In anticipation of our annual holiday extravaganza, I have been baking a lot of cookies. And some of them were just not quite turning out right. Nothing catastrophic, but the spread and color were not always what I expected.
I started to feel a knot of despair in my stomach as I contemplated the age of my oven — 12 or 13 years, about as long as we’ve owned our house — and the challenges many people have had acquiring new appliances during the pandemic.
Worried that its temperature might be off, I took the easiest, cheapest first step and bought an oven thermometer, a long-overdue replacement for one I used to have. I set my oven to 350 degrees, and when the oven beeped that it was ready, the thermometer was barely reading 250 degrees. Gulp. More than a little distraught, I waited … and waited. Finally, about 35 minutes after I’d turned on the oven, it reached 350 and held steady. I breathed a huge sigh of relief. Now I know I just need to preheat my oven much longer than expected.
It pays to get to know the attributes of your particular appliance. “All stoves run a little bit differently,” says Bonnie Woolsey, owner of All American Appliance Service in Northern Virginia. Woolsey says she takes oven complaints every day and tries to ask customers several questions before making a diagnosis or sending out a technician.
You’d be served just as well by doing some sleuthing, too. Is your oven slow to heat up? Does it have hot spots? Does it fluctuate wildly in temperature cycles? Here are some tips to figure out what’s up, what you can do about it and what may be the red flags that prompt you to call in a pro.
“You should assume that your oven temperature control is incorrect (alas, even those that were recently calibrated),” Shirley Corriher says in “CookWise: The Secrets of Cooking Revealed.” But incorrect by how much?
Do yourself a favor and start by getting an oven thermometer. A good dial-face model can be had for less than $10. When you’re ready to use it, Cook’s Illustrated recommends setting the thermometer in the middle of the rack, where food cooks, rather than on a wall or on the edges of the rack, where the reading can be less accurate. Turn on the oven to 350 degrees and check the reading after the oven says it’s preheated, keeping in mind that the oven may cycle on and off once it has supposedly reached that temperature. If you have an older oven, as I do, and have a sneaking suspicion it’s just slow to start, hang tight and hope for the best.
You can repeat the observation process every few months, and over that relatively short amount of time, your oven shouldn’t budge too much — unless you notice a dramatic change in how the food is cooking, in which case, evaluate again.
Corriher recommends taking it a step further by using two thermometers placed in different spots in the oven, then checking several different temperatures. Move the thermometers and then try those same temperatures again.
Woolsey offers a note of caution. If you are opening the oven constantly to check the reading, know that you will be losing heat each time, giving you an inaccurate temperature. So get a legible thermometer, flip on the oven light when it’s time to check and try to keep your oven door clean enough to see in. A probe thermometer, especially one with an air probe, is a hands-free option as well.
If you’re concerned about unevenness, there are ways to check that, too. I love this tip from the “Sister Pie” cookbook as shared by the Kitchn, which involves lining a half-sheet pan with parchment and then covering it with a dusting (about 1 cup) of sugar. Bake at 400 degrees for 10 minutes and then check where the sugar is melted, unmelted or burned to determine hot and cold spots. As Cook’s Illustrated notes, you can conduct a similar mapping test with the broiler and a large baking sheet covered in slices of white bread that you toast 4 inches away from the element.
Adjust your oven
As in my case, the answer may be as simple as being patient.
If fluctuations are a concern, consider acquiring a baking stone or steel, or leaving the one you already have in the oven. “When the oven is in use it will act as a ‘thermal ballast’ and help hold the temperature steady,” Lisa McManus says on America’s Test Kitchen.
A few caveats: She recommends not leaving it in for more delicate cakes or cookies. And don’t place pans on it, unless you want more intense browning, such as with roasted meats and vegetables or pie crusts. Never place a baking steel or stone on the oven floor, where you may block vents that are crucial for safety.
To address hot or cold spots, move the oven racks. Just like you need to pay attention to visual cues more than a recipe’s prescriptive cook time, you need to put the knowledge of your oven to good use. The best rack for cooking may not be the one specified in the recipe.
“Ovens often have different thermal layers throughout the cavity,” says Katie Sadler, kitchen brand manager at Whirlpool. “Often, moving your dish up or down a rack level may improve results without calibrating. Some manufacturers publish rack level recommendations for different food types.”
If you have a convection feature, which uses a fan to better circulate hot air, now may be the time to take advantage of it. “Different cycles are optimal for different purposes,” Sadler says. “If traditional bake is not giving you the performance you are looking for, try convection baking to improve heat distribution and improve browning.”
Another trick we often employ in our Food Lab with our extremely slow-to-heat ovens: Start preheating using the broiler to get a higher temperature faster before switching to bake.
Adjust your cooking
The good news: “For many types of baking and roasting, a watchful eye will produce good results even though the oven temperature is incorrect,” Corriher says, though that gets to be a trickier proposition with things like cakes that are more sensitive to temperature variations.
When it comes to tweaking recipes, decide which adaptation makes sense. If you know your oven runs a consistent number of degrees off, adjust the dial accordingly. Need to hit 350 but you know it’s under by 20 degrees? Just set to 370, check the thermometer, and adjust as needed. Some recipes — especially those that don’t involve delicate baked goods — can simply be cooked for longer or shorter.
For a boost of heat, use the stone or steel as noted above. If an oven isn’t giving you the high-heat results you want to, say, crisp vegetables and meat or melt a cheese topping on something like lasagna, you can switch to the broiler for the last few minutes, though monitor the food closely.
Calibrate your oven temperature
This allows you to change the set temperature to match the actual temperature, and requires consulting your instruction manual. The steps for ovens with digital controls especially will vary depending on brand. It usually involves pressing buttons in a certain combination or order before adjusting the temperature. Models with control knobs are typically calibrated by removing the knob and adjusting screws. If you have a gas oven with a control knob, it may require a more complicated calibration by a technician, Sadler says.
Rather than making a big adjustment at once, Sadler says, Whirlpool recommends increments of 5 or 10 degrees until you get the results you’re looking for.
Sadler notes that the DIY calibration approach only goes so far. “Most calibration settings allow the user to adjust by plus or minus 30 degrees; if your oven is showing a much larger variance, such as 100 degrees, there is likely another problem,” she says.
Call in a pro
Woolsey says you shouldn’t worry too much if your oven is off by 20 or so degrees, a range in which you can either tweak your cooking or calibrate the appliance. Once you start getting into 30-, 40- or 50-degree territory, though, you may want to consider calling a technician rather than calibrating the oven. Other red flags would be if the oven is making a strange noise or emitting a distinct odor — extremely important if you smell gas. Also dire is food coming out extremely under- or overcooked.
Woolsey says most people have pretty good intuition when it comes to knowing when something is off with their oven, and once they do, they should get it checked out sooner rather than later. “People will start having problems, and they will delay getting service,” she says. “Little things lead to bigger things.”