Baking is a science. Recipes are reasonably precise. Why aren't the results uniform?
If you followed the recipe, there are reasonably only two questions left when the brownies' are ready to go in the oven: What's the baking temperature and how long to bake it? The recipe sets the first one. For many recipes, the recipe author declares 350 degrees. But then the author sets a range of times, like 45 to 55 minutes. Baking is a science. Why then the lack of precision regarding time?
It could be differences in pans that demand different times. Why then don't we declare 55 minutes for a silver pan and 45 minutes for a dark pan?
There's more to it than that. Yor oven isn't precise. You set your baking temperature for 350 degrees. The time
r goes off at 350 degrees. Chances are, it's not really 350 degrees. That indicator light is set to a timer, not to a thermostat.
But if you're patient and the oven is set right, your baking temperature will get to 350 degrees. But your oven isn't a steady state appliance. It continues to heat until it reaches a cut-off point at which time, it turns the element off, and the oven begins to cool. Then it continues to cool until it gets to a lower set point at which point the oven switches and starts to heat again, back to 350 degrees. If your oven is set at 350 degrees, and every thing is working right, part of the time the baking temperature will be less that 350 degrees and part of the time the baking temperature will be more than 350 degrees.
No wonder your brownies don't come out the same every time.
We partially solve the problem with an oven thermometer. An oven thermometer can tell us that it's 350 degrees when we put the pan in the oven. But then the yoyo continues. Starting out with a baking temperature of 350 is a big gain but it's not enough.
What really matters is the temperature of the baked good, the internal temperature. Breads for example need a temperature of at least 185 degrees to set the dough so that the bread is baked. (We tell people 190 degrees because nothing is uniform.) It doesn't matter whether the baking temperature in your oven was 340 or 360 degrees, your bread has to get to 185 degrees for the starches to set. The time doesn't matter. And your oven isn't capable of a steady state so that the time can't be precise. Hence, we live with a range of times.
So how do you solve that problem?
You have to know the internal temperature of your brownies or breads. If you're baking brownies, the internal baking temperature, the temperature inside the brownies, needs to be 180 degrees to be done, depending on the recipe.
When we're developing a mix, we assume a target temperature, say 185 degrees, and check the internal temperature of the brownie is as it bakes. We use a simple kitchen thermometer, the best, most dependable thermometer we can buy but still, a simple kitchen thermometer. And as the brownies approach their internal target temperature, we use our kitchen thermometer to check the temperature of the brownies. We open the oven, pull the rack out and push the probe into the brownies on an angle, keeping the probe from hitting the bottom of the pan which is hotter.
We may check the temperature three or four times before we get to the target temperature. When we reach the target temperature, we take the brownies out of the oven and let them cool.
Are the brownies perfect? They may be underbaked or overbaked. If so, we pick another target temperature and start again.
Eventually, we settle on what temperature we want the brownies to be. Only then do establish a baking time, the estimated time to reach the target temperature. And it is a range.
What does this mean to the casual baker?
Get a kitchen thermometer. When you pull your brownies from the oven, measure the internal temperature and record it. If the brownie are perfect, you know what temperature you have to reach to make perfect brownies next time
It's really pretty handy. And you'll be a better baker.
How to use a thermometer to bake better
We’re talking about regular kitchen thermometers, nothing fancy, the kind you would use when baking bread to see if the temperature of the water is right, a probe thermometer. Maybe they cost $15—but get a good thermometer—maybe, $20.
And it’s simple to use. Stick the probe into the center of the cake at an angle when you take it out of the oven, not too close to the pan since the pan will be hotter than the cake. Measure in two or three places to make sure that you get the same reading.
What temperature should I bake brownies to?
We’re giving you two examples here: Our most popular brownie mix and our most popular recipe, We’re baking both at a baking temperature of 350 with an internal target temperature of 180 degrees. Most other brownies should be baked to approximately 180 degrees.
Uncle Bob’s Brownies are our bestselling brownies. They're not fancy but they’re made with very good cocoa, much better cocoa than found in store brownies. The Ultimate Brownies have more chocolate in them but they use the same premium cocoa.
The time stated in the directions should work but using a thermometer is more precise and more reliable.
Baker’s Note: We want gooey, chewy brownies baked just long enough, to 180 degrees, not overbaked. We cut our brownies with a large pizza wheel, not a knife. We wipe the blade with a damp cloth after each cut, leaving the blade slightly damp for the next cut. The damp blade makes cleaner cuts.
The Ultimate Chocolate Brownie Recipe
1 cup Belcolade Dark Cocoa or equal
1 cup all-purpose flour
2 sticks (1 cup) butter, melted
2 1/4 cups sugar
1/2 teaspoon salt
6 large eggs
2 teaspoons vanilla
2 cups walnut pieces (optional)
Set the baking temperature to 350 degrees. You will need a 9 x 13-inch dark baking pan, two mixing bowls—one of them medium or large, and a whisk. (A dark pan will bake more quickly than a silver pan.) The larger bowl should be microwave-safe to save you a step.
- Grease the dark pan with a little shortening and line it with parchment paper. The shortening will hold the paper in place. Set aside.
- In the smaller of the two bowls, whisk the cocoa and flour together to break up any clumps and disperse the cocoa. Set aside.
- In the larger of the two bowls, melt the butter in the microwave. Add the sugar and the salt and stir. Add the eggs and the vanilla and stir until mixed.
- Add the cocoa and flour mixture to the liquid mixture. Stir until combined. Add the chopped nuts and stir.
- Scrape the batter into the prepared pan with a spatula and spread the batter evenly. Place the pan in the oven. After 20 minutes, check the brownies with your probe-type thermometer. The temperature of the brownies should be approaching 180 degrees. Continue baking until they reach 180 degrees.
- Place the pan on a wire rack and cool for five minutes, then grasping the edge of parchment paper and tipping the pan up over a wire rack, pull the cake onto the wire rack. Let cool for at least another five minutes and then slip the cake onto a cutting board for slicing.
What temperature should I bake my bread to?
The tendency is to underbake breads. Be patient.
There is a range of baking temperatures for breads. For soft breads, the baking temperature is usually 350 degrees. For crusty breads, the baking temperature is set as high as 425 degrees..
The only way to tell if your bread is baked is with a thermometer. I bake my soft sandwich breads to 190 to 195 degrees. That's the internal target temperature. That’s a few degrees more than necessary but there may be cooler spots in the loaf. For crusty breads, I bake the bread to 210 degrees.
For cheesecakes and other custards, bake to 165 degrees. Always get the internal temperature over 140 degrees in any baked good with eggs. That’s the temperature that kills bacteria.
What about cookies?
If the tendency is to underbake breads, the tendency is to overbake cookies. Take them out just before you think they are done and you won’t be wrong often.
You can’t check the doneness of cookies with a thermometer. They’re too thin. Start with the recipe’s time, maybe a little less, and learn from there.
It’s important to be precise. Use the timer on the microwave or another electric clock; so you can see the seconds, not just the minutes. Cookies bake fast. We have one mix that we bake for eight minutes and 45 seconds. They’re not as good at nine minutes.
My father was a consummate cookie baker. If you asked him what his secret was, he would tell you: “I don’t overbake cookies.” The difference between a just-right cookie and an over-baked one is dramatic.
Here are some tips to help:
- Make cookies uniform in size. Not only are they more attractive but different sizes of cookies take different times to bake.
- Put the same number of cookies on the sheet each time if you can. More cookies take longer to bake.
- Most recipe writers tell you to leave the cookies on the sheet for a minute or two. Cookies continue to bake on a hot baking sheet. For most recipes, remove them as quickly as you can.
- If the cookies look a little soggy in the middle, leave them on the sheet for a few minutes and they will firm up.
- Most cookies should be gold in color, not brown. Both the amount of sugar and soda in the recipe will affect how fast a cookie browns. Look at the bottoms of the cookies. If they are brown, not golden, you're cooking them too long.
- Chocolate cookies represent another challenge: you can’t tell if they are browning. If you are baking with a new recipe, bake a few cookies and check them for doneness before baking the entire batch. Chocolate cookies will tend to lose their “wet” look when done.
The Arrival of Winter (Image by Merri Ann Weaver)
Merri Ann and I hiked up Indian Creek in eastern Idaho the day after the first snow. The new snow had not yet slipped from the trees and the reds and yellows and greens were cloaked with white.
A trickle of a creek tinkled under the ice. Except for our quiet conversation and the occasional cawing of a crow, it was silent. It was a marvelous day to be out.
One of our culinary texts calls a thermometer, “the baker’s secret weapon.” When we’re baking in the test kitchen, we are always using a thermometer.
This is the thermometer we rely on. These are professional thermometers made by an instrument company. We use these with confidence. If you don’t have a good thermometer, get one of these.