Sunday, January 22, 2012

Home baking in Japan, and a few tips.

Meet my oven. It's a diminutive 29cm x 36cm x 20cm box, much smaller than British or American 50-60cm cube ovens, but a step in size and power above the previous all in one microwave/grill/oven I had before.
Crumpet batter tests proofing atop the oven
Home baking isn't as popular over here, and oven-use in general isn't central to Japanese home cooking, which tends to use stove-tops, grills, toaster-ovens, rice cookers and pickling to prepare food. Not at all to say that there aren't people in Japan who are really into baking - for those who love it, it isn't uncommon to have a bread making machine at home, to have a full range of utensils and cake tins to make extensive use of even the smallest multifunctional machine. Commercially too, some of the best baking in the world is available here, especially in Tokyo. My favourite bread is from a gem of a Japanese bakery called 'Nemo' in Musashi Koyama, my second fave is Maison Kaiser with their Roppongi Midtown branch.

For my first 8 or so years in Japan I had the regular kind of fairly low-spec mini microwave/grill/electric oven, with emphasis on the 'microwave' bit. I attempted all kinds of things from the world's tiniest roast chicken, roasting veggies, fairy cakes, biscuits, Christmas mincemeat.. and everything took forever! It seemed that the little machine just couldn't get hot enough to do a good job with whatever I gave it, and all recipes took double the time in the recipes. If you're in this position and aren't about to buy a slightly more powerful model, then make sure you preheat the oven well before attempting to bake, be prepared to use a higher temperature than specified in the recipe, and be ready to wait.

Stone oven option, steam baking, microwave, grill & oven. Woo!
I can definitely recommend my current type of oven as a nice compromise of price and effectiveness, if you're not about to buy a western-sized oven. It's actually a few years old, passed on from a friend, and so one of the current versions looks like this. I've roasted pork and succeeded in raising great crackling, made all kinds of cakes and bread, and recently looked close enough to notice that it even has a "stone oven" type feature for pizza and breads, when you use the floor of the oven. Wow.
It has two positions for the shelf to rest on, but there isn't enough space to use two shelves at once. Due to the small interior dimensions, there is need to split up some recipes into two batches or make half amounts. I also find that I have the opposite problem to my old oven in that power + small interior space = much greater heat! It's very easy to burn something on the top, or outside and for it to be undercooked in the middle. I invested in an oven thermometer, as the oven was behaving much hotter than the temperature I had selected, and sure enough my 180 degrees centigrade was closer to 200.

Here's a summary of tips for when you're baking at home with a small electric oven:

  • Get an oven thermometer. Tokyu Hands has a range of thermometers, only one of them when I visited was suitable for putting inside the oven. You need to make sure the dial goes up to around 250 degrees centigrade. Here is a picture of the one I got. It's a bit slow to react, but eventually shows me the actual temperature of the inside of the oven. Many thermometers are for inserting into food to check internal temperature (also a great idea to have one of these, for when you're making cooked marzipan, caramel, testing the inside of roast meat, and bread), these would be no good for putting into your oven. Nissin didn't have any internal oven thermometers when I looked.
  • Try to work out the best time to preheat your oven, so that it won't be waiting around too long getting hotter while you finish preparing the food. My oven doesn't seem to be very good at regulating itself if I keep it waiting, and takes about 15 minutes to pre-heat, and so I resist the urge to obey the recipes that read "Step 1. preheat the oven" and try to wait until I'm almost ready to use it.
  • If your oven tends to the hot-side, despite selecting a lower temperature, you can prevent the top of something burning by draping foil over the top of it at any point during cooking. I've done this from the beginning, taking it off towards the end of cooking in order to brown nicely, and the opposite way round too when I see something is starting to brown too quickly. If you're making a cake you can also use a layer of baking paper to line the sides of the cake tin, making a rim of parchment that sticks up slightly over the top of the tin. Some long-cooking recipes such as fruitcake recommend wrapping brown paper around the outside of the tin, like a jacket. Finally, dark-coloured, matt bakeware are more likely to burn the edges of your food than shiny and light coloured tins.

I'll play my mincemeat: slow cooked for hours in a toaster oven when living in Saitama - can you raise me any tales of your own intrepid kitchen adventures, making inappropriate dishes in less than ideal conditions?


  1. While in Nagoya, during my study abroad days, I tried to make a birthday cake for a friend, using a toaster oven. We didn't have a pan so I molded an unused ramen tin and baked the cake mix in portions. It was a huge mess and started smoking, so I had to bring my toaster oven up to the roof and continue there. There were tears involved. :) It was a big hot mess, but once a friend and I lumped it together and decorated it, it turned out quite well!

  2. Molding your own cake tins, now that's dedication. Rooftop 'extreme baking' I love it! :) Glad it turned out great in the end!

  3. Do you know where can I purchase heart shape chiffon pan in Japan around Yokohama area ? What type of shop should I go to ?

  4. I'm not all that familiar with Yokohama and that is quite a specialty item and so I would probably order it online. Do a search for シフォンケーキ ハート型 on Amazon: ( )

    If you want to look before you buy and don't mind a trip to Tokyo, then your best bet is Kappabashi where you can find anything if you look long enough :)

    A few other baking supply shops listed in this post too:

    Good luck!