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Efficiency is the name of the game.

By David McCann
February 23, 2021
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I've always been fascinated reading books and watching food history shows that talk about earlier civilizations that made use of the heat remaining in ovens after the main cooking is done. This was mostly a way to maximize the use of precious fuel, such as wood, by cooking multiple dishes in the remnants of the day's fire. For example, American colonists would put a pot of beans in the dying embers of a fire overnight, thus cooking them without the need for more wood.

This got me thinking. While I may not be cooking in a fireplace, I do use my oven a lot. Might there be things that I could "passively" cook while my main dish is cooking? All it would take would be paying attention to timing and possibly adjusting temperatures. Could things that asked for higher heat than I was using be adjusted to a longer cooking time at a lower heat? Or, conversely, a short period at a higher heat?

So I started making lists of things that I believed could be cooked "passively": heads of garlic wrapped in foil, Roma tomatoes sliced and placed on a parchment lined tray to "dry," beets wrapped in foil, some vegetables that needed to be used up quickly (that I thought roasting might save), some raw nuts, etc. And the experiments began.

Many things on my list seemed to require an oven at 400°F. This was a non-starter for me because few things I cook in the oven require the same temperature. But a lot requires 350°F. So, between research and some trial and error, I discovered that as little as 10-15 extra minutes at the lower temperature would give me the same roasted texture and flavor I was looking for. 

Here's my partial list (times are approximate, you'll need to check for doneness):

  • Heads of garlic wrapped foil: 350°F for about 55 minutes
  • Broccoli florets (on a sheet pan): 350°F for about 30 minutes
  • Cauliflower florets (on a sheet pan): 350°F for about 35-40 minutes
  • Carrots (on a sheet pan): 350°F for about 30 minutes
  • Beets (wrapped in foil): 350°F for about 70 minutes
  • Nuts (on a sheet pan): 350 for 10-12 minutes, stirring frequently

If you happen to be cooking something at 250°F, you can "sun dry" sliced plum tomatoes on a parchment lined sheet pan for about 3-3 ½  hours. And if your oven happens to be at 400°F, everything on the list above will work just as well with cooking times reduced by 10-15 minutes.

All I mean to suggest by these ideas is that it sometimes feels wasteful to use the oven for just one thing. With a little thought and planning, we can emulate our ancestors and be just a bit more efficient. And doing will give you ready-to-use ingredients to build better meals with in the days to come.