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Quartz bulbs power new fast-cooking ovens

There's a new oven on the horizon that cooks with the speed of a microwave but browns like a grill. Its source of power? Quartz bulbs.

The Flashbake oven, a smash hit when unveiled in May at the National Restaurant Show in Chicago, uses a series of special quartz bulbs that combine highly concentrated, visible light with infrared light. The energy is enough to give food more than a bad sunburn in seconds, browning the outside while also penetrating the food molecules to cook them.

Since the trade show, Quadlux, the company in Fremont, Calif., that makes the oven, has taken orders from restaurants, hotels and hospitals for hundreds of them, said Robert Beaver II, the company's president. The company plans to begin shipping the ovens, which cost $7,500 to $10,000, by the end of this month. Quadlux is working on a model for home use, which Beaver said should be on the market in two years and cost about $1,000.

The oven was developed by a group of researchers and entrepreneurs in the Silicon Valley, near San Francisco, who put the high-intensity bulbs that normally fuse circuits onto computer chips to perhaps more satisfying use by melting mozzarella on pizza.

"I got to thinking about how you go to a drive-in, and the hamburger is ready in a minute, but, if you order a pizza, they send you to the parking lot for 10 minutes," Beaver said.

In a demonstration at the show, a thin-crusted, eight-inch pepperoni pizza was perfectly cooked in 46 seconds, with the crust crisp and lightly browned, the cheese melted and glazed, and the slices of pepperoni sizzling. Steak and salmon cooked in the Flashbake in less than two minutes and were well-seared and exceedingly juicy. The oven did a great job with toast.

Gene Westerberg, the inventor and the company's vice president for technology, said no ultraviolet light or microwaves are used. He said the bulbs generate 5,500 degrees of heat.

Why doesn't the thing incinerate the food or itself or just blow up? Westerberg observed that the energy from the bulbs penetrates the food while cool air is circulated in the oven to moderate the temperature, and an exhaust duct releases warm air, so the surface of the food browns without burning as the inside of the food is heated.

The sleek, stainless-steel ovens come in two sizes, with the smaller one about the dimension of a desk-top copier and the bigger about twice that size. Putting food in is a little like loading a compact disc. After a button is pressed, a narrow door tips up, and a shelf slides out. The food is put on a circular rack, and the drawerlike shelf slides back.

Food more than 1-inch thick cooks somewhat more slowly, and the interior height cannot accommodate food thicker than three inches. Beaver said the company is working on those problems. He expects the home model to be about the size of an average-size microwave oven.

The Flashbake has received safety approval from the federal government.