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ingredients and techniques

Kitchen Basics: Know Your Oven

meg's picture

Perhaps one of the trickier aspects of moving into a new kitchen is getting your bearings. Unless you're lucky enough to have your kitchen built to your specifications, there are probably a lot of "less than ideal" things you're going to have to learn to live with. So is life.

I generally just go with it in such situations. I organize as best I can and start to adapt. But one thing worth investigating is how your oven heats.

This applies mostly to those of us who are still relying on landlords to supply our ovens. It's a sad situation, but a common one. And truth be told, the majority of home ovens are horribly inaccurate.

One of the easiest ways to get a sense for how your oven heats is to purchase an inexpensive oven thermometer. We have one that hangs on the oven rack. You can also buy a probe thermometer that allows you to watch the fluctuations in temperature without having to open the oven door.

Once your thermometer is up and running, you might be shocked at how great the temperature fluctuations are. When we set our oven's thermostat to 350˚F, the temperature ranges from around 300˚F at its lowest and 400˚F at its highest. When the temperature drops, the heating element turns on, boosting the temperature significantly.

This sort of variability is nightmarish for recipe writers, and there's really no way to account for it other than to issue a standard caveat about how you should know your oven and adjust accordingly.

Armed with a thermometer, you can gauge how accurate your oven's thermostat is and how the temperature fluctuates over time. It's an easy and inexpensive fix that will improve your cooking experience. You may find that you need to set your thermostat higher or lower depending on whether your oven runs cool or hot.

But another thing to account for is the dreaded hot spot. Have you ever baked a batch of cookies only to find that the ones towards the outside of the cookie sheet start to burn before the ones in the center have cooked through? Or maybe the back left-hand corner of your oven gets hotter than anywhere else.

This can be an infuriating problem, especially if you're taking the trial and error route to learning your oven. My favorite test for hot spots is the white bread test. This is probably the only time I'll ever instruct you to buy white "air" bread on this blog. I don't recommend it for eating, but it's a great hot spot indicator.

Simply preheat your oven to 350˚F, and place a rack in the center of your oven. Place slices of white bread in a grid pattern on your oven rack, and leave them until they begin to toast. Note which slices toast (and burn) faster than others. This will indicate the hotter areas inside your oven.

Unfortunately, there's no magic "fix" for those hot spots. But, armed with the knowledge of how your oven works you can make adjustments to your cooking that will lessen the effect of hot spots. Avoid placing baking pans in the hottest parts of the oven, and rotate baking sheets to prevent burning or overcooking. In an attempt to lessen the effect of hot spots, many recipes already instruct you to rotate your baking sheets, but you should do this anyway.

Finally, be aware that the placement of your oven racks will also affect cooking. Most (if not all) ovens are hotter at the top than at the bottom. Thus, if you have two baking sheets in your oven, one on a higher rack and one on a lower rack, the one on the higher rack will cook faster. Therefore, it is important not only to rotate your pans from front to back, but also from top to bottom. It's more trouble, but it will give you better results in the long term.

A note on convection ovens: One of the purported benefits of a convection oven is that it produces a more even heat, but this does not necessarily preclude it having hot spots. Often, the area right in front of the fan tends to get hotter than the surrounding areas, so it pays to do the hot spot test with convection ovens as well.

To amend your oven's uneven heat, I recommend placing a baking stone on the lower rack of the oven as the oven preheats. The stone will act as a heat sink and lessen the effects of hot spots. For cookies and some breads, you can bake directly on the stone. Do not use a baking stone when broiling. The stone can crack or shatter.

Other articles you might enjoy: How To Supreme Citrus Fruits, Yay for the Large Sauté, Let Them Eat Pie: An Instructional Series


Mary Wilkinson's picture

I am new at baking. Would like to learn how to make a pound cake.

meg's picture

Thanks, Mary. I'll put it on my list of recipes to make on the blog. A pound cake is a great place to start for a beginner. Do you have a copy of the Joy of Cooking? If not, it's an excellent book for anyone--beginner or expert--to have, and there are a few good pound cake recipes in it.

Lorraine's picture

I recently moved into a home with a convection oven only and am slowly learning to adapt all my recipes. I now find myself unsure of how to adapt my cheesecake recipe baking times. Do you have any suggestions?

meg's picture

Yes! Generally, for convection ovens you either need to reduce the temperature by 25 degrees (so, set the temp for 25 degrees lower than the recipe says) OR leave the temperature the same and reduce the baking time by 20%. I vote for decreasing the temperature to ensure even baking.

M D's picture

Has anyone measured the temperature difference between oven racks?

meg's picture

I haven't done that, but from doing a lot of baking, I can definitely say that there's a difference. Most baking recipes instruct you to place a rack in the center of the oven because, if placed near the bottom, the bottom of whatever you're baking will get overdone, and if placed near the top, the top will get overdone. The hot element at the bottom and the heat reflected off the top of the oven are the reasons for this. This is one argument in favor of convection ovens--since there's no heating element, the heat is more even throughout the oven.

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