Baking is no fun when you don’t get the results you want. Personally, I have a deep, abiding love for cookies of any variety—which might explain why pulling a tray of burnt treats from the oven makes my heart feel singed around the edges.
But did you know the blame for crispy cookies or an unevenly baked cake may lie with the oven, rather than with the baker?
Sure, it's a poor baker who blames his tools, but the best cooks know how to use their appliances to their best advantage. A subpar oven isn’t a death sentence for your baked goods—you just need to work with the appliance until it does what you want.
Is your oven really to blame?
If you repeatedly find burnt or undercooked areas on food you cook in your oven, it may be having trouble regulating temperature throughout the cavity.
Before jumping to any conclusions, use a carpenter’s level (or the level on your smartphone) to make sure that your oven is on even footing. If it’s not, adjust the legs until everything is straight. A tilted oven can contribute to uneven baking.
If you’ve placed aluminum foil or a cookie sheet on the bottom of the oven to catch any drips, this could also be the root of your problem. We know cleaning is a real bummer, but it’s better than messing with your oven’s airflow. Similarly, be sure not to cram your oven with pans. Multitasking can be a time-saver, but an overcrowded oven won't heat properly.
Finally, give your oven a thorough cleaning and see if that improves things. The fact is, a clean oven simply works better than a dirty one.
If you’ve avoided these mistakes and your food is still consistently over- or under-done, the oven itself may be the problem. Luckily, with a little experimentation and some common sense, you can get better results.
Problem: Food is burnt on the bottom
This issue is relatively common, but that doesn’t make it any less frustrating. Most ovens have their heating elements located on the bottom of the cavity, so the bottom of your food is usually exposed to the most direct heat.
If the top and middle parts of your food aren’t undercooked, you can try shortening the bake time or decreasing the temperature. You can also place your food on a higher rack, putting some more space between the heating element and your cookware. Metal pans tend to produce darker food, so try using glass or silicon, or even lining your pans with parchment paper.
Problem: Food is burnt on one side
This one is a bit trickier, but also surprisingly common. At Reviewed.com, we see it frequently in the test cakes and cookies we bake during oven testing. Like all types of uneven browning, it’s an indication of poor temperature regulation, and there’s no way to permanently fix it. But you can still try to put a positive spin on the situation—literally.
First: If your oven has a convection fan, try using it. Better airflow can improve the evenness of your baking. Only take more drastic measures if convection doesn’t fix the problem.
If the left side of your oven is browning food more quickly than the right, spin your pan 180 degrees halfway through baking. You’ll have to keep an eye on it to get it right—spin your dish too late or too early and you could be worsening that uneven browning. Using this technique may mean the baking time needs some shortening. Finding the sweet spot is dependent on the particular quirks of your oven.
Problem: Food is over- or under-cooked
This one’s simple, but some folks have a hard time diverging from a recipe. We’re here to give you permission.
If your food is coming out undercooked, you can take one of two approaches: increase the heat, or increase the bake time. If your food is coming out overcooked, do the opposite: turn down the temperature, or cut the time. As always, try using convection before going to the trouble of making these adjustments.
Our recommendation? Fiddle with the baking time on a case-by-case basis. If you’re whipping up a cake and it looks browned and firm before the recipe says it should be done, just take that sucker out of the oven. If the oven timer goes off and the cake is still pale and jiggly, keep it in the oven until it looks right.
Altering the proscribed temperature is a step to consider if you find you consistently need to adjust the bake time. You can experiment with raising or lowering it until you find something that works, but for the best results you may want to take the time to calibrate your oven.
Keep in mind that ovens often cycle their heat rather than maintaining a consistent temperature throughout the entire bake time. Keep an eye out for underbaked food and average temperatures that differ significantly from the set temperature, rather than minor fluctuations.
Problem: Hot or cold spots
The most frustrating issue an oven can have is hot or cold spots in the cavity. This problem means your oven has such terrible airflow that temperature varies seemingly at random.
If you're struggling with inconsistent results, try baking with convection. If that doesn’t work, there’s not much you can do beyond looking into repairs. But with that said, temperature fluctuations in the cavity can sometimes seem more random than they actually are.
Cooking Light suggests arranging slices of bread on a cookie sheet on the middle rack and baking them for a few minutes at 350°F. The way they brown (or don't brown) will create a heat map (and some delicious toast). If the darker spots on the toast cluster in specific areas, you may be able to position your food to avoid those areas, or shift the pan during baking to redistribute the heat.
Baking is a science, and a complex one at that. There are plenty of factors that can affect your results—an imperfect oven is just one of them. If our recommendations don’t work for you, it may be time to consider whether human error, altitude, ingredient quality and quantity, faulty recipes, and any number of other variables may have contributed to your unsatisfactory eats.