Living With A Four Oven Aga

We installed a four-oven Aga in August of 2001.  For those not in the know, the Aga is a unique sort of cooking appliance; rather than having distinct heating elements with individual controls it has a single modestly-sized burner assembly buried in its guts which is always on.  The stove itself is a basically a huge thermal mass (and I do mean mass; the thing has to be assembled in place and  while there are no point loads you'd do well to have an engineer or architect decide if you need to modify the floor to support its weight) with the voids filled with vermiculite and glass wool.  Parlor tricks are done with the heat flow and exhaust gas from the burner assembly to heat four ovens with distinct temperature ranges: warming, simmering, baking and roasting, and two insulated hot plates, one for boiling and one for simmering.

The typical reactions from people when they first learn about the Aga always being always on are "Doesn't it make the kitchen hot?" and scolding statements along the lines of "That's horribly energy inefficient!". 

Both reactions are utterly wrong.

The Aga does reject some heat into the room; specs for the four oven suggest it rejects about 800 watts, but from a purely qualitative standpoint it doesn't seem to be the case. We have a passive solar home and haven't noticed any significant increase in summer temperatures (and in fact when seriously using the kitchen the temperature rise is markedly less than when using a more common open burner stove) and while the kitchen still is cool on winter mornings it's not frigid.  People tend to cozy up to the Aga, even in the summer, although they rapidly learn of the few exterior surfaces that are too hot to touch.  

The thought that the Aga is inefficient is not supported by the numbers; our annual propane consumption dropped 15% even with the addition of another family member when we switched to the Aga,.  In contrast our propane consumption actually increased with the installation of a super-swizzy Bosch 240SX LP computer-controlled on-demand hot water heater, because we tend to use hot water during a relatively short period of the day and the Bosch only manages an 80-odd percent efficiency rating (It also requires a UPS so you don't suddenly get a cold shower when the power drops, but I digress).  Adding to the overall efficiency of the Aga is the fact that it doesn't require a vent hood, which during the winter means no cold make-up air being introduced into the house.

What To Expect When You're Expecting

You've agonized over the color scheme for your Aga, written your check for more than the price of some new cars and are now waiting for your Aga to show up.   You've prepared the floor to accept the Aga (and triple-checked the location because once it's installed it is not going to move) and are wondering what will happen when your Aga and the Aga installer(s) show up.  It goes something like this:
  1. Your Aga arrives in crates and bags.
  2. Your friendly Aga installer inventories the 327 random bits that comprise your Aga.
  3. The Aga takes shape.  This process involves a great deal of rasping, filing and banging.  It's important at this point to suppress the desire to scream "What are you DOING??  Do you have any idea what this thing COST??".  The process is loud and at least as much an art as a science as befits what is essentially a one-off, custom-built product.
  4. Once the supply line and vent are in place, the Aga is fired up.  The literature says that it takes 24 hours to stabilize, but what it really means is that it takes 24 hours for  you to figure out where the temperature control on your Aga needs to be set in order to kiss the black line on the heat indicator.
Here are photos of the process with our Aga (as well as a very pregnant Jen doing her best Vanna White impression).

Your Aga will probably outgas a bit during the first 24 hours.  We didn't find it to be a big deal.

Ownership Tips

  1. When you do get your Aga stable, mark the temperature knob with something like a Sharpie; having done so you'll be able to go from stone cold to stable in only a few hours.  If you don't have a power vent Aga when you do cold start it you really do need to follow the directions and let the thing idle at low power for 20 or 30 minutes.  If you set it to full burner while the vent is cold the gas column will stack and you'll get pulses of air and exhaust gases of increasing amplitude that flood back into the burner chamber until they eventually blow the burner and the pilot out.
  2. Get used to setting timers.  Unlike a more typical stove, you end up doing 80% of your cooking in one of the ovens, and since the ovens vent out the exhaust stack you don't notice when things are getting done, much less cooked to a crisp.  At least a couple of times a year we'll reduce strips of bacon to little strips of carbon and we once left dinner rolls in the back of the roasting oven for several weeks; when we found them they were dinner-roll-shaped near-massless lumps of carbon.
  3. Buy a spare thermocouple.  We've yet to have one fail (although the original one was replaced as part of the one-year inspection), but we're told that not only do they fail but they generally choose to do so at around 1800 on a Friday afternoon at the start of a three day weekend..
  4. Get kitchen gauntlets, be they Aga branded or otherwise.  Because of the depth of the ovens you need something that comes up to your elbows, otherwise you're certain to join the elite ranks of people with Aga burns, which are somewhat nasty burns on the outside of the arms just below the elbows as a consequence of trying to fish something out of the back of one of the ovens.
  5. Join the agalovers Yahoo! group; there's almost certain to be someone there who has figured out whatever you're trying to figure out,.

Cooking With An Aga

About the best analog for cooking with an Aga is hearth cooking.  The heat is radiant and from all directions; the fact that the food isn't in a moist gas stream or exposed to an electric element means that thing don't get soggy, nor do they tend to dry out.  Because the Aga is always on it's also always ready to rock; pre-heating is a thing of the past.

The most troubling thing for first-time Aga cooks is the notion of "finding" the right heat.  It's a simple enough concept, but the location of the heat can move as you suck energy out of the Aga (as might happen when preparing for a party).  It's a bit like baking bread; just as you learn over time how to tell if hydration is right, with the Aga you learn over time where to lob stuff. to get the desired effect.  In general:
Cooking with the Aga tends to affect everything that goes on in the kitchen.  Because you don't have to hover over it all the time you tend to prep something, toss it into the Aga, then clean up and start the next thing.  The result is that you can prep for a large party and when you're ready to serve the kitchen is clean rather than looking like someone just set off a tactical nuke.  The ability to slow roast helps; Thanksgiving is much easier when you start the bird off for 30 minutes in the roasting oven the night before and then lob it into the simmering oven overnight.

Soup stocks in the simmering over are amazing.  'Nuff said.