How Electric Ovens and Stoves Work
Some of life's best moments happen around the stove. I remember my Grandma stirring big pots of tomato sauce, the aroma filling the house and making mouths water. I love it when my wife pulls a juicy meatloaf from the oven, or when a fresh loaf of bread gets sliced. An oven can warm the heart and soul just as much as the food it cooks.
I've found throughout the course of life, that cooking and baking are more like tasty science experiments. Baking, especially, is an exact science. Whatever the recipe says has to be followed to a tee, or it just won't work. So, how in the world does your oven know when to stop heating up so you can put your cake mix in at 350 degrees? Today, we're going to take a closer look into the world of electric ovens and stoves and how they work. But first, some quick history.
First built in the 1880s, the first real electric stove didn't see the light of day until 1893 at the Chicago World's Fair, where it was displayed in a fully electric kitchen. Due to the fact that the technology was new and still unstable, and the fact that many towns hadn't yet been electrified, it took a while to catch on. But by the 1930s, the electric stove began to be the stove of choice for most consumers, replacing gas stoves.
Today, there are more oven types than ever. From convection to induction ovens, and glass to ceramic rangetops, the choices are limited only by your pocketbook!
Electric stoves, for the most part, all have the same primary parts. They all have a thermostat, bake and broil elements, burners, a clock/timer, and a light switch for the light inside the oven.
Most stoves have a rangetop with four burners on it. Usually two are larger and two are smaller. They are shaped in a coil and when turned on, they become extremely hot. The burners are controlled by dials on the stove's control panel. They are usually very well marked to display which dial operates which burner. For safety reasons, you usually have to push the dial in before you can turn it. When turned, the dial sends electricity to the burner, causing it to heat. The way the controller works is similar to the way a dimmer switch affects a lightbulb: the higher you turn the dial, the more electricity gets sent to the burner, and the less you turn it, the less hot it gets. It's all a matter of current control. Depending on the type of stove you have, the burners may be wired directly to the controller, or they may be the type that have connectors on them, which can be pulled out of the terminal.
Open the door of the oven, and you'll see some baking racks, a bottom element, and a top element. The bottom element is the bake element, and is controlled by the thermostat. The thermostat dial is usually the biggest dial - it's usually in the center of the control panel, and it's the one with all the temperatures written around it. On the back side of the thermostat control is a long thin copper wire that leads into the cooking area of the oven. That is the actual temperature gauge. Once the oven gets to the designated temperature, the gauge signals the thermostat to shut off. When the oven loses enough heat, it signals the thermostat to turn back on, to keep the temperature regulated. From an electrical standpoint, the bake element heats up the same way the surface burner does.
The broiler element is the top element in the oven. This element gets extremely hot, very quickly. It's used to brown or blacken whatever's being cooked. Most oven manufacturers suggest leaving the oven door cracked open when the broil element is in use. The broiler is also controlled by the thermostat; however, there's no temperature control on it - it just gets as hot as it can get. Therefore, it's very dangerous if you forget that it's on. The thermostat will have a setting for broil. There will usually be a click sound when you turn the dial to it, and often a red light on the control panel will also signal that it's on.
The clock/timer on a stove can be either digital or mechanical. A digital usually has a set of buttons next to it to set the time, and one button should say "timer." Pressing this button allows you to set the length of cooking time you desire, and when it times out, it will buzz to notify you. Mechanical clocks have three dials - the current time, the start time, and the stop time. If you want the cake to bake for 30 minutes, line the start dial up with the current time, and the stop dial 30 minutes from that.
The light switch is just a simple switch that turns on the interior light in the oven. The light bulb inside is usually a 40 watt appliance lightbulb designed to withstand the heat. It usually has a glass cover over it to prevent liquids from hitting it, and in case the bulb should break. You wouldn't want any glass with your pork chop, would you?
On the thermostat control, there may also be a setting for "self clean" if you have a self cleaning oven. There will also be a door lock mechanism on the front of the stove to ensure nobody opens it while cleaning. Self cleaning designs vary among ovens, but in many cases, the thermostat kicks both the bake and broil elements on at full blast. This literally turns all the baked-on debris to dust, thus cleaning the oven. However, it's not really clean until you clean out the dust! The locking mechanism cannot be unlocked until the self clean is completed, and those times also vary among manufacturers.
Virtually all of the wiring on a stove is on the backside and is covered by a steel covering. This should never be taken off, unless you need to troubleshoot a problem. Before you do, however, you should read our easy to follow repair guide. It covers some of the more common problems with electric stoves and how to fix them without calling in reinforcements.
Looking to purchase a new oven? Check out our Ovens Buyer's Guide.
Dave Donovan is a freelance copywriter living in Atco, N.J. An electrician for 15 years, an injury forced him to pursue his true passion - writing.