In the Introduction post, I talked about why having control over your oven is critical to successful baking. Here are the actual tips now.
#1. Get to know your oven
Unless you are an avid baker or a cook who spent a month over deciding which oven to buy, you probably haven’t paid too much attention to your oven. It’s generally simple enough for one to use it without a manual — you heat it, open it, stick your food in, then shut it. However, it’s important to know how your oven actually heats. Not all ovens heat equally, just like you don’t always fit into a medium shirt; sometimes you are a small, and sometimes you are a large. Same thing for the oven: the recipe might say preheat your oven for 20 minutes, but it may not be ready for another ten minutes; it says to place the pan in the lower rack, but your oven’s floor plate might be too hot.
Although most modern models are, it’s also important to note whether it’s got a top broiler (so heat’s provided from the top too) and whether it’s a convection oven (comes with devices to circulate the heat more evenly). If it’s not a convection oven, you need to turn your pan around at least once to bake more evenly. I usually rotate mine three times.
Probably one of the most debated oven topic is gas vs. electric. It’s simply the difference in the ways they are heated, but they can create a few major differences in the oven’s performance. Generally gas ovens are perceived to heat a little less evenly, have more temperature spikes, and generate more moist heat. On the other hand, electric ovens are perceived to heat more evenly, with more stable temperatures, and provide drier heat. Either should work fine, as long as you are aware of how it behaves when you bake. I personally prefer an electric one.
#2. Preheat, preheat, preheat.
I cannot say this enough: start your oven as you start mixing the batter (or as you prepare the dough for the second rise). The oven needs to be hot enough that it will still retain the heat when your batter goes in. If you heat it just enough that it reaches the desired temperature, it will lose the heat quickly during the few seconds you have it open. I’ve seen ovens that beep when it’s supposedly ready, but let it heat for another few minutes.
A critical device when you are preheating: an oven thermometer. Don’t trust the beep or your intuition, and get one of the cheap ones (only cost $4). They work great. My oven has a built-in digital thermometer, but it’s often off by ten to fifteen degrees.
#3. What pan are you using?
I used to never pay attention to the material of the pan I used. When I discovered a couple of Pyrex pans a few years ago in my parents’ house, I started using it a lot because they looked so pretty when done. However, soon I realized my brownies and pies were not turning out right and it would taking much longer to bake.
There are three major types of baking pans you will see: dark metal, lighter and shiny metal, and glass. Oven is constantly turning on and off, trying to maintain the set temperature. Even though glass takes longer to heat up, it does a great job of holding a stable temperature and cooking more evenly, where as metal can get hot spots. However, because it takes longer to heat up in the beginning, glass may not be suitable for items that you bake at high temperatures for short times. Stick to cakes and brownies when it comes to glass pans.
On the other hand, metal heats up more quickly, making it great for items like biscuits and cookies. Now, dark pans with a dull finish absorb heat faster than shiny ones which reflect it off. That means using a dark pan might burn the bottom of your cookies when the tops are not ready yet, in opposite to glass where the top might brown faster when the bottom is not ready. If that’s a frequent case for your glass pans, it could help to lower the temperature by 20 to 25 degrees and cook for ten to fifteen minutes longer.
The new material, silicone, has gotten popular over the past few years. I haven’t tried it out much, but from others, it has gained popularity for easy removals and cleanups and there haven’t been any major compromises in terms of heat retention and even cooking.
#4. Where to place your pan
Usually the safe place is the bottom third, as the bottom takes longer to cook than the top, which could brown too fast if you place it too high. If you are sticking in multiple pans at once, rotate them as the pans at the bottom will not brown properly on top.
#5. Be quick!
Whatever you do, whether putting in your pan, rotating, or giving it some steam, do it as quickly as you can so you lose the least amount of heat possible to prevent temperature spikes. Be ready to do whatever you do before you open the oven. I’ve witnessed too many cases where someone would leave the oven door wide open while looking for oven mitts.
#6. Is it done yet? Is it?
“Bake until done” is a very vague term. Some might like crispy cookies, where as some might like it softer. So your own judgement is the best call. But how do you tell?
For cakes, bake until the center is set and golden. Insert a toothpick deep into the center to see if it comes off clean. If it does, it’s done. Usually the edges start to pull away from sides of the pan too. If you like your brownies and such a little gooey, however, take it out when the toothpick comes out with a little bit of moist better. It will solidify as you cool it on the rack. The same thing for the cookies — keep your eyes on the oven as the baking times are much shorter. The residual heat of the pan will keep cooking the cookies for another minute or two, so take it out when they look a little soft.
For yeast bread, an instant-reading thermometer is your god. The general guidelines are crispy, golden brown surface, hollow sound when tapping on the bottom, etc., but when everything else looks perfectly done, the very center could still be gooey. The inside temperature should read 200 to 210 Fahrenheit degrees to ensure it’s actually done.
If it’s getting too dark on top but not done yet, there are a few things you can try: place it lower in the oven; or cover up the top with some aluminum foil; or lower the temperature a bit and cook for a longer period of time. On the other hand, if your cookies are brown on the bottom when they need to be cooked more, place them on the higher rack or double up the cookie pan with another.
Most importantly, as mentioned in my earlier post, keep the oven shut to minimize temperature spikes.
Crumbs and spills left in the oven will turn into burnt black scums and gunk that are just impossible to clean up. But before you go scrub it down, know your oven type to prevent any damage. The most common ones are self-cleaning, textured, and regular, non-self-cleaning ovens.
For the self-cleaning ones, run the cycle whenever you need to. Most spills will turn into piles of ash that can be easily cleaned with a damp dishcloth. Make sure you keep a window open during the cycle to let out the smoke.
Textured ovens are continuous cleaning ovens, of which the specially designed surface burns off the residues as you to continue to use the oven. Just use a damp cloth to wipe it down. No oven cleaners or abrasive for neither of the oven types.
Now what I have: regular, not-self-cleaning ovens. The best cleaning habit is to clean up any spills right after you finish using the oven. (when it’s cooled down of course!) Otherwise, you’ll have all sorts of burnt stuff stuck to the surface. Some lay a sheet of aluminum foil on the bottom — if you do that, make sure you aren’t blocking any vents. If you are itching to do a thorough cleanup, get some oven cleaner and a gentle scrubbing pad. Make sure you keep your window open too. If you are looking for less chemical-induced solutions, try baking soda or vinegar, mixed with some mild dish detergent. Spray some on and heat up the oven for a few, then when it’s cooled down, gently scrub and wipe it down. Repeat.
Hope you find some of this helpful. And please share if you have any other tips! : )