Saturday, April 17, 2010

Kitchen Organization, Librarian-Style: Your Oven

Your Oven: It's one of the larges appliances in your house, but how much do you really know about its functions?

I have a cheap gas oven in my apartment, and it has been a lesson in learning how to work with it to ensure that I get the results I want every time. Many of the lessons below are for non-digital gas ovens as they are veritable fire-pits, with hot and cold areas that can be difficult to gauge.

Step One: Get to Know your Oven

Especially if you're not a regular cook, do you know how your oven works? The first apartment I had with a gas oven was really scary - I had grown up on electric and didn't know how to turn the oven on without blowing myself (and the apartment complex) to bits.

Gas ovens run on gas and flames. Mr. O had an apartment that had a continuous gas flame in the oven and it would stay on at all times, causing the oven to be warm to the touch even in the winter months. My apartments have had gas ovens that light up when you turn them on - so there might be a slight gas smell when you turn it on but the oven should warm up quickly after you turn the knob on.

My gas oven also has a broiler underneath the oven. The area is too small to hold a half-sheet cookie sheet, so if your oven is like mine make sure that you have oven- and broiler-proof pottery or a metal sheet that can fit in the area comfortably and that you have a plan for picking up hot plates from the ground. Some ovens have broilers built into the top of the oven and so you can easily switch from baking to getting that gooey, bubbly brown top on many of your casseroles and other baked goods.

Step Two: Calibrating your Oven

Does your oven run too hot or too cold? There are a couple of solutions for this problem.
1) Make sure you know how hot your oven really is. I highly recommend purchasing an oven thermometer that measures how hot your oven is. You can hang it off one of the sides of the oven rack and keep an eye on it to make sure that your oven has preheated as expected and that it's at the temperature you really want.

2) More importantly, know that you can change the temperature of your oven.

On the back of your oven knob, there might be a set of screws to change the temperature of your oven. If it runs too hot or too cold, try adjusting the screws and seeing how that affects the temperature.

Step Three: Prepping your Oven

A clean oven produces happier results. When was the last time you cleaned your oven?  There's no need to use a harsh oven cleaner or the self-cleaning feature that comes on many electrics. Use a diluted all-purpose cleaner or baking soda and vinegar in a spray bottle to clean the window and sides of the oven. If there are baked-on stains underneath the grates, make a thick paste of baking soda and water and rub it into the area. Leave it overnight and it will be easy to remove in the morning. 

Do you have proper tools for using your oven? Make sure that the hot pads, oven mitts and trivets you use are meeting your needs. If you always use the same oven mitts, consider donating or giving away the ones you don't use.

Step Four: Testing your Oven

Now, the big test: How does your oven behave once it has been cleaned and calibrated? I cook a lot of bread and before I calibrated my oven it ran 75 degrees hotter than it should have. Now, I'm having to train myself to put the correct temperature on the oven dial so that I can get perfect bread every time! I'm still learning and a few times my bread has come out underdone, but don't give up! Just keep checking your thermometer and don't let your food cool down before it's cooked completely.

One of my favorite tools is a digital thermometer for meats and breads. This device can test food at the end of a cooking cycle or for meats can be used during the entire process of cooking. Don't forget to place the end of the thermometer in the thickest part of the food so that it ensures the rest is done! Just use a recipe book or search engine to discover at what temperature your food is done and set the thermometer 2-3 degrees cooler so that you can remove the food at its prime temperature. For meats, you can often take the meat out of the oven and let it rest for 10-15 minutes and the meat will continue to increase in temperature as the residual heat cooks the last bit.

Most importantly, using a thermometer will help you learn when meats and breads are done.  While it may seem difficult at first, cooking by sight is something that comes with experience and a thermometer will help you to learn not only how long it takes for a recipe to work in your oven but also what a successful finished product looks like consistently.


With these steps, baking with your oven will guarantee you an end product that looks and tastes great every time.  Remember to:

  • 'Know' your oven
  • Calibrate your oven
  • Clean your oven
  • Test your oven

And every time you'll have great results.  Happy cooking!

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