How to Get to Know a New Oven's Baking Temps
As a home chef, you get to know your oven. You know if it tends to cook a little hot or cold. You know if the top rack is better than the bottom, or if the middle is just right. You might know if the right or left side cooks more evenly. You might even know exactly how long it takes for your oven to preheat to the usual baking temps. Even if your not exactly a 'chef', the relationship with your home oven is a personal one. All your oven-related recipes rely on understanding how your oven works and how it can work for you.
So moving to a new house is a bigger adventure than just packing up and unpacking somewhere new. You also have to rediscover the kitchen. Most people don't take their ovens with them when they move - ovens are an integral appliance in each individual kitchen. So a new home means a new oven - which means learning all its little heating quirks all over again.
Don't worry, here's how to streamline the process of getting to know a new oven.
Place a Thermometer Inside the Oven
Start with a simple oven thermometer. Metal and glass on the outside (or oven-approved plastic) ensures that this thermometer is safe at high temperatures while accurately reflecting the current temperature. Look for "oven thermometers" that go upwards of 475 so that you're using the right tool.
Place that little thermometer in your oven and learn to keep an eye on it. Often, an accurate analog oven thermometer will be more precise than the digital sensor and display. You will also get a sense for how quickly your oven goes from cold to your desired temperatures.
Set a Few Experimental Timers
Learn the oven timer mechanism before you are relying on the timer to avoid burning a dish. Set a few experimental timers when the oven is off, instead. Set a one-minute timer, five-minute timer, ten-minute timer, and so forth. As each goes off, you gain more understanding of how to use the oven's clock and timer functions.
Change the time as well. Even if the clock is accurate, cycle it around the hour and minute settings just to be confident that you can. The power is bound to go out at some point, or a breaker will get flipped, and you'll need to reset the oven eventually. It'll help to know how when it counts.
Measure Your Oven's Temperature Accuracy
Set your oven to preheat to 350 F and wait 10-20 minutes - or until the preheat timer beeps. Then check the manual thermometer inside your oven. Does it read the correct temperature? Many ovens are a few degrees off from their internal thermostat. This is why an oven cooks "hot" or "cool" as a quirk. This quick can be learned or fixed, but first you need to know the offset.
The temperature offset is the measurement of how off-them-mark your oven really is. You oven might be five degrees hot or twenty degrees cold. If the offset is within 30 degrees, you can usually fix it by recalibrating your oven. Then your oven thermostat will be accurate.
Time Your Preheat to 350 F
How long does it take for your oven to preheat? For most ovens, waiting about ten minutes is sufficient but you can really streamline your recipes if you know for sure. So you might as well take a measurement. once again, that oven thermometer is helpful to learn about your oven. Set a stopwatch timer (or just check the time) and keep an eye on the internal thermometer's temperature.
When the thermometer reaches your preheat temperature, check how long it's been. Some ovens heat more slowly than others. If you're lucky, your oven might reach 350 in seven minutes or similar, just a little faster than other ovens. This way, you can plan shorter waiting times for preheat recipes.
The Sugar Test - Find Hot and Cold Spots
Heating elements have a unique response to being dirty and growing old: uneven heating. If your oven elements look mottled (splotchy) when they glow, or if your food seems to not cook evenly - there's a test for that. In fact, you can run the hot-and-cold spots test before ever risking a pan of casserole or a sheet of cookies.
The simple solution is the sugar test. Get two or more cookie sheets, enough to cover your oven racks and close the door. Place butcher paper over the sheets, then sprinkle the paper with an even coat of sugar. Then place each pan in the oven, arranging them evenly over the racks - top and bottom.
Toast the sugar until it starts to crisp and remove the pans. If some spots are paler than others, those are cool spots. If some are brown or burnt, those are hot spots.
Move the Oven Racks Around
You can also test how oven rack placement effects your new oven's cooking patterns. Maybe the upper rack is more powerful or the lower rack cooks more evenly. Do the sugar test while moving around the height of your oven racks. You may notice some interesting changes that will benefit how you cook in the future. If you don't notice any changes, good news. Your oven cooks evenly throughout.
Test if Your Oven Racks are Level (at Every Level)
Level oven racks also matter a great deal - for batter recipes if nothing else. If your racks are uneven, your cakes will be lop-sided and your food may cook unevenly. Racks can become uneven by being bent, warping in the heat, or the inside of the oven (thus the rack tracks) warping instead.
Get a small bubble level and test out your oven racks, just be sure the oven is cool first. First test the level across the front of the rack, then across te center and back of the rack. Then test the perpendicular (back to front) level at the right, center, and left sides. Take note if the racks are uneven and what might be causing that.
Now that you are familiar with your new oven, you can get to baking. Cakes, roasts, casseroles, pizza, and complex desserts are all within your sights. Whether your oven is even-cooking and perfect or it has a few quirks worth knowing, aren't you glad you ran a few tests before the next few hundred recipes in your new house?
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