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Tools: the oven

I’ve caused occasional bemusement with my lackadaisical attitude toward oven temperatures. You probably have a mother, grandmother, or aunt who has given you the same hand wave when you ask about the temperature at which to bake their Whateveritis, and perhaps you want to strangle them when they do it.

“Just tell me the temperature!” you may think. “WHAT TEMPERATURE DOES IT NEED TO BE???”

The reason a more experienced cook may be handwavy toward oven temperature is that the oven is a tool like anything else, and once you know how to use it, as with everything else about cooking, you are freed from the constraints of A Recipe that you have to follow with slavish devotion.

The oven applies even dry heat to your food. On the stove food gets high heat from below. In the oven the food is hit with a much lower temperature of heat and it’s hit with the heat from all around. Cooking food in the oven is generally slower than on the stove, just because we are applying lower heat all around the dish.

The oven can ALSO provide a delightfully browned or crisp finish to your food that you can’t get any other way. But that’s a secondary purpose. You can make food edible with even dry heat whether or not you get that golden brown delicious finish. But you can also add a delicious touch with the right crispy finish.

Don’t get yourself confused between the two tasks. If you’re baking a casserole, you want that even dry low heat. That’s what will cook your food. If the top isn’t as brown as you like but the center of the casserole is perfectly cooked, you can get the crispy brown top in other ways (I’ll talk about that in a second), but you don’t want to interfere with the perfect cooked-ness of the casserole to get them.

I think anything lower than 350 is a pretty low oven. You’ll rarely use these temperatures unless you’re doing something that requires VERY slow, low heating, such as long cooking of ribs. Cooking this low and slow isn’t suitable unless the food is very moist and will continue to be (like with ribs, which have a lot of gelatin, fat, and connective tissue in them that takes time to break down.)

Casseroles themselves often bake at 350 – a nice lowish even temperature.

375 is an all-purpose temperature. You can’t go far wrong with 375 (this is Fahrenheit; convert to Celsius if you need) if you’re doing something that doesn’t have a recipe with it. I still keep all-purpose cookbooks (Fanny Farmer is my favorite) if only to check the temperature at which to roast a chicken or cook a meatloaf or bake bread. But if you don’t have a recipe for a guide, start with 375 and adjust. Center of the thing didn’t get cooked? Go 350 (like a casserole or a lasagna). Too dry before it was done? Move it up to 400 and cook it for less time.

400-425 is a pretty hot oven. Cookies, for instance, may bake at 425 – but only for twelve minutes. With an oven this hot, you need to watch the food, make sure it doesn’t burn, sometimes rotate it to ensure even cooking. A clean oven distributes heat more evenly. (You thought oven cleaning was just to make you feel guilty or ruin your life, didn’t you? No, it actually helps the operation of the tool.) But I’ve never met a perfect oven, and when applying high heat quickly, you may need to ensure that it gets done evenly by turning trays around.

Few things bake at 450 or higher. No-knead bread bakes at 450 – and that’s a really hot oven. Be careful when you start turning the oven up this high. Silicone handles may start to break down or melt at 500. If you are going to use an oven this hot – which you may, to finish a steak, for instance – you need to be using ALL stainless-steel or cast iron cookware, or enamel-on-steel which won’t be destroyed at that temperature. You also kind of need to know what you’re doing with an oven this hot – bread bakes beautifully at this temperature but an extra few minutes makes a lot of difference, so pay attention.

If you’ve never used The Mysterious Bottom of the Oven, otherwise known as the broiler, then Alton Brown gives you the best explanation of the broiler: it’s a grill, upside down. It provides EXTREMELY high heat at close quarters, and is great for crisping or browning things. But it’s the kind of tool that can really turn on you so let’s leave it for another discussion. Once you get it under control you’ll be thrilled you have it. But it’s not an everyday tool, at least not for me.

A warning regarding ovens: the thermostat often LIES LIES LIES. Unless you can spring for a thermometer, you have no IDEA what temperature your oven actually provides. Once you KNOW that, though, you can live a happy life. My oven runs ten degrees cold. Now that I know that, I set it to 385 when I want to cook at 375, and I can get on with my life. This is vital. Otherwise you could spend the rest of your life thinking you’re a terrible cook when really it’s just that the tool is LYING TO YOU. Get an inexpensive oven thermometer, the kind you leave in the oven (borrow one from a friend, maybe?) and set your oven to 375 and see what you actually get. Seriously. It will improve your life in the kitchen. The money you’ll save on ruined food will far offset the cost of the thermometer.

Now let’s tackle a couple of questions.

Let’s say I want to cook bacon in the oven. This is SO much better a method than the stovetop (again, thank you Alton Brown). It applies heat evenly and you don’t have all the spatter from the quick high heat of the stove meeting that fatty delicious bacon.

Absent any other info, I might put it in an oven-safe skillet or pan and in the oven (start it in cold oven) at 400. It’ll heat up pretty high, which sort of accords with that crispy edge I like to my bacon. Eventually I always want to drain off all the fat it’s sitting in (because I’m too lazy to cook it on a rack like Alton recommends) but be aware, once you drain the fat it cooks even quicker. Once it gets close to done I need to watch it, and if it looks like it’s going too fast, I might turn the oven down to 375 and leave the door open for a few minutes. If I don’t want to have to watch it like a hawk, well, put it in a cold oven at 375 and once it starts to smell good, check it and keep checking it every few minutes till it’s done.

Something a little more difficult: oven-roasted potatoes. I love those potatoes you get at the restaurant where there’s a crispy golden edge, maybe with some pepper and rosemary, and the creamy insides.

Well, one key to that is to choose the right potato. Russets always finish drier and mealier inside; Yukons or red potatoes stay moister and denser inside. Pick the kind you like! Cut them into whatever size pieces you want (sometimes I dice them, sometimes I just cut them into chunks, sometimes I slice them into slices. Rub them with olive oil or other plain oil and sprinkle them with what you want to flavor them (plain pepper and salt is SO good), then spread them out on a cookie sheet, oven-safe skillet, or other flat open pan and put them in a 400 degree oven. (What’s an oven-safe skillet? Remember what I said above about materials safe for high heat? Stainless steel or cast iron are your best bets.) Bake for an hour or until they are as crispy as you want. Eat. Yum.

Now what’s difficult about the potatoes? Well, depending on how big your pieces are, they may take less or more time to cook. Maybe they aren’t getting as crispy as you want.

So then let’s talk about how to get that crispy finish. Assuming the potato IS getting as cooked as you want (how do you know? Take one out and taste it!), you can do a few things to get that finish quicker, before the inside is TOO cooked:

ONE: move the rack up in the oven. Heat rises, plus it reflects harder off the top of the oven. Need a crispier finish quick? Move the rack and the pan to the highest level. WATCH the food as you will be amazed at how quickly this can work. I mean check it every three minutes or so.

TWO (for the brave): Pop it in the broiler for a few minutes. Remember, the broiler is VERY hot, and may take some practice to use. (I hate recipes that are all “Pop it in the broiler for a few minutes to brown the top of your lasagna.” Dudes, you must never have been young and callow and peeling burnt spots off the top of your casserole ready to cry. There is no POP. The broiler is a serious thing and requires care and a bit of worry. But if you do check it, like EVERY MINUTE, the broiler IS intense dry quick heat that will indeed brown… if you need it.)

Maybe I’m alone in taking years to reach an understanding with my oven. But perhaps if you’ve ever tried cooking in an oven and been less than pleased with the results, this will help you reach an understanding with this cooking tool.

1 comment to Tools: the oven

  • This is awesome. I’m 34 and I still look at my oven squinty eyed. I really want to let you know how much these posts mean to me. I love them. I consider myself a fairly decent cook. I don’t poison my family and they pretty much eat what I make. These posts are invaluable to me. Thank you so much for the time and effort you put into these. 🙂

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