Let’s talk oven temperatures. Seems as though a little article on Slate Magazine has lots of us talking. I didn’t an instant reaction one way or the other, but the premise stayed in my head and wouldn’t leave, which means it bothered me somehow. “Really?” I thought, “Oven temperatures don’t matter? Surely this can’t be true.” And indeed, if you read the article, it’s not necessarily saying setting your oven to say, 350˚F is the same as setting it to 200˚F. What it does indicate, however, is that vague temperature settings would be a better indication what’s actually going on in there. I don’t disagree; however, I don’t agree with telling a large audience to ignore their oven settings and go for it. Here’s why. Please allow my cookies to serve as visual aids as we wander along.
Agree: the vague temperature settings of old (“bake in a low oven, bake in a moderate oven”) are a more accurate depiction of what’s going on your oven. I’m not a fool, and can’t imagine a world in which someone could truly invent an oven which stayed exactly at 350˚F during opening/closing of doors, peeking in, and even general baking. Think about it; how difficult would that be? Certainly it could (and probably has) been done in some molecular heating apparatus where you need protons and neutrons to, I don’t know, do something specific together, and this something can only take place in a 3,494˚F environment. But guess what: that machine I just described probably cost hundreds of thousands of dollars to create, and that’s not necessarily the price you want to pay for an appliance.
So I get it; a 350˚F oven equals a 350˚F degree-ish oven. In fact, the article states that to meet standards, it should stay within a set range of temperatures +/- 20 degrees for “a well-calibrated oven,” and many are not. I also agree that there will be hot and cold spots to deal with in aforementioned oven. I agree that everyone should be aware of their own oven’s faults and special needs, as it were, and act accordingly. Here are my big issues:
Disagree: oven temperatures are “uncontrollable” and we should stop micromanaging it. That’s the teaser line, and I don’t feel like it’s even accurate to some of the points made in the article. It’s not “uncontrollable,” Slate; you just said it was controllable, albeit only to a certain degree. A more fire-smart person than I can make a campfire burn high or burn low; they probably can’t control the fire to an exact temperature, but I bet they can make sure it’s not “uncontrollable,” either. Or no one would have trees anymore.
Disagree: marketing departments are deceiving us. Are you telling me that the technical people want higher temperatures but the marketing people want lower ones to give people more of a chance to get their cake right? Poppycock. How is it better to, as the article says, “set your oven 50 degrees or higher above the recommended temperature, and then watch your food like a hawk?” I don’t think cake turns out better when baked at a higher temperature; I think cake turns out better when I don’t screw it up. Period. If the marketing people want to give me more of a shot at getting my kid’s birthday cupcakes right, then what’s wrong with that? Yay, marketing people.
Toss-up: sticking to basic ranges in cooking versus specific degrees works well…for meat, veggies, and other savory dishes. I don’t know many people who would argue with me when I say that baking, including the actual “baking” aspect, is and has always been more sensitive than roasting a chicken. And none of us should rely solely on oven times and temperatures; it is important to look/smell/pick up cues from the food in question. However, that doesn’t mean we should throw caution to the wind and just wing it. Nor do I think it’s smart to say that to people who don’t bake much and set them up for potential failure. So we’re going to do a cookie experiment, and we are going to do it with a friend I met in elementary school: The Scientific Method. It is, by definition, a way to answer things by asking questions and doing experiments. I’m going to follow the steps to do an experiment regarding oven temperatures.
Ask a question: Do baking temperatures matter?
Background research: I feel like I’ve done lots of research along these lines, and much of it is documented in my posts (see any of the Momofuku cookies for the best examples). I’ve found in the past, setting my oven even 25 degrees higher or lower can make all the difference, and indeed many times can result in success where before, there was failure.
Hypothesis: I think my cookies will look, taste, and feel different depending on the oven temperature used, and that oven temperature matters even when varied by a standard 25-degree increment.
Secondary hypothesis (fancy!): Temperature matters just as much as time (standard 1 minute increment).
Contrary to what some of you may think, my oven isn’t some glorious tribute to the baking gods. It’s a piece of hooey. And it’s not even an attractive piece of hooey. Behold, the only time you’ll ever see my sad oven in a photo.
Someday, when I get to design a kitchen for myself, I’ll have a better oven. What you see before you is an over-a-decade-old, no-name-brand oven which makes me angry at least once per week. It’s perfect for the experiment, because it’s no better (and perhaps much worse) than the one you’re using. And yes, those are the pennant decorations from the State Fair Birthday Party you see in the reflection of my microwave/convection oven. I like them too much to take them down.
Cookies: an original cookie based on the idea of the salted chocolate hazelnut cookies, created by me and never baked or tested prior to this experiment.
- Williams Sonoma/USA Pan Goldtouch gold pans, which I use for everything
- parchment paper, white
- 1-inch cookie dough balls
- an un-finicky cookie recipe
- a non-new, non-fancy oven. I can’t point this out enough, but I’m not baking with a La Cornue here, people. it’s a heap, I promise.
- rack set in the middle of the oven.
- time: ovens tend to heat up more in general as they go about their baking, so I turned my oven off, let it cool down, then reset it to the next temperature. Pain in the butt? Absolutely; but I was really going for equality here.
The recipe will be below, but I’ll summarize here. I made the cookies using a very normal technique (cream the fats with sugars and liquids, add dry ingredients, incorporation achieved, stirred in remaining ingredients until distributed evenly). Now it was time to bake. I started at what the Slate article seemed to indicate was a fairly standard temperature: 350 degrees Farenheit. My results:
Cookie A, baked at 350˚F for 12 minutes.
My edges were very lightly browned and the cookie, when cooled, had more of a chewy than crunchy texture, but still maintained definition and shape. Nice light golden color on the bottom, and the light brown doneness held the cookie together quite well. Very evenly colored, and with a slight lean towards medium rare, especially in the very center.
Cookie B, baked at 375˚F for 12 minutes.
The only one I deemed inedible. This one was crispy and darker golden from edge to center, and had an ‘overdone’ taste to it where you start to get more of the flour taste and less of the other ingredients. It was dry and a little crumbly, and really lost the macadamia/white chocolate flavor; even the salt seemed to disappear. Toasty brown on the bottom.
Cookie C, baked at 325˚F for 12 minutes.
This one was softer as a whole, much more “soft-bake” than the others. evenly colored a barely golden hue, with some of them (chocolate-distribution dependent) being more medium-rare than others. good light golden on the bottom, and more of a chewy cookie texture than the others.
Cookie D, baked at 350˚F for 13 minutes (one minute longer than my standard time used)
This one had crispier (but not crispy) edges than the one baked for 12 minutes, center done medium, noticeably more brown on the edges than in the center. The bottom seemed slightly more golden than my 350˚/12 minute cookie, with a softer texture but a bit of crunch from the bottom. chocolate and macadamia flavors balanced well and you could taste both.
Experimental Salted Macadamia Nut Cookies
- 1 3/4 cup flour
- 3/4 cup macadamia nut flour*
- 1 teaspoon baking soda
- 1 1/4 teaspoon sea salt
- 1 cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter, at room temperature
- 1/2 cup granulated sugar
- 3/4 cup brown sugar
- 2 large eggs
- 1/2 teaspoon vanilla
- 10 ounces finely chopped white chocolate**
- coarse-ground sea salt, for topping (optional)
*to make your macadamia nut flour, put about a cup or so of macadamia nuts in food processor along with 2-3 tablespoons flour. Pulse until ground down, and if it starts to get paste-like (nuts with oil, people; they just want to butter out on you) add a tablespoon more flour. Your end result should be a rough grind of nuts; not powdery, but tiny chunks.
**as with the salted hazelnut cookies, i saw no need to purchase expensive white chocolate for this (white chocolate isn’t even chocolate, people, so why do it?), but white chocolate flavor varies greatly from brand to brand. Buy a good quality chip; Ghirardelli makes a great one with a good vanilla flavor to it, and you won’t spend days trying to finely chop bars of it.
Make these cookies:
In a medium bowl, whisk together the all-purpose flour, macadamia flour, baking soda, and salt. Set aside.
In the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment (or in a large bowl using an electric mixer, but the stand mixer, for this recipe, is preferred), beat together your butter, granulated sugar, and brown sugar on high speed until light and fluffy, 2-3 minutes. Scrape down the sides of your bowl and add the eggs and vanilla, beating until incorporated. Scrape down the sides of your bowl again and, with your mixer on low speed, add your dry ingredients and mix until just combined.
Remove bowl from stand mixer and, using a spatula (or spoonula; who doesn’t love those things?) scrape down the sides and pull up once you hit bottom, checking to make sure there aren’t any flour patches in there. Chances are, there will be, which is why I do this step. Some cookies it may not matter as much, but the flat ones? Less forgiving. Once you’re sure all dryness is gone, add your chopped white chocolate and, using the same motion, stir int until evenly distributed.
Transfer dough into a more reasonably-sized bowl, cover, and chill at least 5 hours, or (preferably) overnight to meld the flavors together. By the way, don’t try to cheat this: flavor-melding aside, chilling the dough sets it; a room-temp cookie will just melt all over your baking sheet.
When you’re ready to rumble, preheat your oven to 350˚F. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper.
Refer back up to the post where I discuss size of the cookies before you proceed (look for the salad-plate cookie photo). If you want gigantic, flat cookies, scoop your balls (or roll them in your hands) so they measure about 1 1/2 – 2 inches in diameter. DO NOT put more than 6 cookies on a half sheet pan, or you will have one super-giant rectangular cookie. If you’d like your cookies a little more manageable, roll them into balls around 1 inch in diameter. You can get 8 of the smaller ones on a sheet.
Bake until cookies are flattened, a little crispy around the edges and set in the middle, about 11-12 minutes, checking at the 10-minute mark for doneness: this will give you a slightly crisp perimeter with a chewy interior. Do a test run of 2-3 cookies if need be.
Remove them from the oven and top immediately with the sea salt sprinkle (optional, but it really brings out the flavor versus not using it). Allow to cool on the baking sheet for about 10 minutes before transferring them to a wire rack to cool completely.
Cookies will keep in an airtight container for 3 days at room temperature. They will keep for up to 2 weeks in the freezer.