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I have noticed that English-related cultures use an oven much more than say French or Spanish or German cultures. My question is specifically for stews. In English recipes you read often that putting the pan in the oven afters searing the meat on the hob "cooks the meat more evenly", if there is any explanation at all.

I dont understand that. Meat in a liquid just below 100 celsius is, well meat in a liquid, no matter where the heat comes from. I experimented and I personally did not taste any difference. But maybe I an wrong? Does anyone have an explanation why an oven is used to make stews for taste improvement?

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The major difference between stove cooking and oven cooking is that on the stove you will have a hot spot on the bottom and a cooler spot on the top, and with an oven the heat comes from all sides equally.

When making a stew where the meat is in pieces submerged in liquid then you are absolutely right that there's no major difference in the flavor or texture of the end result as the circulation of the liquid due to heat imbalance and movement of the pieces within the liquid will cook things evenly. Where an oven gives a better result is when the ingredients do not have the opportunity to move around, for instance a big chunk of meat, where you will have one side hotter and one cooler for a long period of time as you will end up with one side more cooked than the other. In an oven you would get more even heat and more even cooking of the large piece of meat.

The only exception to the above is when you are going for a long slow cook. I have found that I don't get good heat and ingredient circulation on the stove when the temperature gets too low, I end up with overcooked ingredients on the bottom and undercooked on the top unless I stir often, which is why I will use the oven in these cases.

There are other advantages to oven cooking:

  • Better heat control: you can set the oven to a specific temperature and have it be consistent over long periods of time, with a stovetop it's much more guesswork
  • Frees your stove for other things: stews tend to be in big pots which take up a lot of space, cooking in your oven means more stovetop space

As for energy efficiency of stove versus oven there are many variables to account for: energy source, pan size and material, ambient temperature, etc. My instinct is that the oven would be more energy efficient as it contains the heat more while with a stove you lose lots of heat to your environment. I have no documentary evidence to support that.

  • So you agree with me that for meat stews, there is no culinary reason to use an oven? It is pure cultural variation? Temp control... it is very easy to bring a stew to a mere simmering and keep it like that. Easier to check too.. And it is much less energy consuming, I suppose? – Marc Luxen Feb 17 '16 at 12:02
  • I agree there's no culinary reason, but not that it's a cultural thing. I see very few stews calling for oven cooking in American or British cooking traditions. For the rest see my edits. – GdD Feb 17 '16 at 13:42
  • @MarcLuxen : To explain the problem w/ low heat on a stovetop : the heat enters from the top, but evaporation cools the surface, so there's always a temperature gradient through the pot ... it's just more significant at low heat. (this is why sous vide rigs keep the water moving, so there's better mixing & a more even temperature throughout). – Joe Feb 17 '16 at 15:36
  • Mmmm, it never mattered in any of sthe stews I have eaten or made. I think this temp gradient is only a few degrees, at most, I ll try to measure it, but hardly think this an culinary argument FOR using an oven, is it? – Marc Luxen Feb 17 '16 at 16:29
  • @ GgD I see big differences in oven use, also for stews. In recipes, and in actual use as well. – Marc Luxen Feb 17 '16 at 17:12
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Besides what GdD mentioned on the science behind the benefits of oven cooking, there's also a cultural/historical component.

In some regions, homes didn't have ovens -- only the village bakery had one. To cook stews and other slow cooked meals, villagers would take their assembled dish to the baker, and have it put into the cooling oven after the morning's goods for sale were done.

This would also free up a housewife from tending a pot all day, so that she could get other chores done (eg, go down to the river to wash clothes).

As this requires making two trips to the bakery with considerable time between, I would suspect that this would have been more likely in urban areas, and not done by those on homesteads/farms further from the village.

  • Also worth noting -- I remember a TV chef mentioning this years ago ... I think it was Wolfgang Puck, who is originally from Austria. (but he might've been cooking w/ someone else at the time). I also want to say that he made a dough to press around the rim of the pot and where the knob attached to the lid to minimize evaporation. – Joe Feb 17 '16 at 15:46
  • Yes, that is very common in France, it is called Pâte morte, dead dough. But that is not oven-related. You can use it on the hob as well. – Marc Luxen Feb 17 '16 at 16:25
  • but how doess that explain a difference in the use of ovens for stews etc.? – Marc Luxen Feb 17 '16 at 16:31
  • @MarcLuxen : I'm explaining why a culture/region may have developed & favored oven-based stew recipes. Often the reasons that people cite for why something is being done a certain way is simply bogus conjecture / justification after the fact ... like the 'seals in the juices' claim for searing meat, when it actually results in more moisture loss. – Joe Feb 17 '16 at 21:02
  • "joe yes I understand that. But to my knowledge, all european cultures used a baker-system, so this explanation cant explain differences between those cultures regarding using ovens. – Marc Luxen Feb 17 '16 at 21:09

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