Deciding on oven temperature – When a recipe doesn’t tell

Updated: 8-Feb-2017

I used to be pretty worried about using the correct temperature for my oven when baking something. I’d check carefully in the recipe, whether I chose the correct setting. If the recipe was in Fahrenheit I would ask Google to convert it to Celsius again for me (I never get the hang of the conversion…).

However, after doing some research on the history of ovens (and essentially realizing that those exact temperature conditions are really quite a recent phenomenon!) I was worried a lot less so. In the past few months and weeks I’ve chosen oven temperatures a lot using common sense and so far no horros occured ;-).

Therefore, it’s time for an oven temperature guideline I would say. Not only for home cooks, but for everyone using an oven.

The best/correct temperature

As I learned while researching oven history most ovens are not that precise in their temperature. It’s very normal that they fluctuate by 10°C or even more. Also, it seems as if most temperatures have simply been chosen based on experience. Often temperatures are pretty flexible and can be tweaked quite a bit.

Over time, certain temperatures have become the standard for various products. Bread recipes are often baked at 220°C (430°F), cakes at 160°C (320°F), meat in the oven is often cooked at 180°C (355°F). This is a combination of experience and testing, but I think it’s also based on ‘that’s how it’s always been done, so let’s keep on doing that’. There is no science to it though, which means that in reality you can probably be a lot more flexible with temperatures than you currently are.

What happens in the oven?

To help understand the baking process and how to optimize your oven temperature you should know what’s going on inside an oven. In essence there are only a few processes that actually occur in the oven. Here’s a quick overview:

  • Browning reactions: such as the Maillard reaction or caramelization (browning of meat, bread, vegetables, cheese). Both occur faster at higher temperatures and slightly drier environments. A Maillard reaction requires both sugars and proteins to be present. For caramelization to occur only sugars are necessary. Caramelization starts around 140-160°C, the Maillard reaction can even take place at room temperature. But both greatly accelarate at higher temperatures.
  • Evaporation of moisture: a very important part of a lot of baking processes such as baking bread (you’ll want a dry crispy crust), souffles (you’ll want some evaporated water to help lift the souffles). Water evaporates at 100°C.
  • Gelatinization of starch: heat and moisture will gelatinize starch in a lot of dishes varying from baked potatoes to blueberry muffins. The temperature at which gelatinization starts differs per starch, but most gelatinize at temperatures higher than 80°C.
  • Protein denaturation: proteins will denature because of heat treatment, resulting in gelation or coagulation, this will give structure to a product (such as a meringue). Enzymes are proteins as well, once these are denatured, they will not be active anymore. Proteins denature at different temperatures, for egg this temperature lies around 62°C (for the e°gg white).
  • Melting of fat: fat is melted in the oven, it depends on the product what the influence will be, in baked goods melted fats will make a product more flexible for increasing in volume for instance. Melting temperatures ary greatly between fats, olive oil is even liquid at room temperature, butter (a commonly used far in baking of course) is generally melted at about 35°C.
  • Raising agents are activated: heat will accelerate baking powder and baking soda and give yeast a last surge in expansion.
  • Micro-organisms die: once your temperature rises high enough, most micro-organisms (bacteria, yeast, moulds eg) won’t survive and simply die, making your food safe to eat. Most (but not all) pathogenic (thus sick making) micro-organisms won’t survive at temperatures above 80°C, above 100°C even more of them will have died.

Thus, a lot of processes occur, most of them go even faster at higher temperatures.

Knowing this we can provide you with some guidelines to finding the best oven temperature.

Start using what you know

Have you always baked your cookies at 170°C? And want to bake a new type that’s not too different? Start at the same temperature. Doesn’t turn out as you hoped for? Have a look at the tips and tricks below to adjust during baking or the next time you make them.

Temperature vs. Time

The most simple ‘rule’ is (assume you have the exact same recipe):

Higher baking temperature = Shorter baking time (and vice versa)

As mentioned above, the higher the temperature, the faster most processes will occur. Thus, if you increase the temerature, your product might still work out fine, however, you might have to keep it in there a little shorter.

I personally always use the temperature setting that’s advised in a recipe, but I always set the time a little shorter than recommended, by checking on my product I determine whether it should go in somewhat longer still. If a cake is still wobbly or a bread hasn’t gotten brown yet, it’s simply not finished yet.

Heating takes time

Takin the previous statement, we should elaborate a little more on the ‘heating takes time’ concept.

Product size is super important when it comes to choosing an oven temperature. The larger the product, the longer it takes for the inside to heat up. The heat has to travel all the way through the product. Also, some products heat up more quickly in the center than others do.

So, even though you’ve increased temperature, it might still take a while for the center to heat up.  That might cause the outside to be super hot (and burned) whereas the inside is still raw. If you increase your muffins sie considerably, and normally end up with quite brown muffins, it’s best to turn down the temperature to let the inside cook through before the outside burns.

A balancing act of reactions

Timing and choosing your baking temperature are a real balancing act. You will have to determine what you want to happen more and what you’d like to happen less.

This has been illustrated very nicely in the blogpost on the cakeblog.com. They’ve tested baking a cheesecake at five different temperatures. They could clearly see a difference, it’s a balancing act of either a light fluffy cake versus a nice brown one. To get a lot of browning you would prefer a nice high temperature, that speeds up browning. However, if you want this type of cake to rise you want enough time for the cake to be flexible enough to still expand in volume. If it’s too hot, it will become stiff too soon and not be flexible enough to expand.

For other products though this balance is different again. If your product rises because of a raising agent, you want the temperature to be high at the start to give your product a boost in rising when it’s still flexible. So you’d prefer starting out a little warmer.

Recipe development & oven temperatures

When developing new recipes or products it is often best to simply start with a baking temperature you’ve used before for a similar product. However, it’s probably well worth it to experiment a little with the temperature, since it might just be that little tweak that makes it extra delicious! Here are some tips to adjust accordingly:

  • Your product has turned black, but the inside isn’t fully cooked: Turn down the oven temperature (not by 5°C, as mentioned above, that probably will not really be any different, turn it down at least 20°C) and increase bakig time. The high temperature causes browning reactions to occur rapidly, but since it takes time for heat to travel through a product, the outside can burn, without the heat having had the time to travel through.
  • Your product is dry and overcooked, but no browning has occured: Turn up the temperature!
  • Your product has not risen properly (when using a raising agent): Turn up the heat at the start, this will help the gases to form and expand before the product has become stiff.
  • Your meat is still raw on the inside, but tough on the inside: Turn down the heat, the outside has become too hot already, proteins coagulation and pushing out moisture, before the inside had a chance to cook completely.

Role of ingredients

As mentioned above, several reactions depend on the presence of certain ingredients. When these are present in higher quantities, you might want to adjust your temperature.

A high sugar content will require lower oven temperatures, sugar will cause browning and blackening faster. As does a recipe with butter and eggs (versus only water): use lower temperatures, again, these brown more quickly because of the presence of proteins which will react with sugars.

Freshly baked pepernoten 2
Cookies, these are often baked at not too high a temperature because of the high sugar content. They will probably burn too quickly if you would bake them at high temperatures.

Convection vs. conventional oven temperatures

You will often find that you have to use different temperatures based on whether you’re using a convection oven or a conventional oven. The differences mentioned are often about 25°C. The reason for this difference in temperature has to do with the speed of heating. A convection oven blows air throughout the oven. The temperature is distributed evenly throughout the oven. A conventional oven on the other hand doesn’t have this additional movement of air. This means it can take longer for the heat to get to the product and do its job. To prevent burning of a product, you will have to turn down the temperature in a convection oven.

Bringing it to practice: Chocolate muffin oven temperature

Whenever I can I try to combine my science experiments with making something I was already planning to do. The same for these chocolate muffins. I was looking for a dessert we could bring to a dinner party and found these jummy chocolate muffins. These would be my oven test muffins. Here’s what I did.

I made one batch of muffin batter and split this between two muffin trays. The first was put in the oven at 220°C for 8 minutes. After those 8 minutes I turned down the temperature to 160°C and left them in for another 10 minutes.

The other batch was placed in the oven after the first one was finished (thus at 160°C) and left in for 20 minutes. Here’s how they looked after coming out of the oven:

dark chocolate muffins, front has been baked at 220 for 8 min than at 160C, the two in the back only at 160C, no visible difference

I expected the first batch to have a higher dome and be more fluffy like. However, both muffins looked pretty similar to me. When eating them, the taste test panel (that is two people including me…) thought they tasted very similar. The 160°C muffin might have been a little less dry and more moist, but differences weren’t very large. Since chocolate muffins are pretty brown by themselves, I didn’t really need any browning and didn’t see any difference in browning either.

This recipe did give quite a dry, thick batter, this might have prevented it from rising and expanding as much. Nevertheless, for this types of recipes, oven temperatures don’t have to be exact to produce a jummy chocolatey muffin!

Applying our knowledge example no.2: Hazelnut cookies

Of course, I had to test this for another recipe as well! Hazelnut cookies this time. This time  managed to bake three different batches of cookies: 1) at 160°C for 18 minutes, 2) at 200°C for 10 minutes, 3) at 240°C for 10 minutes. I cranked up the temperature quite a bit this time and use the conventional oven temperatures (not the convection setting).

This time clear differences could be seen, not in texture, but in colour! These cookies contain sugar and butter which will help browning of the cookies. If they are baked at a too high a temperature they burn very quickly. At a lower temperature thouh they might not even get brown at all.

Hazelnut cookies oven experiment three different temperatures

Choosing an oven temperature, no.3: Bread

Last but not least I did the same experiment with a bread recipe. Besides the fact that this bread turned out deliciously (even though I changed a lot of things from the original recipe…), it again showed clear differences at different oven temperatures. My first bread was baked at 240°C (right one in the photo), the second one was baked a 200°C (the left bread).

Italian bread oven experiment
You can clearly see the difference in colour between the two different breads. The right one (baked at a higher temperatures) had also expanded slightly more than the left bread.

I hope this overview of history and current development will help you in your baking journey! Feel free to ask further questions on the topic in the comments section below!

Further reading

Some simple tips on baking: the Kitchn, CooksInfo. A very nice article on whether you can use 35o°F (175°C) for everything you bake, with a great tip on creating a dome on your muffins. Here‘s an overview of recommended baking temperatures, again, feel free to vary and test for yourselves!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *