Identifying oven hot spots: the toast test

Do you ever have trouble with cookies burning? What about a pie whose bottom crust is doughy and white, rather than crisp and flaky? And why, occasionally, does one side of your cake rise more quickly than the other? The answer may be oven hot spots.

Your oven is basically a metal box whose interior can be heated to temperatures ranging from barely warm to screaming hot. We bakers typically bake in a “moderate” oven: 350°F. But that’s not to say that when you preheat your oven to 350°F, every cubic inch of air inside the oven is 350°F — any more than every spot in your air-conditioned house is 66°F.

Your oven is hottest around its periphery: sides, bottom, and top. The closer you get to those metal walls, the hotter the air. Thus anything baked towards the periphery will bake and brown more quickly than anything baked in the center of the oven. Note: Information in this post may not apply to convection ovens.

Your oven isn't perfect. But you can make its imperfections work for you — once you understand them. Click To Tweet

A loaf of quick bread or pan of sheet cake placed in the exact center of the oven will probably bake flawlessly: nicely risen, evenly browned on top, and neither burned nor raw on the bottom.

But bake two 9” x 13” cakes side by side, where the far edges of both pans are close to the oven wall; or position pans of cookies on three racks so that some are near the bottom of the oven, and others near the top — and you may experience uneven browning, burned bottoms, or tough edges.

The cause? Oven hot spots.

Oven Hot Spots via @kingarthurflour

Left, bread baked in the center of the oven; right, bread baked at the back of a lower rack.

Identify your oven hot spots

Just how much does the temperature vary between that sweet spot in the center of the oven and everywhere else? Every oven is different — which is why you should test for oven hot spots using this simple technique.

First, buy a jumbo loaf of inexpensive white bread (because you don’t need to waste your homemade loaf on an oven test).

Position your oven racks where you typically have them for baking. Preheat your oven to 350°F, giving it sufficient time to come to temperature. Check its temperature with an independent thermometer; the oven signal telling you it’s preheated is probably far from accurate. (My oven takes a good 30 minutes to preheat to 350°F, though it tells me it’s hot enough after 15 minutes. Liar liar pants on fire!)

Oven Hot Spots via @kingarthurflour

Space slices of bread over the racks.

Bake the bread until the center slices are a light golden brown; in my oven, this takes about 18 minutes.

Remove the racks from the oven, and check the results. Assess the brownness of each slice of bread (both top and bottom) based on where it was on the rack, and where the rack was in the oven.

Oven Hot Spots via @kingarthurflour

Assess the results

Do you see any differences in browning? Unless you own the Rolls Royce of ovens (whatever that may be) — of course you do.

Typically, the slices closest to the center of the oven will be the most evenly browned, as well as the lightest. Those around the edges (front, back, and sides) will be darker, and probably show varying degrees of browning. Perhaps one or two slices of bread are VERY browned: these denote your oven’s hottest hot spots.

What do you do with this information?

Combine it with a dollop of common sense and use it to position your pans for optimum baking results.

Put your knowledge to use

Your oven may be much hotter towards the bottom than the top — even if the heating element is on the top. If you have trouble with cookies burning on the bottom, keep your cookie sheets off the bottom rack.

On the other hand, if your bottom pie crust always seems underdone, take advantage of that hot spot at the bottom of your oven by baking pies on the bottom rack.

Oven Hot Spots via @kingarthurflour

If you have trouble with round cake layers rising or browning unevenly, bake them as close to the center of the oven as possible. Instead of placing two pans side by side on the same rack, place them on two racks, one below the other (spacing the racks about 4 1/2” apart for best heat circulation).

Two-thirds of the way through their bake, rotate the pans: top pan to bottom, bottom pan to top. In addition, give each pan a 180° spin so the side that was formerly facing the back is now facing the front.

Why not rotate the pans halfway through? Certain thin-batter cakes can be delicate, and moving them around the oven before they’re set can cause them to fall. However, other baked goods — cookies, muffins, bars, etc. — should be rotated at the halfway point.

What if you’re having an issue with yeast bread not browning sufficiently: e.g., sourdough? Try positioning the pan on an upper oven rack, where the top crust is closer to the hot wall or heating element at the top of the oven

Oven hot spots: your takeaways

• Position your pans in the oven thoughtfully, keeping in mind the oven is always hottest at the top, bottom, and sides.

• For most even baking, position pans in the center of the oven.

• If you’re baking multiple pans of treats at once, rotate the pans midway through the bake: top to bottom, bottom to top; front of the pan to the back, back to the front. This will help minimize the effect of those oven hot spots.

Oven Hot Spots via @kingarthurflour

Oven hot spots: what about your baking stone?

Baking stones are known for their ability to absorb and hold heat, and then transfer it to whatever is set on top: pizza, baguettes, a crusty sourdough loaf.

But they’re also an excellent fix for excessive heat at the bottom of your oven. Place a baking stone on the lowest rack or on the oven floor (if there’s no heating element there). The stone absorbs heat from the floor of the oven and gently diffuses it upwards, effectively eliminating any hot spots.

Are you convinced? Test for oven hot spots today — and use the results to inform your pan placement going forward.

PJ Hamel
About

PJ Hamel grew up in New England, graduated from Brown University, and was a Maine journalist before joining King Arthur Flour in 1990. PJ bakes and writes from her home on Cape Cod, where she enjoys beach-walking, her husband, two dogs, and really good food!

comments

  1. Carol

    I am having a problem with my cakes getting done faster around the edges than in the middle. Sometimes they burn around the edges while the middle is still not done. This happens with all my pans; loaf, square, round, fluted, sheet, and bundt. The depth of the pan does not make a difference. Could it be that the oven temperature is off by a few degrees?

    Reply
    1. The Baker's Hotline

      That’s what it sounds like, Carol. We encourage you to grab an inexpensive oven thermometer at the grocery or hardware store to be sure. In the meantime, just baking everything at 25°F less than the recipe calls for to allow for a more even bake. Annabelle@KAF

  2. Annor Felix

    Please mine is a question, is it advisable to combine Calcium propionate and lecithin in bread recipe?

    Reply
    1. The Baker's Hotline

      Hi Annor, it sounds like you might be baking at a professional level, in which case we recommend reaching out to our Bakery Flour Support Team. (You can start by calling our corporate reception number, 802-299-2240, and then we’ll be able to connect you with the right people.) However, we did reach out to a member of our Research and Development Team, Andrea Brown, Ph.D. and CFS, and here’s what she offered when we asked about calcium propionate and its role in yeast breads: “It’s the calcium salt of propionic acid. It’s used as a mold inhibitor and, though I didn’t take a deep dive, it’s commonly used with lecithin in commercially produced breads. A quick look at lecithin (a mix of phospholipids) and calcium propionate at the molecular level doesn’t immediately bring to mind a reason they couldn’t be used together.” We haven’t tested this, and as we mentioned, if you’re baking commercially we recommend seeking professional advice before proceeding. We hope you find what you’re looking for! Kye@KAF

  3. Wade

    As a do it yourself kind of guy I tried to repair my own oven. It quit heating a week before Thanksgiving, if you like Murphy’s Law anecdotes. I pulled the slide in range out and set to work. But one of the items I noticed was the placement of the temperature probe was in the back, upper left corner of the oven. That is why we get such fast preheat times on our digital ovens.
    Great article!

    Reply
  4. Jean

    This article has great information but most of the comments on cakes are about cakes with two layers. If I am baking a three layer cake and have only two racks in my oven, should I bake only two layers (centered in the middle of each rack)at a time and bake the third layer after the first two are done? If I buy a third rack for my oven, it seems like the cake pans on the top and bottom racks will be pretty close to the top and bottom of the oven. Is there any way to bake all three layers on two racks?

    Reply
    1. The Baker's Hotline

      Good question, Jean. There are a few different approaches you can try to ensure your three cake layers all turn out well and bake evenly. If your oven is large enough, you can try to fit all three cakes on the same rack, and diligently rotate the cake pans part-way through baking. If they don’t all fit on one rack, you’re better off using two racks rather than three. Again, be mindful about rotating the pans and start with two cake pans on the top and one on the bottom. We’ve found that this works with some of our test kitchen ovens quite successfully but not others, so you may want to do a test run beforehand if possible. (In some cases the bottom cake just turned out wonky, in the words of one test kitchen baker!) The last option is to bake two cakes at a time and leave the third out of the oven to rest at room temperature until there’s room to bake the last layer. While this approach isn’t ideal, but we have found that the baking results are most even with this approach. We hope this gives you some things to try. Happy baking! Kye@KAF

  5. Tory

    Such a logical way to go about testing this!
    And the only possible reason I can think of to ever purchase that jumbo loaf of white bread!!
    Thanks for a great idea 🙂

    Reply
    1. Susan Reid

      A baking stone is a large ceramic slab that you preheat; it’s usually porous. It’s hot mass and porous texture gives pizzas and artisan breads a quick blast of heat from below, which gives them good oven spring and the distinctive crust you expect from artisan breads. Susan

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