I've been writing about food and cookery for a million years, and have always been interested in new ways of cooking, because, well, because I'm a guy. And most guys like innovations, and gadgets. Pathetic, I know. But at least the gadgets I like have a practical use: I use them to cook for friends and family.
But there's a huge difference between gadgets and genuine innovations. A device that it makes it easier to peel garlic qualifies as a gadget – and a pretty useless one, in my view. A piece of kit that enables you to cook faster without loss of quality, and which saves energy into the bargain – that is not a gadget. It's a godsend. And the halogen oven falls into that category.
I had heard about halogen ovens in the USA, where they're pretty popular, and some months ago I decided I had to give them a try. The oven is a large Pyrex-type bowl on a stand, with a lid housing a halogen element and fan. It looked like such a simple, and though it took some getting used to, I pretty well mastered it in around 30 minutes.
Since then, I've been proselytising for halogen. I want to convince everyone that this simple, odd-looking device can revolutionise the way they cook their meals.
The first thing people ask me when I start boring them about halogen ovens is whether they are a microwave oven. The answer is no, though they share the ability to cook very speedily. Microwaves use very short radio waves to cause a rapid movement of certain molecules (mainly water and fat) inside food, and this movement makes the food heat up. The oven itself doesn't produce heat. Halogen ovens produce loads of heat. You can see that from the moment you first turn one on and see the ring of light in the lid. The light comes from a powerful circular filament inside a glass tube, which is filled with inert halogen gas. The lamp powers up to create an instant, intense heat. Some hobs use the same technology to great effect.
Halogen ovens cook far more efficiently than conventional ovens. They reach full heat faster than a conventional oven, largely because of their small size but also because the fan circulates the air inside, distributing heat throughout. And when you cook something close to the element, the oven acts as a turbo-charged grill. Indeed, many dishes cook through a combination of grilling and roasting.
Where can you use one? Anywhere. Any kitchen with a couple of square feet of empty counter space can accommodate a halogen oven. The oven should have a clear space around it, because you don't want to the hot element to be near anything that can burn or melt. You should also make sure there is nothing overhead which would make it hard to remove the lid. Halogen converts need to buy a stand on which you rest the hot lid and a special extending ring which allows you to cook larger items such as whole chickens and joints of meat. But these cost little, and are sometimes included with the oven itself.
Does halogen eliminate the need for a large, built-in oven? If you regularly cook for eight or more, you won't be able to shed the big oven completely. But consider: I've had my halogen oven for nearly a year and I've not used my full-sized oven since. And I've produced meals for six in it without any trouble.
And some people can use the halogen oven as an alternative to a conventional oven. For anyone cooking in a small studio flat, a boat or a caravan, it's a no-brainer. Single people, and couples living on their own, can produce roast dinners or quick midweek suppers in a fraction of the time needed by a larger oven. If you are refitting your kitchen, you might find that you can replace your traditional oven with the halogen option.
So, what to cook in it? It's better to ask what it isn't good for. It roasts beautifully: meat, poultry, vegetables. Large joints take a bit of practice because the heat is higher from the top, but these problems can quickly be overcome with experience. Breads and tarts cook well, and so do simple fruit-based desserts.
And the joy of shortened cooking times really is wonderful. I cook up to two ribs of beef, through a combination of grilling and roasting, in as little as 20 minutes. I think that's pretty impressive. You can also roast a chicken; make a pie; you can make great tomato sauce, or fish stew – and all in 15 or 20 minutes.
You'd think, because of the size of the oven, that it would be hard to get a whole roast dinner out of it. But I abide by the rule that no home cook should be obliged to serve more than one hot dish in any meal. The idea of conjuring everything up at once is a fantasy concocted by Masterchef. The thing to do, I think, is produce a starter at room temperature, such as a terrine cooked under halogen. That should free you up to use the halogen again for some roasted vegetables (served at room temperature) and a hot leg of lamb.
Those with young children might be worried about safety, but there's a clever mechanism in halogen ovens to eliminate the danger. The power snaps off when you lift the handle, which is the only way to take the lid off. And while it can get very smoky inside the oven, especially when the food is being cooked in a grilling position, it never flares into flames – probably because there isn't enough air.
With all that food at a high temperature in a small space, the oven gets dirty – it needs washing once a week, and some would do it every time they use it. Washing the bowl is easy in the sink. Cleaning the lid is more difficult, because the element shouldn't get wet. For best results, wipe with a soapy brush then wipe off. Abrasives are a no-no for the glass, but cleaning a halogen oven is a lot easier than cleaning a conventional oven.
Because of the top-down heat, some foods must be tossed or turned at least once. But you won't need to do it more than four or five times for a dish that cooks in 20 minutes. And if the top of the food is too near to the element, it may brown excessively before the inside is cooked. Using the extending ring or a lowish temperature eliminates that problem.
The best thing of all: halogen cooking is fun. Because the oven is transparent, you can watch the food changing minute by minute. It's an intimate, exciting experience. You'll occasionally find yourself crouched with your nose close to the glass. This is a somewhat addictive form of culinary voyeurism, though it also has the practical advantage of letting you see when something's going wrong. And if you get the hang of things as quickly as I did, that's not likely to be very often.
'80 Recipes For Your Halogen Oven', by Richard Ehrlich (Kyle Cathie, £12,99). To order this book for the special price of £10.99, with free P&P, go to www.independentbooksdirect.co.uk or call 0870 079 8897
Cooking with halogen
* Halogen ovens use infrared technology to cook food up to 60 per cent faster than conventional ovens. As well as being energy efficient, they don’t give the hot and cold spots you get with microwaves. They also create food that tastes as though it’s been cooked, but in an oven, and with a microwave’s speed.
* Halogen ovens can be bought for as little as £30, with one of the main British suppliers, Coopers of Stortford, selling them for around £40. “Turbo” versions, boasting a more powerful fan and heating equipment, as well as associated paraphernalia, such as trays, sell for around double this.
* Cooking with a halogen oven is healthy, too. Their design means that fat drains away. And because they are quite small in size, users are restricted to small portions.
* Some halogen ovens only go up to 200C, but this is not high enough for many foods. If purchasing one for the first time, you should make sure it goes up 250C, to cover the full array of recipes you are likely to want.