Believe it or not, your oven has a personality. And getting to know it is hella important. It's just as important as reading a recipe properly or using room temperature ingredients.
Having the skills to bake is one thing; having a home appliance (oven) that will do the other half of the job is another.
Old ovens are cranky as f*ck, they take long to preheat, they're tired and don't really run on a schedule or care to. New ones are perky and ready to go, no preheating required, they're like horny teenagers.
The more you interact with your oven (meaning the more you use it), the better you'll get to know its personality, similar to the process of getting to know people.
Sarcastic Tip: Never increase the oven temperature because you're in a hurry. The oven doesn't know you're in a hurry. As of right now they're not that smart, maybe in the next five to 10 years they will be. Automatic shut off is already here.
Preheating is key.
When you don't preheat, you're baking at a lower or uneven temperature. You would never give a TED Talk without preparing first, just like you shouldn't throw raw batter into a cold oven hoping for the best. Stop being impatient and wait for your beloved oven to get to the right temperature. Otherwise, you'll be more pissed that those cookies you promised your kids, your friends or yourself did not satisfying the sweet, sweet craving.
Leave the oven door closed while baking.
A window and an oven light were put in place so you wouldn't open the oven door to stare at what you're baking. The real reason that you shouldn't open an oven during baking is because the heat inside is controlled by a confined space, circulating in and out of your baked good, by opening the door you're letting in a draft that throws the heat flow off balance. And that screws with the end product.
Test your oven temperature with a thermometer.
Place a cheap oven thermometer on the middle rack and preheat the oven to 350°F. When the timer goes off to let you know the oven is preheated, read the thermometer. If it's off by 100 degrees, call the repair person.
Test your oven without buying a thermometer.
It involves melting sugar. Preheat the oven to 375°F (186°C). Once preheated, place a small amount of white sugar in an oven safe dish lined with aluminum paper for 10-15 minutes. If the sugar melts, your oven is good. If it doesn't, we have a problem and your oven may need some adjustments. The melting point of sugar is 375°F, FYI. You may want to get the kids involved in this mini science project to show off how smart you are.
Tip: Always bake on the middle rack for even baking, unless your recipe specifies otherwise.
Things you should know about your oven:
• Your oven temperature is never really the exact temperature shown on the control knob, it's either higher or lower.
• The top heating element usually gets hotter than the bottom one.
I recently stumbled upon an article entitled Your Oven Is Lying to You by Bon Appetit that cleared things up for me:
Ovens are calibrated to hit their set temperature, then shut off the heat until the temperature falls below a certain point -- usually 25°F to 50°F below the set temperature before heating back up again. This cycle is the problem. While you rest assured that your cake is baking at 350°F, the reality is that your cake is in the ~*disco inferno*~, experiencing temperatures of +/- 50°F...and badly browning the top of your cake when it hits close to 375°F without your knowledge.
Beware of the following scenarios:
If the oven temperature is too high, your cake will rise and fall fast and the inside will be raw because the structure hasn't formed yet. And the top will most likely burn.
If the temperature is too low, the cake will have a dense inside because all that moisture is preventing it from rising. No one ever fancies an al dente cake.
Every oven works differently, even ones from the same model. If they all acted the same I would put together The Ultimate Guide to Knowing Your Oven Better Than Your Lover, but since every oven is unique that guide would be pointless.
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