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
Hello, are all breads baked on the bottom rack?I need a definite answer please.
Thank you. Most recipes don’t include which rack to use. This is so useful. Especially moving baked goods during the bake.
Thank you so much, I have been cooking pizzas on the wrong rack for almost a decade a simple adjustment makes me say Thank You Joy with each pizza :-)
I only have 2 racks in my oven…
I totally agree with your advice, especially for layer cakes! It is great to see someone actually put it in writing that we should move baked goods during baking time. It helps to remind us all to actually do it!
Finally, an explanation to one of my burning questions. Now, I totally understand the top, bottom and middle thing. Be as bossy as you like girl, just be sure to back it up with some kitchen cred-as only you can.
I have to admit, completely unintentionally I only read the preheat temperature from that intro part of a recipe. I’ll pay more attention now. :)
great insight, thank you. Although I never thought of the oven of having heat zones, it’s pretty obvious it can have a big impact on how the food cooks, especially baked goods. When I worked as a pizza cook, the bottom oven was always hotter than the top, so if we had to finish up a pizza for a customer in a rush, we’d stick it in the bottom oven.
Thanks Joy! Super helpful. When back to back oven use that require two temperatures – let’s say one recipe at 425 and then 350 – how long should I wait for the oven to recalibrate? I cracked the oven door for a little bit and then waited 5-ish minutes (I was being a little impatient), and my pretzels came out dark brown on the bottom.
this is very educational and helpful. i love baking and i love writing and recording the stuff i bake too. but i always didn’t pay much attention to how to use the oven. thanks for sharing. i will try and see if i bake better next time. https://flyingkittyadventures.com
Maureen @Raising The Capable Student
LOVE THIS! I clicked on “how to read a recipe”, and I loved that too!
Oh good, thank you Maureen! I feel like these are simple things we might take for granted in the kitchen.
Thanks Joy – I love these Baking 101 posts. I’ve learned so much from you!
Great! I’m glad you’re here.
Do the same rules apply in a convection oven?
Convection ovens work differently. We’ll talk about that soon!
I look forward to the convection oven tips since I have one, too!
This is such great advice! Thanks for sharing!
This is so helpful! I have another question: I have two ovens–a big square one and a vertical one. I guess the vertical is mostly for warming, but sometimes I have something big, like a turkey, in the big one and want to also cook, say, bread, on the side. Middle rack? Any suggestion for not having a hard crust on the bread?
I would say, middle rack and maybe a lower temperature, if you can.