Baking Temperatures: Why They Matter

Oven temperatures

It's been established that baking is a science, and subject to the laws that govern chemistry, physics and other highly technical stuff. So, it should come as no surprise that temperature matters when it comes to this scientific, yet delicious, endeavor.

Have you ever wondered why 350ᵒ F is the magic number when baking cakes and cookies? And why it's so important to make sure your oven temperature is accurate? Knowing how temperature affects your baked goods will help you take control of your baking and help ensure better results every time.

Temperature affects ingredients in different ways. For example, cooks are aware that each type of cooking oil has a different "smoke point" (the temperature at which an oil starts to burn and smoke). So it's important to use the right one for the application, Similarly, bakers need to be aware of the correct temperatures for their recipes.

During baking, your batter transforms from a liquid mixture into solid--hopefully one that is light, fluffy and delicious. This is due to a complex process of chemical and physical reactions. Each step in the journey happens at a particular temperature, and the rate at which they occur depends on how hot the oven is. This is what happens, in order:

Fats melt Gases expand and form Sugar dissolves Proteins coagulate Starches gelatinize Gasses evaporate Caramelization occurs

To use cake as an example: at a low to medium temperature (300-375ᵒ F), these steps take place more slowly and evenly. The batter on the outside and inside of the cake bakes more or less at the same time, with the above steps happening one at a time in order. Conversely, when batter cooks at higher temperatures (400ᵒ F and above) the above steps happen in rapid succession and in uneven distribution. In this scenario, the cake crust will undergo all of the steps more quickly than the internal portions of the cake. Most likely you'll have a crust that is overbrowned while the inside is still uncooked.

Knowing this, you can also adjust oven temperatures during baking to achieve certain results. For example, experienced bakers know that if you want a high dome on a muffin, the trick is to start with a higher temperature (400-425ᵒ F), for the first few minutes, then reduce to a lower temperature for the remainder of the bake time. This accelerates the rise, then allows the internal portion of the batter to slowly catch up.

Still with us?

Yes, technical stuff, but well worth knowing. It boils down to this: your oven should be accurate. Periodically check its thermostat (your user manual will tell you how--it's easy). You should also consider using an oven thermometer (and replace it every year). Once you know that your oven is accurate, keep these points in mind:

1. A cake baked at 300-350ᵒ F is lighter and fluffier than a cake baked at 400ᵒ F. It has a pale, even outer crust which remains gummy due to the reduced degree of evaporation at the cake’s surface. The 400ᵒ F cake has a dark outer crust with a drier surface. Caramelization occurs faster, and can lend a burnt, acrid taste to the cake.

2. Cakes baked at 300-350ᵒ F have a very soft, smooth crumb. Cakes baked at higher temperatures have a slightly coarser texture. This is likely due to the speed under which the proteins coagulated.

So, a cake baked in an accurate oven and at the correct temperature will be lighter and fluffier, with a finer crumb. Follow the directions for the recipe, which takes into account the ingredients being used (remember--they all react with each other in certain ways), and you will achieve better, more consistent results.

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