A couple months ago, I was baking some cookies at 350°F. Or, I thought I was. The timer dinged, I opened the oven, and—cue a blood-curdling scream!—the cookies were as burnt as can be. What the heck happened?
Spoiler: I wasn’t baking at 350°F. It was closer to 375°F, though my six-month-old oven would never admit that.
While many ovens communicate temperature with a dial (typically marked with 25°F increments), a lot of modern models have a screen which reads an exact temperature (usually controllable in 5°F increments). It’s easy to confuse this exactness with accuracy—but don’t.
As Cooks Illustrated writes, “An oven’s internal thermometer only gauges the temperature of the location where it’s installed, which is necessarily in an out-of-the-way spot in the back, front, or side of the oven box.” Which is to say, an oven’s thermometer may have good intentions, but it’s still set up to fail itself—and burn your cake and make you sad.
On the brightside, there’s an ultra-easy way to avoid all of this: a BYO oven thermometer. This tool, according to Cooks Illustrated, “can tell you what’s really going on right in the middle of the oven, where most food cooks.”
It’s also what clued me in to the fact that my oven runs hot by 25°F or more. These days, when I want a 350°F oven, I set it to 325°, then peek through the oven door to check my thermometer every so often, increasing or decreasing the oven’s temperature as necessary.
Oh, and the best part: Freestanding oven thermometers sound fancy, but are as inexpensive as a life-changing tool gets. The one I bought is less than $4. In other words: What are you waiting for?
Let’s never burn cookies again.
Do you use an extra oven thermometer? What model? Tell us in the comments!
Emma is a writer and recipe developer at Food52. Before this, she worked a lot of odd jobs, all at the same time. Think: stir-frying noodles "on the fly," baking dozens of pastries at 3 a.m., reviewing restaurants, and writing articles about everything from how to use leftover mashed potatoes to the history of pies in North Carolina. Now she lives in Maplewood, New Jersey with her husband and their cat, Butter. Stay tuned every Tuesday for Emma's cooking column, Big Little Recipes, all about big flavor and little ingredient lists. And see what she's up to on Instagram and Twitter at @emmalaperruque.