of the oven.

    Myrhvold next dives into a laundry list of suggested improvements, which fall into a few categories:

    1. Stuff that already exists, but is expensive.
    2. Stuff that's not done because it's too expensive and/or inconvenient.
    3. Complicated gimmicks that require recipe-specific behavior.
    4. Star Trek.

    And you’re not going to be able to stop a cook from opening the oven door on occasion ...

  • Re:Cost (Score:5, Insightful)

    by EvilJoker ( 192907 ) on Tuesday July 01, 2014 @10:56PM (#47365809)

    All of those commercials from the 1960s showed happy housewives cooking up their family's turkey dinner with all the trimmings in the new microwave. I actually own some of the old cookbooks that even tell you how to do it. Guess what? That never came to pass. Because most food cooked in the microwave is *terrible*.

    The problem is that you can't just swap in a different cooking method and expect the same results. If you decided to (for example) deep fry that same turkey, unaltered, it would also have bad (even dangerous) results. While much of the gourmet and other higher-quality dishes are made sans microwave, a quick search for microwave cooking reveals a fair amount of useful ideas. Some of these are much more difficult with other methods.

    This is also why many of these ideas are worthless - they would require a change in recipes and methodology, or we would get different results.

"My sense of purpose is gone! I have no idea who I AM!" "Oh, my God... You've.. You've turned him into a DEMOCRAT!" -- Doonesbury