British Food Writer Diana Henry Says to Embrace Hands-Off Oven Cooking When Preparing Weeknight Meals
If the oven isn't a major player in your cooking game, renowned British food writer and author Diana Henry will likely change your mind. Her book, From the Oven to the Table ($23.99, amazon.com), focuses on oven-based recipes that, as Henry says, "look after themselves." What's more, after years of leaning on the oven to make delicious dinners for her family, Henry has become an expert on the method.
Why Oven Cooking Reigns Supreme
"Once you close that oven door, it [becomes] 'hands off' cooking," Henry points out. "Of course, other methods are faster and relatively easy—it doesn't take much time to cook pasta—but I love that you don't have to pay much attention once dishes are in the oven." Even better, oven cooking (think: baking and roasting) is extremely versatile, as you can use the technique for basic weeknight dinners and impressive weekend dishes, like whole birds, fish, and legs of lamb, says Henry.
With the right equipment in your stash, oven cooking will take you far. "First of all, it's good to have a range of sheet pans or roasting tins of different sizes," explains Henry. That's because keeping your recipe's ingredients in a single (yet snug) layer is key. Otherwise, if the "ingredients are plonked on top of each other, they steam instead of roast," she explains. Similarly, if the ingredients are loosely arranged, the juices will simply run off and burn in a puddle, she explains. By keeping a variety of dish sizes on hand, you'll always have the right vessel for the job.
If you're new to roasting tins, you might want to add one to your rotation. "We don't have sheet pans in the UK, which is why I have always used roasting tins," explains Henry. "For me, they are preferable to sheet pans as they're more solid. You can take a handsome roasting tin to the table, but sheet pans don't look as presentable—you really need to move the food to a warm serving dish." Henry also dubs her round, shallow cast-iron casserole dish as an "indispensable" item. The dish, which is about 12 inches (30 centimeters) wide, is the most-used product in her kitchen. A dish with a lid is best, she adds, as it will give you the option of using it with or without a cover.
"Because the cooking method is so simple, you can only keep producing interesting recipes if you think about [additional ingredients] and flavors," says Henry. These elements, as she notes in her book, are the key to enhancing foods like chicken thighs or salmon fillets. Need some inspiration? In her cupboard, Henry stocks a range of dried goods (like chili and wild mushrooms) and natural sweeteners (like honey and maple syrup). She also relies on a range of canned and jarred ingredients, like olives, anchovies, preserved lemons, canned coconut milk, and tahini.
Sure, cooking dinner in the oven is easy, but it still requires some mindfulness. This is especially true when it comes to determining the actual temperature of your oven, which can vary widely between appliances. According to Henry, most domestic ovens are unable to reach the temperature on the dial or screen, while others cook at a higher temperature than the appliance indicates. All of this to say is that you should get a good thermometer and check your oven's temperature. If it's off, Henry recommends getting it recalibrated by a specialist. "[It] sounds extreme, but you will have a less stressful time cooking if you do this," she notes. "Temperature is crucial." Another thing to consider is the size of the dish's components, notes Henry. "Have you bought a particularly large chicken thighs, for example, or an eggplant that's smaller than usual?" Take these factors into accounts, advises Henry, and adjust your cooking time as necessary.
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