So you need to make a cake or bake some bread, but you don’t have a full-size oven. How about using a roaster or a rice cooker instead?
It can be done. And while they may not be your top choices, in some countries, these small appliances may be your best options.
The Roaster Oven
In Taiwan, most meals are built around things cooked on top of a burner, rather than in the belly of an oven: There aren’t too many nationals cooking a pot roast or broiling steaks. The Taiwanese aren’t big on sweets, like us Americans, so there’s not a lot of cookie and pie baking either. With great bakeries scattered throughout most cities, there’s little need to whip up a cake on your own. And besides all that, the typical Taiwanese kitchen is pretty small, without room for any “extra” appliances.
Before we moved to Taiwan, we considered our options: Bringing over a Western-style range-oven combo and finding a place for it on a balcony of an apartment that we hadn’t found yet would have been troublesome. Besides that, the oven we had at the time wasn’t worth shipping over. Buying a used oven from another expat family who was leaving would have been unpredictable. And buying a new oven there would have been expensive. In the end, we decided on the roaster-oven option.
Turns out, it worked pretty well. In fact, my wife used ours nearly every day for four years—until it wore out and quit heating up. She used it for cakes, cheesecakes, cookies, pies, dinner rolls, casseroles, and, of course, several types of meat. Probably the trickiest project was an angel food cake, but she met even that challenge. (As I recall, the hardest part wasn’t the baking. It was finding something to invert the pan on, since we didn’t have any glass soda bottles.)
Mostly through trial and error, here are some things that she learned:
- You’ll probably have to leave your food in the roaster longer than the recipe calls for. And lifting the lid to check on your progress releases a lot of heat and adds more time.
- A small metal rack, or something else that lifts up the baking/cooking pan, will keep foods from burning on the bottom. If you don’t have a rack, you can use an upside-down cake pan.
- If you can find a rack with legs, you can cook on two levels, with a pan above and one below.
- It can be difficult to get large pans into and out of the roaster. There’s not a lot of wiggle room, so be extra careful not to burn your hands.
After our roaster gave out, some generous friends bought us a countertop convection oven. We brought it back from the States with our checked baggage, and it worked great for the rest of our time in Taipei. It wasn’t long before we saw a similar oven for sale in a shop near our neighborhood, so if we were to go back to Asia again, we’d probably plan on locating one there.
The Rice Cooker
But what if a roaster oven is out of the question? What if your kitchen countertop space is all full? Or what if you don’t even have a kitchen? Don’t despair. A rice cooker can save the day. And if you’re in Asia, you certainly won’t have any trouble finding one to buy.
If you’d like to find recipes and how-to’s for baking with a rice cooker, just do a search on the Internet. You’ll see that it’s not a problem, as the even the simplest model can bake cakes, cheesecakes, and breads.
I’ve never baked with one myself, but here’s some bits of advice I’ve gathered from the sites I looked at:
- Most recipes will work in a rice cooker without being modified, but you may need to cut back on the size. Cakes won’t cook evenly if they are too deep, and breads will work best if they’re no more than a few inches thick.
- Bread will need to be flipped over several times during the baking process so that it won’t burn underneath.
- If it takes more than one cooking cycle to complete a recipe, then let the cooker cool down and start it again. Another option is to wedge something under the switch to prevent it from flipping to “warm.” Be careful with this second method. You’re bypassing the cooker’s automatic shutoff, so it can get too hot if left unattended, and it might shorten the life of your cooker.
Of course, one way to make things easier is to buy a modern rice cooker with a “bake” or “cake” setting. (I didn’t know those existed until I started writing this.) But if you’re old school in your rice-cooker preferences, you’ll go with a more traditional style.
Roger Ebert, the Pulitzer Prize-winning movie critic, was one such devotee of the simple elegance of the basic “Pot.” In fact he was such a fan that he wrote a book dedicated to its multiple uses: The Pot and How to Use It: The Mystery and Romance of the Rice Cooker. In it he advises,
Have nothing to do with anything “Micom Programmable.” Nothing to do with words like “Neuro Fuzzy.” No dials or “settings.” Nothing fancy. You will only cost yourself money and mess things up. If a rice cooker comes with more than two pages of instructions, you’ve overspent. I am saving us money. What you want is your basic Pot with two speeds: Cook and Warm. Maybe it will say it in Japanese. You’ll figure it out.
Though Ebert doesn’t stray into the realm of baking, he does enthusiastically praise the rice cooker for its abilities in preparing such things as vegetables, stews, soups, sauces, and oatmeal.
And the Crockpot, Too
I was about to finish up this post when I had a thought: I wonder if you can bake with a crockpot (slow cooker). Sure enough, you can do that, too.
I don’t have any experience with this—cooking or eating—but I can point you to a couple sites that give some details. The first one is from Better Homes and Gardens, entitled “Easy Slow Cooker Dessert Recipes.” There you’ll find directions on making cheesecake, pudding cake, brownies, and cobbler, along with the kind of almost-too-good-to-be-true photos you see in magazines like . . . well . . . Better Homes and Gardens.
The second is from Carroll Pellegrinelli at About.com—”Crockpot Baking: Making Breads and Desserts in the Slowcooker.” If you don’t have a slow cooker with a baking insert (again, who knew there was such a thing?), you can use a coffee can, paper towels, and aluminum foil. It’s not fast—it is a slow cooker—but, according to Pellegrinelli, it’s easy.
So . . . what else can you use a roaster oven, rice cooker, and crockpot for? Or what else can you use to bake a cake? Well, that’s up to you.
Try. Fail. Try again.
And remember these two important phrases: “Necessity is the mother of invention,” and “You don’t know how far you can go until you’ve gone too far.”
PS: It Ain’t Over Yet
A friend, former coworker, and long-time missionary to Taiwan, Bev Skiles, commented below that she’s used a rice cooker for cakes and a crockpot for bread. Not only that, but she’s baked cakes in an electric skillet and in cookware on top of the stove. Want more info? Check out these two sites from eHow: “How Do I Bake Bread in an Electric Skillet?” and “How to Bake in an Electric Frying Pan.”
Thanks to Bev for her input. She’s been a great help to expats in Taiwan for many years, showing them how to adjust their Western recipes to Eastern kitchens and cupboards. She even helped helped put together a cookbook in 1981, “Tips ‘n’ Treats” on Taiwan. If I’d looked in my wife’s copy before I wrote this post, I would have seen several recipes for baking with a rice cooker. I should have consulted her as an expert.
(Roger Ebert, The Pot and How to Use It: The Mystery and Romance of the Rice Cooker, Kansas City, MO: Andrews McMeel, 2010)
[photos: “Currant Bread Made in a Ricecooker,” by Dennis Kruyt, used under a Creative Commons license; “Westinghouse Roaster,” by Julie Weatherbee, used under a Creative Commons license; “Rice Cooker, Peking House, Dudley Square, Roxbury,” by Planet Takeout, used under a Creative Commons license; “Rival Crock-Pot,” by George Kelly, used under a Creative Commons license]