In many parts of England baking is spoken of as if it referred to bread alone. I do not want us to consider it in that way, but rather as a means of cooking food of different kinds, such as meat, pastry and puddings, as well as bread. Baking is really but another form of roasting, the difference between the two being that in roasting the meat turns before the fire in the open so that a current of air can play upon it, and in baking the meat lies motionless in a confined space.
There is no doubt that meat roasted before a fire is very much superior to meat baked in the oven. Those who have been long accustomed to the first cannot enjoy the second. They can detect it at once, both by its taste and its smell, and consider it both unpalatable and unwholesome.
The old-fashioned open ranges are certainly very objectionable, for a great many reasons. They consume a great deal of fuel, and they are exceedingly dirty, all saucepans that are put upon the fires becoming so soot that it is scarcely possible for those who have to use them to help being grimy also; and with them food becomes smoky very quickly; but there is no question that with them meat can be roasted to perfection.
We have, however, to do with things as they are, and these open ranges are rapidly becoming things of the past. We may quite expect that in the course of a few years they will be done away with altogether, and on the whole it will be a very good thing. The principal reason why I shall be glad to see close ranges universally used, is that I believe ladies will practice cookery more when they are common, than if it can possibility be expected they will when they cannot cook a mutton chop without blacking themselves and their dress. With closed ranges they can put on an apron and a pair of sleeves, and with their own hands prepare little delicacies for their husbands and fathers; remove the apron, and, without further trouble, take their places at the head of the table, looking as fresh as a summer flower.
And, in addition, they can practice cookery and still keep their hands white and soft. This may, to strong-minded people, seem a unimportant detail, and I do not quite know that I ought to speak of it here, but I may as well confess that I admire soft, white hands, and I think every girl is justified in taking pains to keep hers so. If she could not do this whilst doing useful work, I would certainly say, let your hands go; but this is not always the alternative.
And now for the best way of roasting meat in the oven, or, to speak correctly, baking it. In the more modern closed ranges a special provision is made for ventilating the oven, in order that fresh air may enter and the vapours given off by the meat may be carried away, and so the saturated taste peculiar to baked meat be removed. Meat thus baked in a ventilated oven is generally called roast meat; and it is very nearly, though I cannot say I think it is quite, as good as that which is roasted before the fire.
The same general rules as to hanging meat and basting it will hold good in baking as in roasting. When first the meet is put in, the ventilator should be closed, and the joint should be placed for about five minutes in the hottest part of the oven, in order that the outside may become quickly browned, and so the goodness of the meat may be kept in. After this the ventilator should be opened, and the meat be gently baked till done. The opening of the ventilator will slightly cool the oven. A small vessel containing hot water should be put by the side of the meat in order to keep the air of the oven moist. When the air is dry the meat is more likely to become heard and scorched. Cold water must not, however, be put in, as it would lower the temperature of the oven.
Meat should be placed on a stand in the dripping tin, in order to raise it and prevent its soaking in its own dripping, and thus becoming saturated and disagreeable. Small stands made for the purpose are to be bought for a few pence.
When placing the joint on this stand it is well to put the fat side uppermost in the first instance, in order that the fat may melt and drop down upon the leaner part. If there should be but little fat upon the joint, a piece of kitchen paper that has been thickly spread with dripping should be placed over it to keep it from burning too quickly - of course, printed paper will not do for this. In any case the meat should be turned over two or three times, or it will not be equally cooked.
As to the time that a joint should be baked. When the ventilator is made use of, the same rules may be followed as in roasting before the fire If there is no ventilator in the oven, ten minutes to the pound and ten minutes over will be quite sufficient. As in ordinary roasting, solid meat needs to be cooked longer than thin meat, and white meat longer than red meat. It must be remembered also that cakes and pastry should not be put into the oven when meat is being baked, as the steam t rises from it will be likely to make them heavy.
A very important point in baking is the temperature of the oven. No rules as to the time of cooking can be of the slightest use unless the oven is of the right heat. The very safest way of testing it is to have a thermometer set into the front of the oven and regulate the heat by this. Bakers in Paris and Vienna, who make most delicious bread, never bake it by guess, but are guided by a thermometer. If we have one of these useful articles in our oven door, we only need be careful that the quicksilver shall rise to 300 degrees for baking small articles of puff pastry, to 280 degrees for larger pieces of pastry, such as pies, tarts, etc., and to 240 degrees for cakes and meat. Bread will require 280 degrees of heat to begin with, but this heat should be lowered after the bread has risen.
Not many ovens, however, are provided with thermometers, and therefore we must have some other way of finding out the heat. Ovens are particular concerns. They need to be looked after and managed and understood, and if they are neglected they are sure to revenge the insult. There are so many varieties amongst modern stoves, that the particular kind each has to do with must be studied, or the most carefully mixed cake or the lightest pastry will be "spoilt in the baking". An experienced cook could tell by putting her hand into the oven whether it was of the right temperature; but until we can gain this experience we must adopt some simple test.
Perhaps the easiest way of testing the heat of the oven is to sprinkle a little flour in it. If this should turn black in one minute the oven is too hot. If it should be of a bright brown colour the oven is hot enough for baking. If it should remain uncoloured, the oven is slack.
An oven that is too hot is, however, to be preferred to one that is "slack". It is always easy to put an additional baking sheet underneath, or a strip of paper over what is to be baked; but an oven that is too slow never bakes well. It will make bread and cakes heavy, pastry hard, and meat dry and flavourless.
There is generally one part of the oven that is hotter than the other. I have already said that meat should go into this first, in order to brown the surface quickly; and also should cakes and pastry, and anything that contains flour or any starchy substance. The small starchy grains need to be burst with the heat, and after this is done the mixture can be allowed to bake more slowly. If it is not done the preparation will be heavy.
Bread requires peculiar management, which must be the result of experience. As a rule, brick ovens are to be preferred to iron ones for baking bread, because the heat in them is more equal. Iron ovens, such as are attached to kitchen ranges, quickly become over-heated, which causes the surface of the bread to become hard before the heat has reached the centre of the dough, and this keeps the bread from rising. Therefore, if an iron oven must be used for this purpose, it will be found that small loaves or rolls are more easily baked than large ones.
There is one thing in baking that we must bear in mind, and that is that "an oven will not look after itself". The numbers of carefully prepared delicacies I have seen spoilt through forgetfulness of this simple fact. Only the other day a young friend of mine announced her intention to make some buns. She collected her materials, selected the recipe, mixed the ingredients in the most satisfactory manner, and put her buns into the oven. The whole family was in a state of expectations, when suddenly an odour more strong than agreeable diffused itself through the house. The melancholy fact slowly forced itself upon us. The buns were burning. My friend had forgotten to look after them whilst they were in the oven, and they were all burnt as black as our shoes.
One objection to an oven is that it is not always hot when it is wanted. Those who want to do a little cooking in a hurry and find that the oven is cold and the fire low, may make a substitute for the oven out of a saucepan. Small pieces of meat, poultry, and game are excellent thus "baked in a pan". Take a common iron saucepan (a tinned or an enamelled one would not answer for the purpose). Melt a slice of dripping in it, and rub the meat or bird that is to be cooked all over with dripping. Place it in the pan, put on the lid, and turn it about every two or three minutes till it is equally browned all over. Cover the pan closely, draw it to the side of the fire so that the meat can cook slowly, and turn and baste it frequently. It will be done in about the same time that it would take to cook in an ordinary oven, and few would guess that it had not been dressed as usual.