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Merri Ann, my sweet wife, baked cookies on Sunday for the grandkids. First she couldn’t find her prized dark baking sheet, it’s surprising how those things drift away. She sent me over to our store to borrow one from the test kitchen.
She set the oven temperature to 350 degrees. When she opened the oven door, the oven thermometer hanging off the oven rack registered well below 350. She cranked up the setting and waited until the oven thermometer registered 350 before putting the cookies in.
Her cookies were perfect.
Three Common Problems in Baking
We answer hundreds of questions. That’s what happens when you teach classes, have a store, and answer emails. Over and over, we see questions that are related to these three issues.
Problem #1: Your Temperature is Wrong
We had a demo at a local furniture store. We asked them to test their oven temperatures before we began. They were 35 degrees off. That’s common.
And that temperature indicator on your control panel?—don’t believe it. Chances are, it’s run on a timer and not a thermometer. Your oven temperature is not constant at the same setting either. Our oven takes a lot longer to heat than expected and after it’s been on for a couple hours, it gets a lot hotter than we want.
How do we know? We have an oven thermometer clipped on the rack in the oven. Knowing what temperature the oven really is, we’ll make accommodations in time and in settings. But be aware that you’ll lose a ton of heat when you open the oven door.
Your local appliance repair shop can send a technician to adjust your temperature—at least for many oven makes.
How to Bake: The Art and Science of Baking is a perfect reference book or a great text book for those who want to know more about baking. It has eight chapters—the information they learn in culinary schools. Plus ten more books.
Problem #2: You’re Using the Wrong Pan
“Lose the silver pan.” That’s what I tell people when they tell me that their cookies spread too much. When they tell me their fruit pies are soggy, I tell them the same thing. When their desserts take forever to bake, the first thing I ask about is a silver pan.
Silver pans reflect heat. Dark pans absorb heat. Most recipes were developed with dark pans.
That’s not the only problem: a different sized pan takes a different baking time. The depth of the batter is a big determinant in the time required to bake. It takes a long time to drive heat through deep, heavy batter. In the meantime, the edges are getting crustier.
Use the right sized pan. Use a dark pan.
Problem #3: Don’t Believe the Bake Time
By now you’re sensing that there are a lot of variables going on inside your oven. The listed bake time is a guess and a range. Knowing your oven, your pans, and your recipe helps, but check it early; don’t rely too much on what the recipe says.
But here are the overwhelming tendencies:
- We over-bake cookies, muffins, and cakes.
- We under-bake breads.
How do you tell when it’s done?
Looks are deceiving. Browning is simply the caramelization of the sugars in the batter. Use a poke test—a blade or toothpick inserted near the center. See how firm or how jiggly it is. Better yet, use a thermometer. We also use a thermometer with breads—the interior temperature has to be at least 190 degrees.
When baking cookies from a new cookie recipe or mix, I always place the first cookie on a cooling rack and return the sheet to the oven for a moment. Then I left up the rack and peer at the bottom of the cookie. It it’s golden, it’s done. If it’s brown, it’s over-done. That holds true for most recipes.
Just knowing about these problems will make you a better baker. Be aware and make adjustments and your baking will turn out better.