Size Isn’t Everything, Or Is It?

5 February 2012

As an INTP, I frequently find it frustrating that many things in this world seem to have been designed by committee in the worst sense of the word, rather than by someone pofessionally trained in Design, Engineering, or Architecture. The latest annoyance which has captured my attention is my kitchen, in particular, the sizes and dimensions thereof. I am not speaking of the fact that, being a person who is well above the average height of a human adult, it is a given that the standard heights of work surfaces are inevitably going to be an ill fit with my body. No, I am speaking of more fundamentally inscrutable dimensions.

I have never been a fan of the metric system, despite the fact that all too many of my more mathematically and scientifically minded colleagues are drawn like moths to the flame of the convenient Base-10 arithmetic embodied in that system. The difficulty I have with the metric system is that it bears little to no relationship with the human body. The metric system is based on arbitrarily selected dimensions that have no physical relationship to the state of the Universe. At some point, a Frenchman decided to create a new system of measurement based on a unit called a “metre”, and set the length of that metre as one ten-millionth the distance from the Equator to the North Pole, on a line running through Paris, as the French are wont to insist upon.

The systems which this metric system replaced were by and large, based on measurements that had some relationship to the human body. We call these “customary units” and they have been standardized to various quantities in different societies such that they reflect the nature of the population of those societies to a great extent. The metric system can make no such claim. In a similar fashion , the measurements by which we build and operate our kitchen really have very few significant relationships to the needs of the human body, and appear to have been selected more on the basis of the convenience to manufacturers presented by a system of cabinet measurements based on increments of three inches, at least here in the US. The strength of the US market, of course, is such that it exerts wide influence around the world and other markets often comply with Usamerican standards, or feel compelled to manufacture two completely different lines of equipment to satisfy Usamerican demands.

As a result of this system of kitchen cabinet design, kitchen appliance manufacturers tend to manufacture major appliances in sizes which comport with these cabinets. This means that the vast majority of residential cooktops, ranges, and ovens are all manufactured to fit within the space that would normally be occupied by a 30″ cabinet, with certain cheaper models intended for rental apartment kitchens sized to fit a 24″ space. No one really knows why these two dimensions were settled upon, save that a 30″ wide oven is perhaps the narrowest oven in which one can cook a large turkey in the Usamerican Thanksgiving holiday tradition.

Standard 30" Residential Oven

One overlooked consequence of the selection of the 30″ wide cabinet and the realities of the laws of thermodynamics is that the available interior space of most ovens is approximately 18″ deep by 24″ wide. Because the margins of this spaces are often occluded by the upturned edges of racks and other impedimentia, as well as the need to maintain good air circulation for the purposes of convection while cooking, this means that the maximum available footprint for cooking is generaly about 16″ x 22″. Sounds simple, right? So why don’t ovenware manufacturers seems to account for this when designing their wares, and what relationships if any, do the sizes of their subsequent dishes bear to the appetites of the average human. The answer is, of course, very little, if any at all.

That said, we are, at least for the time being stuck with our standard 30″ cabinet, bar larger ovens that may be used in commercial kitchens or those ovens which are designed to look like commercial unit, but are really just substandard residential units gussied up with an exhorbitant price tag. Before you consider buying one of these, I would highly recommend you investigate the reliability rating of these units. You may be shocked to find that your $7K range is less reliable than a $700 dollar unit from a mass-market retailer.

Back to our ovenware! The largest thing I am likely to cook in an oven happens, of course, to be a Thanksgiving turkey. In my case, I prefer to spatchcock my turkey for even and efficient cooking. This involves removing the backbone of the turkey, breaking the breastbone, and laying the turkey flat in a roasting pan without a roasting rack. This past Thanksgiving, I cooked a 16 lb (as packaged) turkey in 2 hours, and it was perfectly done all the way through without drying out the breast meat. This was done, mind you, without brining the bird. The process could not be simpler or more foolproof. I laid my spatchcocked bird on top of a shallow bed of mirepoix vegetables, and roasted it for 2 hours at 375 degrees F. Perfect.

There was just one little catch. There isn’t a roasting pan in my house large enough to sit that bird flat. Fortunately, the largest pan we hapen to have is somewhat bigger than the average roasting pan, measuring. If you look at most high-end cookware lines, you will find that their roasting pans all seem to measure about the same. For the famous All-Clad Stainless Roasting Pan with Rack, that size is 13″ x 16″. For the famous Emile Henry line of French pottery, it is about 12″ x 18″. This is absolutely fine, even for a large turkey, assuming you are going to roast it whole, but once you spatchcock, you’ll never go back, and in order to spatchcock, you’re going to need to bring out the big guns.

All-Clad Stainless Roasting Pan

What, you ask, could be a bigger gun than an All-Clad heavy-gauge multi-ply stanless steel roaster? These things, after all, cost over 160 USD from Amazon! Well, funny you should ask. While the All-Clad roaster is certainly among the finest pieces of cookware known to humankind, these fact is, you don’t really need a heavy gauge pan to successfully roast a bird. Another little secret of the culinary world is that commercial kitchens don’t usually use cookware the quality of All-Clad, because the stuff is just too damned expensive and heavy to lug around for 12 hours at a clip. Fortunately, the Internet comes to the rescue of the home cook!

Because commercial cooking is all about efficiency *and* quality, commercial ovens are made in a range of sizes, many of which are far larger than the standard sorts of ovens available on the residential market, and the Internet now allows us to access the commercial marketplace to find larger the usual equipment. The pan in which I cooked my Thanksgiving turkey was just large enough that I didn’t feel like things were going to automatically turn into a disaster. It measures about 13″ x 19″. The funny thing is, this pan is actually too large for even a very large turkey, yet it is not quite big enough for a medium-sized, spatchcocked turkey. This pan is, by the way, a thin gauge carbon steel pan that performs admirably at its task.

Still, a proper pan would have done that much better. Luckily for me, there is a commercial cookware company called Johnson-Rose which just happens to make a steel roasting pan in the 16″ x 22″ x 3.5″ size, the maximum size that will fit into my oven and still allow for convection currents, and just the right size for a spatchcocked turkey. This pan costs about 52 USD through Amazon.

Johnson-Rose 16" x 22" Steel Roasting Pan

If you have ever attempted to cook for a large number of people with only one oven, scratch that…if you have ever attempted to cook a meal for a family of four to six people in a kitchen that contains only one oven, you will know that compromises often have to be made, and even plans for the perfect side dish will often have to be scrapped in favor of something else because you just don’t have the space/time/temperature in your oven to have that side dish cooking concurrently with your main dish. Perhaps you hae also found yourself in the position of needing to make a double batch of a particular dish, but without the over realestate to do it. You will know that cooking things on multiple layers in the oven will often require drasticaly rethinking cooking times and temperatures, as well as the juggling dance from top to bottom shelf, in an effort to get things to cook evenly.

If any of the above sounds familiar to you, then I feel almost certain that at some point, you have probably scratched your head in bewilderment at a regime which produced such a thing as a 13×9 baking dish. If you haven’t done this, let me explain. A 13×9 baking dish is too large to fit two of them side-by-side in any dimension of a standard home oven without cutting off airflow in at least one direction, if you can even get them in the oven side-by-side in the first place. You certainly aren’t going to get two 12×18 or 13×16 pans in there, if you find yourself needing to go with two turkeys at once!

If we take it as a given that we want to leave a 1″ air gap around all sides of our pans, then we can fit the following sizes of pans in our standard 18×24 oven interior:

One full-size pan at 16″ x 22″
Two half-size pans at 10.5″ x 16″
Four quarter-size pans at 7.5″ x 10.5″

Given that this is the case, why then do not cookware manufacturers make pans in these sizes, as opposed to the oddball sizes they do make? Goddess only knows. To make matters even worse, the dimensions I specify here are exterior dimensions, and cookware manufacturers often specify by interior dimensions, leaving out the widths of handles and the like. One famous brand of ovenware that I use myself very often is Pyrex. Originally made by Corning Glass, but now sold off to another company, the Pyrex line has for many years consisted of the following three sizes, 7″ x 11″, 9″ x 13″, and 10″ x 15″. That 10″ x 15″ pan actually measures 10.75″ x 17.5″ overall. Anchor Hocking, another similarly long-lived brand of glass cookware, sells a pan marked 10.5″ x 14.75″, but which is reality measures 11″ x 17″. As you can see, both of these pans is slightly larger than the maximum dimensions of what I would call a “half-size” pan.

Pyrexware 4 Quart Baking Dish

To complicate matters even further, bakers often refer to “full sheet” and “half sheet” pans, which have their own system of measurements, usually 18″ x 26″ for “full sheet”, 13″ x 18″ for “half sheet”, and 9.5″ x 13″ for “quarter sheet”. Never you mind the fact that the math doesn’t add up, they just don’t fit in a residential oven!

Now that we have a better grasp on pan sizes, here is how I like to think of them:

Full Size is 16″ x 22″, fits a spatchcocked turkey, or two whole turkeys in a pinch.
Three-Quarter Size is about 12-13″ x 16-18″, or the size of most large roasting pans for the residential market. These will comfortably roast a whole large turkey.
Half Size is 10.5 x 16″, and will be perfect for a spatchcocked chicken. You can have two of these cooking at once in one layer of a standard residential oven.
Three-Eighths Size is about 9″ x 13″, is the standard size for a sheet cake recipe, and will comfortably roast a whole chicken.
Quarter Size is 7.5″ x 10.5″, and makes a nice side dish like a gratin. You can get four of these going in one layer of your oven.

As I mentioned with the glass bakeware, above, dimensions will vary ever so slightly from brand to brand, and the same is true of ovens, so it is worth your while to measure your oven exactly, taking into account all interior obstructions, and only then go looking for the exact right size pans for your kitchen. Take the time, and you will be rewarded for years on end with the increased efficiency in your cooking routine. You will come to greatly appreciate this the next time you’re serving twelve or more at your holiday table.

Enjoy the Big Game…XOXO, Gemma

The Seal of Yin-Haan