Understanding your Oven – A must to bake a perfect cake (or bread)

 

….you are trying a new recipe and it seems that it goes really well. Every stage, the mixing, folding… seems to be perfect. You then put your cake in the oven and wait for the cake to turn into that gorgeous cake in the photos coming along with the recipe. Everything looks right. But suddenly, your cake cracks. And it doesn’t stop at the first, second cracks but continues expanding and cracking like a flower blooming.

Then, it slowly collapses…

If you have ever encountered the above problem or other troubles that are close to this, such as: your bake goods collapse after being taken out of the oven, their texture are dense and slightly wet (while it should be fluffy, dry and moist), they have eggy smells… then this article is for you.

In the five-year-blogging at Savoury Days (my other blog in Vietnamese), on a regular basis, I received questions on the above issues, and of course, the readers want to know what the causes are and how to solve them.

It can partly because of the recipe itself but a common and major cause that many people might not have thought of is: “because of the oven“.

Or I should say “because you still don’t understand your oven so the baking time and temperature were not set correctly“.

No matter whether you are a professional baker or an amateur baker, I guess you might have heard of these following baking rules at least once:

  • Always preheat the oven at the required temperature for at least 10 to 15 minutes before baking, to make sure that the oven has reached the desired temperature when you place the baking pans or pastries in it. If you only turn on the oven when putting the pans in, the heating process (from room temperature to the desired temperature) will cook a thin layer of outer crust while the center receives little or no impact (due to low heat). This results in the crust being hardened, thickened and overcooked, while the center is undercooked. Moreover, for recipes that involve whipping eggs, letting the batter rest for too long results in air bubbles deflating, which weakens the rising effects.
  • Always position the baking pan so that it’s placed at the center of the oven. Therefore, if the pan you’re using is larger and taller, you need to lower the rack by one or two levels, to make sure the pan is always positioned at the center.
  • Always bake with both top and bottom heat, which allows the temperature to be evenly distributed to all the sides around the pan.

However, just the above notes are not enough. Each oven’s features are different in practical situations. Particularly home ovens (non professional ovens, sometimes too small) are especially prone to instability, including some of these issues:

  • Incorrect temperature. The real temperature in the oven may be higher or lower than the temperature shown on the setting control knob.
  • Top and bottom heat is not equally diffused. Top heat maybe hotter than bottom heat, and vice versa.
  • Heat is not evenly distributed inside the oven. Some spots (such as oven corners) may be hotter than others.

For reasons above, besides grasping the basic rules, it is important to understand how your oven is calibrated, especially its functional problems, so that you’re able to set your baking temperature, duration and rack placement most appropriately. Setting the temperature so that it’s stable and suitable, with the heat being distributed evenly enough for the cake to rise properly, and be thoroughly cooked, is among the most crucial factors in baking.

– If either the oven temperature or the top heat is too high, the cake will rise very rapidly (especially foam cakes such as sponge cake or chiffon cake). If the cake rises too fast, the inner texture usually is yet to form and reach a stable enough point. The texture being too weak most likely results in the cake collapsing right in the oven, or deflating after having been taken out. The top may be slightly burned and tough, while the center may come out heavy and gooey due to being undercooked.

– In contrary, if the temperature is too low, lack of inner heat distribution will likely prevent the cake from rising properly, with the top being light yellow, thick and dry. The interior texture usually is dense and wet. Lack of baking time leads to the cake being undercooked and under-risen, with too much moisture inside. So, after you take out the cake, this moisture will cause the cake to shrink and collapse, or the top being dented. Hence, based on the signs and symptoms of the cake, you can somewhat indicate your oven’s problems, which allows for solutions.

Out of the numerous questions that I have received from my readers on Savoury Days, queries regarding ovens, baking temperature and duration account for about 60%. Some of the most comprehensive lessons that I have drawn are:

  • Try to acquire the best set of tools and appliances possible: invest in a good oven, an oven thermometer… While baking, the real temperature in the oven usually isn’t fixed, it’s likely to waver within 8-10°C above or below the set temperature. For example, if you set the temperature at 160°C, then the real internal temperature while you’re baking usually fluctuates between 150 and 170°C. This is completely normal and shouldn’t have significant impacts on the baking process. This oscillation is due to the oven automatically and temporarily turning on/off to maintain the set temperature. The temperature indicated by your oven thermometer is the real temp, which doesn’t fluctuate much.
  • Try to understand the problems or “illnesses” that your oven has, to come up with solutions accordingly.
  • If the top and bottom heat is not equal (one hotter than the other), then switching up the baking pan placement, by raising or lowering the baking rack, is the best solution to bring the heat affecting the pan’s top and bottom to a balance. Another way to tackle this issue is to preheat with both top and bottom heat, but switch to bottom heat as soon as you start baking. When the cake has risen considerably and is starting to establish its texture, change to double heating so that the top crust is cooked and turns to the desired golden brown color. However, this method should only be applied if the heat disparity is large, you have tried baking at the lowest rack and the top still gets burned too quickly.
  • If there are some hotter spots than others in your oven (usually the corners are hotter than the center), after having baked for about 1/2 to 2/3 of the required time, you can rotate the baking tray to help the cake get cooked evenly. However, it should be noted that opening the oven at any point while baking will abruptly reduce the oven temperature, which may affect your cake; so if you must, do it as quickly as possible. Besides, there are some types of cakes/pastries that strictly prohibits opening the oven while being baked (because this will instantaneously deflate them), such as puff pastries, or foam cakes. In these cases, the best solution is to avoid the hottest spots when placing your baking tray, or somehow conceal the hotter spots in your oven.
  • For smaller ovens (volume under 40 liters), the heat gets transmitted to the batter more quickly and powerfully than for bigger ones (due to the smaller distance from the batter to the heating elements). Therefore, if you bake with a small oven, you must set the temperature lower than what is written in recipes. Besides, bigger baking pans are not recommended, since they may result in the outer crust getting cooked and hardened before the center does. Especially for the Chiffon foam cakes, it is important to set the temperature low enough for the cake to rise gradually and steadily, which allows enough time for the cake to be cooked completely inside out.
  • Darker pans transmit heat more quickly than those of lighter color. So if you use a darker baking pan, you should lower the temperature by 5-10°C from that indicated by the recipe. Besides, if you use a fan force oven, you may want to set the temperature about 10 – 15°C lower than the baking temperature stated in the recipe.
  • Last but definitely not least, appliances such as microwaves or halogen oven, are not suitable for most baking cakes, bread and pastries. These appliances usually are single-directional (meaning the heat only radiates from either the top or the bottom) and are small in size. These features result in uneven distribution of heat into and around the cake, with one side being hotter than the other, which leads to the cake being unevenly baked; one side may be overcooked and the other undercooked. Sometimes, microwaves or rice cookers can be used to make some particular cakes but these recipes normally go with a couple of special notes. 

To sum up, be a “mindful” baker by knowing and understanding your oven. Follow the recipes but make adjustments on the time and temperature when needed.

Happy baking always! :)

 

9 Comments

Saba

thank you it is useful article.My oven has only a bottom heat! But I think the heat is circulating in the oven so I most of the time have acceptable baking cakes.

Reply
Rosa

Thank you so much for this article… its very practical & professional

Happy baking everyone

Reply
Chaithanya

I’m using a 16L OTG and the cake has a eggy smell which is e don’t get in the bakery cakes . I used less number of eggs compared to the recipe .

I whisk with hand whisk not the electric one , is it the problem ?

Reply
Maria

Thank you for sharing .. I’m a using a convection oven my cake seems to rise slowly but the surface is bugging me its not smooth it’s like by the end bubbles in the batter seem to climb to the surface how can I get a smooth top?

Reply
jerryf

You may want to correct this to read:

“if you use a fan force oven, you may want to set the temperature about 10 – 15°C than the baking temperature stated in the recipe”

“10 – 25°C {lower} than the baking temperature stated in the recipe”

Reply
Sim

Wow this is a really informative article! Got to know that baking in a darker/lighter pan makes a difference !

Reply

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