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In today’s article, you will find:
- A coupon for a free oven thermometer or kitchen thermometer
- The Baker’s Secret Weapon
- How to Fix Your Oven
- Guidelines for Perfect Baking
- In Case You Missed It
The lady told Merri Ann, “I made your brownies. They were dry.”
They were our just-add-water very fudgy brownies. Because we often serve them in the store, we make them often and have for years, hundreds of times. They are super reliable.
So what went wrong?
She either baked them too long or the oven was too hot. How could that happen?
Get a free oven thermometer or kitchen thermometer.
Today’s article will tell you why you need both an oven thermometer and a reliable kitchen thermometer. Get either free.
What to Do When Your Oven Lies to You
Your oven lies to you regularly. That little digital readout on the front of your oven–that’s a timer. It’s not connected to a thermometer. It doesn’t know what the temperature is.
Plus, you lose a ton of heat when you open the door. It’s amazing how long it takes the oven to recover after opening the door. Yet most of us are in a hurry and stick another pan of cookies in the oven as soon as we take the first out.
There is a thermostat that regulates the heating elements. The oven heats until it reaches a set point. Then it turns off and begins to cool. It cools until it reaches a minimum set point. Then it turns back on. So the heat rises and falls. It’s not a steady state.
So what do you do about it? Stick an oven thermometer in your oven. It hangs off the rack so you should be able to see it through the little door window. Now you know exactly how hot your oven is. (Be prepared to be surprised.) Make sure it’s at the desired temperature before sticking your cookies in.
The Baker’s Secret Weapon
One of my culinary text books calls a simple kitchen thermometer “The Baker’s Secret Weapon.” Why? Because baker’s use it and rely on it all the time.
Yesterday, we were baking cookies. We were having trouble with consistency between batches. We measured the temperature of the dough before baking. If the dough is too warm, it can make a dramatic difference.
We make bread every morning. We use a thermometer to get the water temperature right. When we bake bread in the oven, we use a thermometer to make sure it is done.
You can use a thermometer to check doneness in cheesecakes, cakes, and desserts. And your sweetheart can use the same thermometer to see when that steak is cooked perfectly.
Guidelines for Perfect Baking
The ability to tell when our baked goods are baked properly seems to cause more consternation than almost any other phase of baking. And of course, it’s important. Over-baked cookies are dry and hard; under-baked bread is soggy. This will give you techniques and pointers for baking your goods to perfection.
The tendency is to under bake yeast breads. The internal temperature of yeast breads should be 210 degrees and must be at least 185 degrees. The only way to reliably tell what is going on inside that loaf is with a thermometer. Remove the bread from the pan and insert the thermometer through the bottom crust into the center of the loaf.
When the bread is done, the crust color will range from a golden brown to a deep brown for artisan breads baked in a hot oven. Breads with a higher sugar content or in a hot oven will tend to brown more rapidly as the sugar caramelizes. If the bread is browning too rapidly, make a tent of aluminum foil and cover the top of the loaf.
In light-colored pans, the bottom crust is the last part to brown. With a fully-baked loaf, the bottom will color evenly in a light-colored pan.
My mother was a bread baker. She tested doneness by tapping the loaf with her finger–a fully-baked loaf will sound hollow when tapped. I don’t remember her ever making a mistake. Though she taught me to do the same, I’m not as good as she was. Out of habit, I still tap the loaf but I nearly always follow up with a thermometer probe and sometimes the thermometer proves me wrong.
If the tendency is to under-bake breads, the tendency is to over-bake cookies. Take them out just before you think they are done; you won’t be wrong often.
My father was a consummate cookie baker. If you had asked him what his secret was, he would have told you, “I don’t over-bake cookies.” The difference between a just right cookie and an over-baked one is dramatic.
Make cookies uniform in size. Not only are they more attractive but different sizes of cookies take different times to bake.
Most recipe writers tell you to leave the cookies on the sheet for a minute or two. Cookies continue to bake on a hot baking sheet. We always remove them as quickly as we can.
If the cookies look a little soggy in the middle, then leave them on the sheet for a few minutes and they will firm up.
Most cookies should be gold in color, not brown. The bottoms should be golden brown. Most of the time, if the bottoms are medium brown, they are over-baked.
Both the amount of sugar and soda in the recipe will affect how fast a cookie browns.
Chocolate cookies represent another challenge: you can’t tell if they are browning. If you are baking with a new recipe, bake a few cookies and check them for doneness before baking the entire batch. Chocolate cookies will tend to lose their “wet” look when done.
Many bar cookies will have a dry, shiny crust when done.
For most baked goods–but especially cakes–it is best to set the timer for a few minutes less than directed in the recipe—different ovens or even different positions in the oven bake differently. A dark pan bakes more quickly than a light pan. When you find your cake not quite done and continue baking, set the timer for three or four minutes and check again.
A toothpick inserted in the center of the cake will come out clean when done. “Clean” means a few crumbs. If there is wet looking batter clinging to the toothpick, it’s not done.
If you don’t want to poke a hole in the center of the cake, check for doneness with your finger. There should be some resiliency to the touch and the cake should spring back. When done, the cake will usually have a golden brown color to the top though different recipes will brown more or less quickly. When done, the cake will tend to pull away from the edges.
Quick breads are basically cakes in a loaf pan. The same tests that you use on cakes can be used with quick breads. Stick the toothpick or skewer right in the open crack in the center of the bread. The area under that crack seems to be the last area in the loaf to set up.
Incidentally, quick breads release from the pan easier if left to cool for a few minutes before removing. Because of the larger mass, a loaf does not continue cooking as cookies do.
Custard pies—including pumpkin pies—are a special problem. It takes quite a while for the protein in the eggs to set and make the pie firm. Often, the crust is becoming too brown before the eggs set. If so, cover the crust with a pie shield to keep it from browning too much.
When a custard pie is done, a knife inserted in the center of the pie will come out clean. If you don’t want a cut mark in the center of your pie, use the jiggle test. Pick the pie up with two hot pads or mitts and gently shake the pie back and forth. If done, all but the center should be firm—there will be a little jiggle in the center. The center will continue to cook and firm up after you remove the pie from the oven.
We hope these guidelines help. With practice and observation, you’ll soon become very proficient at judging when your bread or cookies are baked to perfection. Your baked goods will then be irresistible.
In case you missed it . . .
Last time, we talked about how to make rustic little apple pies. Read it here.
About the Author
Dennis Weaver has burned food from Point Barrow, Alaska, to Miami, Florida. He is the founder of The Prepared Pantry in Rigby, Idaho and the author of How to Bake: The Art and Science of Baking available as an E-book or as a Kindle book on Amazon.
Dennis lives in Rigby, Idaho, with his wife, Merri Ann. They have five wonderful children and six beautiful granddaughters.