This post is for my van dwelling and car camping brethren.
In 2018 I bought my Promaster cargo van and converted it into a camping van. During that first year, I had Wayfarer Vans do a basic conversion; I also bought a lot of stuff to turn the van into my home away from home. One of the items that I purchased was an Omnia stovetop oven. My initial impression was that it was expensive to buy and felt cheap in hand. So I put it on a shelf and forgot about it.
Now, over three years later, I want to expand my culinary repertoire, and what could be more fantastic than having a way to bake on the road? So it was time to pull the Omnia off of my garage shelf and do a little experimenting. I researched YouTube and found most people liked the Omnia, but it seemed like many burnt the bottom of whatever they were baking.
I re-examined the oven. Yes, it seems cheaply made, and all of its accessories are expensive. But, after much experimenting, did I hate it or love it? I can tell you I love it! It is a clever gadget and in my opinion worth the money.
It is made of thin materials that cool very quickly. You don’t have to wait an hour for it to cool enough to pack it away. Its thin-wall construction also allows you to regulate the oven’s temperature. It is exceptionally compact, and everything from its silicon inserts to its wire baking rack can be stored inside the Omnia. Most importantly, it bakes well if you understand how it works and carefully follow the provided instructions.
I decided to do a lot of sticks-and-bricks testing, as it is easier for me to learn about a new cooking product when I have ample running water, counter space, and baking tools. However, everything I did in the kitchen could be done when dry camping. However, you would need to adapt your preparation methods to accommodate a more challenging environment.
To understand the Omnia, it is essential to contrast it with a traditional home oven. A home oven is an insulated box with a heat source at the bottom of the box. The heat source is regulated by a thermostat which turns the source on and off. This allows for consistent heating. For example, if you set the thermostat to 350F, the oven temperature will vary a bit above and below that number throughout a bake, but the average temperature will be 350F.
The Omnia is different as there is no thermostat. The bottom plate heats the baking vessel, which quickly loses its heat to the environment as it is not insulated. The constant flame of the heat source replaces that energy loss. The trick is to match the energy (heat) that you add to the energy (heat) that you lose. How much you adjust the flame depends on how fast you lose heat. If you are inside your van and it is 80 degrees, it will take a lower flame than if you are outside and it is 50 degrees and windy. In general, I start with a very low flame for inside cooking. Your results will be better if your environment is relatively stable. Baking inside the van will be more reliable than baking outside.
If you cook at too high of a temperature, you will burn the outside of your dish before the inside is cooked. Therefore, it is better to go lower than higher. In many cases, this will mean that you will bake at 300-325F instead of the standard 350F. Casseroles may take a bit longer to cook when baking at lower temperatures, and they may brown a bit less. In addition, cakes that rely on heat for lift may be denser and somewhat coarser-grained. However, in both cases, you will still have a delicious result.
The Omnia will work with any heat source except an induction cooktop. Use a source that allows you to finely adjust the flame. Generally, butane stoves adjust their flames better than propane camp-style stoves. You also want a stove that has a reasonably broad flame pattern, so hiking-type stoves could prove to be challenging.
It is essential to follow the directions provided by Omnia. Cake batter should only be filled ½ way, and all other dishes should be filled no more than 1 inch from the top. Exceeding these limits will result in a burnt bottom and an undercooked interior to your dish. In many cases, you should preheat the base on high for a few minutes before topping it with the baking vessel.
Omnia sells a thermometer that can give you a more accurate measure of how high you should adjust your flame, but some have adapted an inexpensive BBQ grill thermometer to fill that role. YouTube offers several DIY videos on this topic. I baked with and without the thermometer and found it possible to bake without one, but having one adds a bit more precision to the process.
The Omnia baking times are similar to your regular oven when set correctly. In addition, the baking vessel has a capacity of around 8 cups, which is equivalent to an 8 x 8-inch pan.
My goal was to bake various types of foods, from banana bread to pizza. I baked foods using scratch recipes and from box mixes. I wanted to ensure that the Omnia was a versatile device and not just a one-trick pony.
I found that the Omnia works great for a wide variety of baking needs with a bit of practice. You can bake almost anything in it. However, you may not want to spend $70 for it (often over $100 when you add the accessories). Here are some alternatives along with their pros and cons:
-Coleman-type fold-up stove. The Coleman fold-up stove has been around forever and can be had for about $45 or less if you find one at a thrift shop. I have used one, and they work well. However, they also have the burnt bottom problem. Using a small pizza stone to even out the heat will reduce this issue. The downside to the Coleman is that the stove is considerable even when folded, and any accessories (like baking and muffin pans) take up additional storage space.
-Heavy Pot with a cover and trivet. An age-old standard. Using a heatproof trivet, you isolate your baking pan from the pot’s bottom. There are variations on this theme as some recipes use water in the pot, allowing you to steam a cake. Other recipes use a dry method that may use an empty pan or one with some sort of heat evener, for instance, placing rocks in the bottom of the pan. When baking, caution is advised when using rocks, sand, or non-food grade items.
-Direct baking. Some recipes bake directly on a pan’s surface. This method is most commonly used to bake flatbread. However, direct baking can also be used to make homemade pizza. In this case, the crust is flipped over to ensure that it is fully cooked. After the turn, toppings are added.
-Rice cooker baking. You can find small rice cookers that use only 300 watts of power, compatible with many van’s electrical systems. The internet is a source for recipes that range from cakes to yeast bread.
-Lunchbox cooker. The Roadpro (and look-alike cookers) reach around 300F, sufficient to bake foods such as Jiffy brand cake and cornbread mixes. People also make Stouffer’s frozen pizza in them. Unfortunately, you can’t bake using the popular Hot Logic oven as it only heats to 160F-180F.
-The electric pressure cooker. This gadget is a wonderful addition to your cooking arsenal if you have enough battery power. Using the steam method, you can make many baked items, from regular cakes to cheesecake.
-The classic Dutch oven/campfire combo. This method uses a dutch oven, campfire, hot coals, and some practice. My cousin makes a killer pineapple upside-down cake using this method, but it is beyond my skill level.
The bottom line
The Omnia is one of various methods to bake when you don’t have a traditional oven. It is compact, relatively simple to use, and can deliver excellent results if you follow the directions. It makes sense to practice at home before trying to impress your camping buddies, as it is different from using a regular oven.
The Omnia can be used with a variety of heat sources. However, I think a standard butane stove works best as it allows for a fine flame adjustment. I almost always bake near the lowest flame level possible. The butane stove that I used has an output of 7000 BTU. Some more expensive butane stoves may have an output of 10,000 BTU or higher, so some experimenting may be necessary to find the sweet spot for your baking adventure.
You don’t want to lift the lid during the early stages of baking, as this will significantly dysregulate the oven’s temperature at a critical baking phase. However, I use standard methods (like the toothpick test) at the latter stages to determine doneness.
Remember that the environment has a significant impact on baking in the Omnia. You will likely have more consistent results when baking inside your van than outdoors on a windy day. However, with practice, even this is possible. Very cold or very hot days will also impact the oven.
Below are various things that I successfully baked in the Omnia in my home kitchen laboratory. I believe that you can bake just about anything that bakes in a moderate (350F) oven. In addition, I have had success baking items like pizza and muffins (which often use a higher oven temperature) in the Omnia. However, the final product may be slightly different than what you are used to. For instance, the pizza crust may be softer, and a muffin’s rise may be somewhat less.
Below are a gaggle of photos that will hopefully inspire you to expand your van cooking’s culinary horizons. Bon appetite!