For novice bakers, getting perfect baked goods from the cookbook to the table is challenging. A simple sheet of cookies can be sabotaged by too little or too much mixing, inaccurate measurements or even a pan that's too dark. The location of your oven's shelves is also important, which is why recipes often specify where to place your pans.
Your oven is an insulated box with heat coming from either a gas flame or an electric element. Most of the heat comes from the bottom, but—because heat rises—the highest shelf positions are almost always the hottest. Items on the lowest shelf position might sometimes burn in spite of this, especially in electric ovens, because they're so close to the heat source.
Think in Thirds
If you're making just one sheet of cookies, biscuits or other thin, quick-baking items, the best place for the shelf is right in the middle of the oven. Cakes and dessert loaves benefit from being placed slightly lower, one or two positions below center. The placement is more complicated when you need two shelves. Typically the best option is to place your shelves in the top third and bottom third of the oven.
Some premium modern ovens use fan-driven convection baking to provide consistent results. The circulating hot air provides even, faster baking across all the shelves without the hot spots that plague lesser ovens. If you're using a shelf directly in front of the convection fan, rotate the pan or baking sheet halfway through the baking time so the hot air from the fan doesn't cause uneven browning.
Coping With Hot Spots
In even the best of nonconvection ovens, some spots are hotter than others. Test the middle, top third, and bottom third positions of your oven and note where those hot spots are located. Scatter breadcrumbs evenly across a sheet pan or lay slices of white store-bought bread directly on the racks and watch them brown in the oven. The browning pattern indicates the hot spots. When you're baking, avoid those hot spots or rotate the pans midway through baking to prevent scorching.
Photo Credits: Pamela Follett/Demand Media
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