One piece of equipment that you’re probably stuck with is your oven. What makes an oven “good” is its ability to accurately measure and regulate heat. Since so much of cooking is about controlling the rate of chemical reactions using heat, an oven that keeps a steady temperature and isn’t too cold or too hot can make a huge difference in your cooking and baking. There are two things you can do to make sure you get the best results with what you have:
Calibrate your oven. Get a digital probe thermometer and check that setting your oven to 350°F / 180°C actually lines up with the thermometer, placing the thermometer in the same location in the oven as your baked goods are going to go. If the temperature is way off, check to see if your oven has either an adjustment knob or a calibration offset setting. Otherwise, keep in mind the offset when setting temperatures. Your oven will cycle a bit above and below the target temperature—the oven will overshoot its target temperature, then turn off, cool down, turn back on, and so on. It’s possible that your oven could be correctly calibrated but measure too hot or too cool, so check the thermometer several times over a span of 10 minutes.
Improve your oven’s recovery time and even out the heat: always keep a baking or pizza stone in your oven. Say you’re baking cookies: oven set to 375°F / 190°C, cookies on pan, ready to go. In an empty oven, the only thing hot is the air and the oven walls, and opening the door to pop the cookies in leaves you with just hot oven walls. You’ll get much better results by keeping a baking or pizza stone on the very bottom rack in your oven. (Don’t place the cookie sheet directly on the pizza stone!)
The baking stone does two things. First, it acts as a thermal mass, meaning faster recovery times for the hot air lost when you open the door to put your cookies in. Second, if you have an electric oven, the stone serves as a diffuser between the heating element and the bottom of your baking tray. The heating element emits a hefty kick of thermal radiation, which normally hits the bottom side of whatever bakeware you put in the oven. By interposing between the heating element and the tray, the stone blocks the direct thermal radiation and evens out the temperature, leading to a more uniform heat. Buy the thickest, heaviest stone you can. Like any thermal mass, a stone will add lag to heating up the oven (and cooling it down— that’s the point!), so make sure to allow extra time to preheat your oven.
Check back next week for the Lab: The Sweet Way To Calibrate Your Oven.