"Preheat oven to 350 degrees." This may be one of the most common phrases in the cooking universe...and also one of the most misleading. If you fret over the accuracy of your oven's internal temperature reading, you're working too hard. Here's why: In a nutshell, it's impossible to control your oven temperature, so you should stop worrying about it altogether—or so writes Slate writer Brian Palmer. While you think might 350 degrees on the dial means 350 in the oven, no residential oven maintains a 350-degree temperature for the duration of a bake session. Rather, it usually ranges between 330 and 370 degrees and, as Palmer notes, that's if it's a well-calibrated oven, which few are. What about oven thermometers, you ask? "A waste of time," writes Palmer. The variability in temperature throughout the oven chamber makes oven thermometers unreliable at best.
If that all sounds like cause for worry, it's not, and here's why: the 350-degree instruction has always been just a default recommendation:
Around the time that manufacturers put temperature dials on ovens, cookbooks had to convert their old terminology into degrees. A "moderate" oven became 350 degrees, and few writers bothered to test if 350 was really better for an individual recipe than, say 360 or 380.
Even Mark Bittman, New York Times food columnist and author of How To Cook Everything says that "oven temperatures are a convention." He prefers to think of them in four ranges: Really low (under 275 degrees); moderate (between 275 and 350); high (over 350 but under 425); and maximum. His advice: give up the numbers completely, and "get used to the visual and olfactory (and even aural) cues that food gives off while it's baking or roasting."
Sound too scary? Then get an instant-read thermometer to stick in your food while it's cooking. "Used frequently, [it] solves most issues," says Bittman.
What do you think of this advice? Does it lessen your anxiety? How comfortable are you thinking about oven temps in terms of what you need to do, i.e. warm slightly, cook through, blast, etc?
Read More: Ignore Your Oven Dial at Slate
Related: Want Awesome Pizza? Turn Up the Oven
(Image: Emma Christensen)