Before we formally set off on all of our festive fall and holiday baking, let’s take a minute to talk about one of the baking questions I’m asked most frequently. The question is simple but the answer might surprise and can improve your home baking really quite a lot.
Q: What’s the best oven for baking?
A: I think the best oven for baking is the oven you know.
That’s it! It’s not a matter of gas versus electric, convection versus no convection. The best oven for baking is the oven you know the quirks of. Maybe you know it’s hot in the back left corner, or that your cookies bake best on the middle rack not the upper third of then oven. That’s oven knowledge and your key to success far beyond the baking directions a recipe will give you.
Your gas oven could be 100 years old and heat to 400 degrees F when the dial says 350 degrees F but if you know that, maybe you prop the door open with a towel for the first 10 minutes of baking. Knowing and learning how to work with the quirks of the oven you bake with most often is your key to success.
Back when I worked as a professional bakers, so much of the new baker training was just about… the oven! Its name, its quirks, its likes, dislikes, random aggressions.
So, how do you get to know your oven?
To start of course, you’ll bake in it a lot. You’ve probably done that. Think about what you notice in baking. One side of your cake more browned than the other? A burnt cookie bottom? Think about what your oven has told you from your past baking adventures.
One easy, old school way to test your oven is with slices of plain ol’ white bread. Kate McDermott reminded me of this incredible baking hack just this week on her virtual book tour chat with Book Larder in Seattle.
Here’s how the sliced bread oven test works:
• In a cold oven, place six slices of plain white bread (the cheap stuff) on each rack you’re testing. Push the racks into the oven and close the oven door.
• Turn the oven on the preheat to 350 degrees. Check the bread pieces at 12 minutes, 18 minutes, and 20 minutes.
• After 18 to 20 take the bread out of the oven and place on a baking sheet on the counter in the same configuration as the oven shelf. Take a good look. What pieces of bread have more browning?
• I like to place my toasted bread slices the baking sheet in their same shelf configuration, write the shelf they were on and photograph it for my reference… but I’m crazy. You can just take mental notes.
I can tell from my oven tests that the left side of my oven is a hot spot. The center bakes up fairly evenly. This seems in line with my baking because I often have to rotate half sheet pans once during a short bake and several times during a longer bake (like for a pie or quick bread).
Here are three other tricks I use to regulate and check my oven temperature:
• Place a pizza stone on the bottom rack of the oven. Not the heating element at the bottom of the oven, but rather, the lowest oven rack. A pizza or clay stone absorbs the heat and helps disperse it evenly across the oven. (Mine are a little stained because they work hard in the oven, ok?)
• Check your oven temperature with an infrared thermometer. This has become easier for me than fussing with an oven thermometer. It’s great to quickly check the temperature just before setting something in the oven. Sometimes that preheat chime can be deceiving and the oven isn’t up to temperature yet.
• Get your oven calibrated once a year. Yea I know soooo boring who does this? Bakers… and if you’ve read this far – you’re one of us. Have someone come out and calibrate the temperature, maybe replace the seal, and check the clay piece that starts the gas. Now, I obviously don’t know how to fix an oven but I know it’s important to call someone who knows how.
Something else that might be helpful:
This Baking 101 article from a few years back: Which oven rack should I use?
I hope this is helpful! Get to know your oven and happy baking friends!