Kitchen Tips Tuesday: Even Baking

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True confession: I hate my ovens! Many years ago, when I researched appliances for my kitchen, I read that electric ovens bake more evenly than gas. Gas however, is far superior for a cooktop. For these reasons, I opted to put in a gas range, and two electric ovens, which is quite unusual in New York City. I chose Viking, which had high ratings at the time. I even bought mulitple racks so that I could bake 6 sheets of cookies at a time. I hoped I would see a big difference from the standard issue gas oven I had been using. Yep, I saw a big difference and it wasn’t pretty.
Just after our big renovation was complete, we hosted Thanksgiving dinner. The dining table was delivered the day before, as were a sofa and chair for the den. My kitchen was glistening and new, fully upgraded and ready to be broken in with this fall feast.

The turkey was placed in the bottom oven and I used the top for the side dishes and desserts. At 9:30 pm, I cut the still uncooked turkey into pieces and popped it into the top oven to finish cooking. What a fiasco! After many checks, the Viking people have assured me that the temperature of the ovens is correct. It turns out, that after extensive research,using an architect, interior designer and visiting appliance showrooms, nobody mentioned that New York City doesn’t have the appropriate voltage for electric ovens. If one oven is in use, the second one doesn’t have enough volts to come to temperature and stay there. Pre-heating is a nightmare, as it takes easily half an hour to heat up. To make matters worse, the temperature control panel erased after a few cleanings, and the self-clean function doesn’t seem to work anymore. For a high end and expensive product, they are a huge source of disappointment. For a baker, they are a nightmare!

For better or worse, these ovens are my ovens, so I have learned to navigate my way through the undercooked, the burnt to a crisp and the unevenly baked items, one tray of ruined cookies at a time. My burden could become your bonus, as I have aquired all kinds of ways to try to alleviate the problem of uneven cooking. Since no oven is perfect, and few ovens are exactly the same, these tips could come in handy even for those of you who don’t suffer from oven issues.

Baking Tips for an Erratic Oven:

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Set the timer for a few minutes less than the recipe states. Check to see how the food is cooking and adjust the time or temperature accordingly. This means catching the cookies before they burn, covering the cake that is browning quickly but still raw inside, or noticing that one side of the pan is cooking faster than the other.

Rotate the pans. When I am baking, I sometimes notice hot spots, where cookies might burn on one side of the pan, while the others are perfectly fine. Also, the bottom of my oven is where the heating element is, so keeping cookies as far away from that as possible keeps the bottoms from burning before the tops are done. Rotating the pans among the different shelves as well as turning them around prevents any one part from living in the hot zone.

Go undercover. If a cake, pie or other item is getting very brown while the rest still needs some quality time in the oven, cover it loosely with aluminium foil. This stops the browning on the outside while allowing the inside to keep cooking.

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Adjust the temperature as necessary. Sometimes, I think a hotter temperature might be required than that in which my oven is set. Othertimes, I find baking with convenction at a slightly lower temperature allows for better circulation, and more even cooking. This is the case with some thinner cookies, where I want them to fully bake in the center, without becoming overly colored around the edges. Going to 325 degrees with convection vs. 350 or 375 degrees with normal baking can make a big difference.

Keep the oven door closed. Opening the oven door to check on the food frequently, allows the hot air to escape, and can alter the way the food is cooking. A quick glimpse here and there is often critical. Frequent checking, not so much. In my case, this problem is exacerbated by the quick loss of temperature, requiring that bottom heating element to kick into high gear to try bring things back to normal, thus burning my cookies in the process. Try to avoid opening the oven door until it is necessary.

While most people think of baking as an exact science, dealing with my erratic ovens has taught me otherwise. Learing how to watch out for over or under cooking, feeling the texture of dough or learning how to adjust flavors takes experience but is often necessary to get a superior outcome. It is sometimes a matter of a minute between perfectly baked and burnt to a crisp. Practice makes perfect!

PHOTOS: Glasshouse Images

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