Sunday, June 12, 2011

The Truth About Ovens...

Recently we got a new oven.  I was thrilled.  Sure, the old oven worked fine, but the ever untrustworthy stove was slowly losing functionality in its burners and the handle had a habit of popping off right when you really needed to get whatever delicate pastry you were baking out of the oven.  So alas, our 17 year-old oven finally retired and we got a new one.  It’s a simple oven and we didn’t change between electric and gas or get any cool new features, but I still have a lot I am learning about the oven.  When baking, it is important to be aware of your oven’s consistency (or rather, the places where it can be inconsistent) in order to produce consistent results.  Knowing about your oven’s temperature and hot spots, and leveling the oven are three simple things you can do for less than $5 to improve your baking outcome.

Leveling your oven
If you’re baking cakes a level oven will allow a more even bake and a lot less waste if you trim it (or if you don’t trim it, at least it won’t leave you with a lopsided cake!).  We never thought about leveling our oven until I got serious about cake baking and my dad noticed that my cakes were consistently coming out lopsided.  I blamed myself, thinking I hadn’t spread the batter evenly but alas, it was our trusty (or rather untrustworthy) old oven’s fault.

Leveling an oven is simple.  Okay, it’s a little more complex than leveling a picture frame, but it doesn’t take much time or effort (not to mention saving frustration from having uneven cakes).  It is important not to check the top of your range alone, but rather the racks on the inside of your oven.  Don’t just check from left to right, but also ensure that your oven is level from front to back.  If your oven is not level, simply slide something (such as a square of cardboard) under the legs where your level was reading low.

Placing the level on a cookie sheet keeps it from wobbling on the racks as you  check the level.

Knowing its true temperatures
An oven thermometer will help you understand the temperature tendencies of your oven.  You can get one for around $5-6 from, Bed Bath and Beyond, or local restaurant supply stores.

Ovens run in cycles, kicking off when they reach a temperature higher than what is set and turning back on at some point lower (which varies for each model of oven, and is often up to 25 degrees different).  When reading your thermometer, you’re looking to ensure that the average temperature of your oven is the temperature you have set you oven for.  Some oven thermometers do not react quickly, so if it appears to read a consistent temperature it actually reflects the average temperature in your oven. 

It is good to check an empty oven but also to monitor your oven as you bake.  The temperature changes with the amount of items in your oven and the location of the racks, so I like to keep the thermometer hanging in my oven to monitor its temperature.  If the temperature fluctuates too much with several things in the oven, especially between locations (top and bottom racks), it might be a good idea to bake fewer things together or adjust baking time to compensate for the temperature difference (most things will bake just fine in a temperature slightly hotter or cooler).  It’s also important to check the temperature on occasion as ovens sometimes change in consistency as they age.

The important thing is not how your oven reads (high, low, or just right), but whether its temperature readings are consistent.  Our new oven runs about 5 degrees under the set temperature.  If your oven lies about its true temperature and the thermometer consistently reads higher or lower, you should adjust your baking temperature accordingly; I add about 5 degrees to the temperature when I set my oven. 

Hot spots
Knowing your oven’s hot spots will help you set up baked goods and rotate pans accordingly.  To check your oven’s hot spots, line a cookie sheet with bread and put it in a preheated oven (I did mine at 350 degrees).  It will take a little while (mine took about 25 minutes), but the bread will begin to toast.  This shows where your oven is a little hotter, and demonstrates the importance of rotating pans for an even bake. (Or, if you’re a little inconsistent with some of your rolling/cutting for cookies, it shows how to set up thicker/bigger cookies to be in the hotter spots while the smaller/thinner cookies are in the cooler spots, allowing a tray to bake more evenly even if your cookies aren’t perfect.)
My oven is hotter in the back, with it's coolest corner being the front right.

As I’ve adjusted to our new oven, I’ve realized one wonderful thing: it has a window.  While seemingly simple, it was actually quite an adjustment to just turn on the light and check my cookies and cakes rather than opening the oven door.  This benefits my baking by allowing my oven to maintain its temperature, giving a more even and a quicker bake time (and in this weather, a much added bonus of keeping the heat in the oven!). [To really understand just how much heat you lose from your oven when you open the door, go ahead and open the door for a few seconds and as you close it, reset your oven temperature to the same temperature.  It will “preheat” again, sometimes taking a few minutes to gain the temperature that has been lost.]

Being familiar with your own oven will allow you to bake more efficiently in a new or unfamiliar oven.  You can’t do much for an unlevel oven unless you plan to level it, but you can make adjustments for temperature.  I like to err on the side of caution when baking in an unfamiliar oven and assume that the oven runs warmer.  I don’t change the setting in the temperature in case it actually runs cooler (in which case it would be much cooler), but I monitor the goodies baking in the oven a little more closely, checking on them sooner.  And even if the oven is the same one you've had for years, hopefully these tips will help you get a little more acquainted with your oven.

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