One of the most common complaints I get in my baking classes is students saying how dreadful their oven is to use. Do any of these sound familiar to you:
- one area of the oven being hotter than another,
- each time you bake your outcomes are different ( maybe undercooked one time or overcooked the next, i.e. a lack of consistency)
I liken these comments to people moaning about how beastly their boyfriend is or a disappointment in their latest girlfriend’s behaviour. Perhaps the problem is that they are not being handled correctly or there is an unrealistic expectation of how they will behave?
For best results (both human and oven-related) it might help to understand your oven’s (and lover’s) little foibles – don’t apportion blame for characteristics that are inherent in its/his/her performance. Why not work with their best features and get great results?
How often do you use your oven?
Most of us only use our ovens for an hour or two maybe every two or three days. We preheat the oven and, once the thermostat light goes out – think it is up to temperature. It is, but probably only in one area where the thermometer is positioned. It does not take into account that the shelves and certain patches in the oven walls have not evened out. You may need to allow a longer time for preheating to get a really even ambience in your oven. (In Winter I find it is worse because the metal is generally colder). I now always bake a tray of biscuits or macarons before a class to get my oven really loosened up for consistent results in the class, i.e. always cooking at the optimum temperature.
In simple terms the oven sides are made of metal that expand and contract as they heat and cool with the particles in the metal shifting their positions. (This also applies to baking tins but I shall save that for another blog.) Most commercial bakeries use their ovens every day for eight to ten hours. As a result the metal ‘tempers’ very evenly as the particles have memory and expand quickly and easily to even out the temperature (I liken it to going to the gym regularly – your muscles remember the exercises more easily than when going once a month). Constant heating equals consistent baking results. I find the lower the quality of the oven the more pronounced the problem.
Do you understand the principles of how your oven works?
Different types of oven will all perform in slightly different ways. These are the most commonly found:
Conventional electric oven – These are less usual these days but often, if you have a double oven with a large oven and a small half size oven, the smaller oven is a conventional electric oven. The heat in this type of oven is produced by elements either in the sides of the oven or the top and bottom of the oven. This (slowly) heats the air in the oven up to the required temperature. It can use a lot of electricity. The oven will be hottest at the top.
Conventional gas oven – The oven is heated by the gas flames at the bottom back of the oven and again the air is hottest at the top. The gas oven heats more quickly than the electric one.
Fan assisted oven – These operate as described above with a fan at the back that circulates the air around the oven. This provides a more even heat distribution.
Fan oven (as opposed to fan assisted) – these make up the majority of ovens now sold in the UK. The air is drawn out of the oven through the fan at the back over a heated element and injected back into the oven at different levels. This saves energy because you are only heating a small element over which the air is heated as opposed to heating up static air in the whole oven cavity and heats up far more quickly. Under perfect conditions the temperature for a fan oven would be adjusted down by about 10% compared to something being cooked in a conventional electric oven.
Do you view a recipe as a guide or gospel?
So many times I have heard people wail that they follow the recipe to the letter and still the result is undercooked/burnt etc. Do you realise that the temperatures provided may not be correct for your oven? The author is using another oven in another kitchen and you may need to adapt your recipes to suit. Oven manufacturers are allowed a margin of error (I think around 8%) of the stated temperature compared to the true temperature before an oven is regarded as faulty. A recipe may say 180°C so a 5% leeway hotter would mean you need to cook at 190°C. The author’s oven might be cooking at 5% cooler than the stated temperature so actually cooking at about 170°C. A further complication is that often it does not specify the type of oven being used, e.g. the difference between conventional or fan oven. You may find it helpful to buy an oven thermometer to focus on whether your oven cooks hotter or cooler than the stated temperature.
It is important that you take ownership of the process, adapting recipes and oven temperature to suit your way of cooking in your kitchen. Perhaps also get into the thought process of thinking cool heat, medium heat, medium hot, hot etc. And of course the better quality the oven, the less unbalanced the results.
Be tender with your oven and it will reward you with great results (all under your guidance). You don’t expect a new lover to behave in the same way as an earlier one; you can delight in pleasures new. Happy baking!