Baking 101

Baking 101: Which Oven Rack Should I Use?

Let It Be Sunday!

Baking 101:  a series of how-tos and what’s-what when it comes to home baking.  The small stuff, explained.

If you don’t know it by now, baking can be tricky.  What’s tricky is that, when you read a recipe (and you should totally read a recipe before you get in the kitchen) it’s hard to know which steps are super important, and which steps you can flub a bit.  

Here’s how most of my recipes start: 

“Place a rack in the center or upper third of the oven and preheat oven to 350 degrees F. ”

Yes… I’m bossy enough to tell you exactly where to place the rack in your own oven. Some nerve, right? Sooooome nerve.  The bossy has a function- to our wild baking success. 

First let’s talk about ovens. See, there’s a difference in heat-force in different parts of the oven hot-box.  Most ovens have two heating sources, one at the bottom of the oven and one at the top. When we turn the oven on to preheat, usually both heating elements activate to heat the oven. Once the oven has come to our desired temperature, the bottom heat source is what occasionally kicks in to maintain the temperature of the oven.  

Hot air rises, so the top of the oven is actually consistently hotter, while the bottom of the oven will heat in bursts to maintain the overall temperature. 

The bottom oven rack is great for crust breads and pizzas… baked goods that you want to intensely brown on the bottom. 

The top oven rack is great for things you’d like a crusty brown top on… things like pies and casseroles.  

The middle oven rack is the happy place where air is circulating, the heat sources are evenly distributed, and tops and bottoms aren’t in danger of burning or browning too quickly.  It’s the perfect place for cakes, cookies, and brownies to stay and bake.  

If you’ve got a busy oven and you’re baking more than one pan of something at a time, be sure to rotate the baked goods between racks. For example, if you have two sheet pans of cookies baking at once, swap the bottom pan to the center, and the center pan to the bottom halfway through baking.  The same goes for cake layers though be careful to let the cake set before moving the cake around in the oven… it may collapse. 

Here’s the thing, just because you start on one rack, doesn’t mean you’re married to it!  Moving baked goods around the oven will help to evenly bake our baked goods.  Think about what you want from your baked good and go for it.  

For pies, you want a burst of heat to set the pie crust to flakey, time in the oven to set the filling, and some quality time at the top of the oven to brown the crust.  For this reason, we can start a pie on the bottom rack to brown the bottom crust, move it to the center rack for a majority of the baking time, and finish the oven on the top rack to brown the crust.  See?  That’s an even bake. 

For pizzas you want a crisp crust and a browned bubbling top.  Now that you know where the heat lives in the oven, start by baking pizza in a hot hot oven on the bottom rack and once it’s cooked through, move it to the top rack to brown the cheese (maybe even kick in the broiler if you’re feelin’ it!).   

With a little bit of oven knowledge, knowing where heat comes from and how it lives, the power is yours. Placement is key, but you’re not married to one oven rack.  

When in doubt, stick to the middle and don’t be afraid to adjust. 

(For the purposes of this post I’m talking about electric and gas ovens.  We’ll talk about convection ovens in a few weeks!)

Here’s more knowledge in the Baking 101 Series – 

Baking 101: How To Frost A Cake

Baking 101: How To Brown Butter

Baking 101: My Favorite Vegan Egg Substitute

Baking 101: What’s In A Whisk? 

Baking 101: How To Crack And Separate An Egg