Mr. Henry likes to get the best. Failing to get the best, he prefers to do without. Back in the 1970’s when fine wine was scarce and expensive, for example, he opted for a libation more dependably available and cheaper, namely, whiskey – Maker’s Mark sour mash bourbon, to be precise. (Oh, the corn. He shudders to remember it now.)
Over the weekend in Florida he saw his first AGA cooker. It was beautiful, more beautiful than the Jaguar XK-E, more beautiful than Gong Li. He rushed up to its enameled cast iron surface and promptly burned his fingers.
The AGA cooker, you see, always remains hot. You fire it up and leave it on…..forever. It has no knobs or switches. Designed in 1920 by a blind Swedish Nobel-prize winning physicist intent on alleviating household drudgery for his long-suffering wife (you know the type), the AGA is ideal for a farmhouse in Upper Scandihoovia where the heat stays on all summer but awkward, and hugely wasteful, for a southern clime like Florida.
Manufactured in England, today the AGA has become the signature appliance of the British upper-crust über foodie. Each oven remains perpetually at its given temperature – 475˚, 350˚, and 175˚ respectively – with two griddles, one at a constant 800˚, the other at a constant 400˚. To effectively make use of this antique system a cook must learn how to shuffle pots from hot to warm.
If you want to make breakfast muffins, the thing is wonderful. You don’t have to wait for your oven to reach temperature. Bread bakes to perfection. Toast on the griddle is especially delicious.
The price, however, is gargantuan. The elegant four-oven model costs more than $15,000.
Price notwithstanding, in your covetous heart of hearts don’t you want the best oven money can buy? No. It’s a con. Like designer luggage, the AGA is an indulgence best left unfulfilled.
Four years ago when Mrs. Henry decided to renovate their kitchen she quickly concluded that a Wolf or Viking professional range was simply too big for household needs. Although the Thermidor had its attractions, the Dacor 30” gas range in stainless steel finish won the day. Its cast iron range top is sturdy, handsome, and easy to clean. The convection oven (used principally to brown baked goods) works well to eliminate hot spots. Its most important feature, however, one used almost daily, is the ceramic radiant heat broiler. Fish is cooked perfectly in 10-12 minutes. Asparagus browns in half that time.
A two-oven kitchen, convenient if you routinely serve state dinners at the White House, is for most people a waste of money and space. One oven, one refrigerator, and one LARGE kitchen sink are all any family kitchen needs.
In truth the choice of oven is not all that critical. The cook’s capabilities are more important. If you use an oven thermometer, you may ignore the readings on your oven’s own thermometer, readings which are often misleading because temperature varies from front to back and from side to side within the oven. Moreover, if you cook in an enameled cast iron dutch oven pot, you can achieve the highest quality braised meat dishes in a perfectly ghastly old oven like the one that graced the Henry’s apartment when they bought it, an avocado green contraption they swore would be out on the street in minutes but which gave yeoman service for 20 years.