I find myself spending more and more time on Tik Tok (you can follow me here!) Watching videos of people doing dance challenges, all of the dog videos and the landscaping videos. Y’all nothing is more soothing than watching an expert cut grass, nothing. I don’t make the rules.
A downside to tiktok, for me, is that sometimes it’s almost impossible to find videos that you’ve already watched. Especially if in the moment, you didn’t follow the account and have no hope of ever remembering that person’s username. Anyway, a while back I watched a video that basically explained that in order to become an expert (in any field) a person has to understand the fundamentals in such a way that they don’t even realize that they are doing a fundamental task. I want to say there was an analogy about Michael Jordan, but since I’m not a huge basketball fan I don’t remember the fundamental thing. The point is that I’ve been baking for so long that there are things that I just do because I’ve always done them. It’s an automatic response to stepping in the kitchen. And now I’m going to start sharing those baking basics with y’all.
When we lived in DC we moved all of the time. Every two years, our rent would get sky high, or we needed to live on the other side of the metro or whatever. We got really efficient at moving all of our belongings from place to place, because that was just the name of the game. I didn’t start baking seriously until 2011, and that’s when the appliances in a rental kitchen became so much more important to me, because you can’t really change them out. Unless they are broken, you have to work with what you got. A couple times we got lucky and had brand new appliances. We’ve had gas and electric ovens -- I prefer electric ovens, but a couple of those gas ovens were actually pretty good.
And then last year we finally bought our first house and I ended up with the most dumpster fire oven of them all. Y’all. How did this happen to me?!?! We literally bought this house for the kitchen but that oven has been a mess since day 1. The temperature is NEVER whatever it says on the dial. There’s a hot spot in the back right corner. And the timer. The timer beeps exactly three times and then it goes off. Hope you heard it because it’s done beeping. I’m patiently waiting for the oven that I want to buy to go on sale, but in the meantime here is how I check an oven in a new place and troubleshoot before any real baking starts!
1. Find the Manual
I’m not saying you need to read the thing, you just need to find it. If you didn’t purchase the oven yourself, (apartment, new house whatever) google is going to be your best bet. In order to google you need to know the make and model of the oven. Usually this information can be found on the oven door. If your oven is older, click this link for possible locations. Once you’ve located the model number, google “make + model+ owners manual”. Having the oven manual available will help you troubleshoot the most common issues if they come up.
2. Buy an Oven Thermometer
You know how when you use a gym treadmill and you know the calories burned are 1000% wrong because how could they possibly be right? Yeah. That’s how you need to treat your oven until you know differently. We are assuming that your oven is a dirty liar, especially the display. No due process over here. It’s wrong until proven right. The best way to determine the true temperature of your oven is with a secondary thermometer. Seriously this will be the best $8 dollars you have ever spent. As a “geriatic” millennial, the most important feature for me is the size of the display on the thermometer. I need to be able to clearly see the numbers with the oven door closed. And let’s be honest-- my eyesight never recovered after that law school thing. Here are a few resources (this one) and (that one) when choosing your oven thermometer.
Now, rearrange the racks in your oven so that there is a rack in the middle of the oven. Place the oven thermometer on the center of the rack--right where you’d slide your frozen pizza. Close the oven and turn the oven on to 350 degrees F. When the oven alerts you that the oven is up to temperature check the thermometer (without opening the door!). If it’s 350 degrees, congratulations, you’ve won the oven lottery!
What if the oven isn’t the right temperature?
3. What if the oven temperature is wrong?
It happens. All of the time. Grab a pad of paper and note the times and temperature in 5 minute intervals for 30 minutes. I know! It's a science experiment in your kitchen! Now we have some data to review (the nerd in me is super thrilled!) What trends do you notice? Is it a slow and steady climb to 350 and then stays within that range ( +/- 5 degrees)? Now you know your oven takes longer to preheat and you can adjust accordingly.
Is your oven +/- 25 degrees away from the intended target? How consistent are the temperatures? Does it ever level out? If you notice that your oven is consistently +/-25 degrees away from the intended temperature, then it’s time to recalibrate the oven. Pull out that oven manual from step one and follow the instructions for recalibrating. If you like watching videos-- google “make +model + how to recalibrate” and tons of youtube videos will pop up to walk you through the process.
4. Make Sure the Oven is Level
You’re probably laughing right now, but this actually happened to me! In our last apartment the range itself looked fine, but upon trying my initial test run I noticed something strange. My 9x13 cake was lopsided. And when I say lopsided, I really mean ¾ of the cake shifted to the other side of the pan. I have never seen anything like it. I grabbed the leveler from the tool bag and lo and behold the thing wasn’t level at all. In order to remedy this you will need to adjust the feet of the oven based on the oven manual instructions (another good place to google!)
5. Now do a test run!
The first bake in a new oven is never a sexy bake because I am still wearing my science hats! And like a scientist, we need to do an experiment, which I like to call the “cake mix test”. The cake mix test is how I realized that the last apartment oven wasn’t level. So much chaos! The idea is that you want to bake something you know you can’t mess up, isn’t overly expensive so if it’s ruined it won’t be the end of the world.
I recommend buying a box yellow cake mix, bonus points if the cake is also on sale. Mix the cake based on the instructions (now is not the time to add extra things to the cake!) and bake it in a 9x13 pan. Make your adjustments from your recalibrating experiment and place the cake in the center of the middle rack.
Why a yellow cake mix?
- It eliminates user error (for most people!) We know that if you can follow the instructions on the back that the cake should rise and turn out.
- The 9x13 pan covers a decent amount of space in the oven.
- A yellow cake will show the heat spots if a section of the oven is too hot. You probably won’t be able to tell the difference if you’re using a chocolate or red velvet cake mix.
- I like yellow cake. It’s one of my favorites.