How a Pan of Sugar Can Help Test Your Oven for Hot Spots

updated Oct 17, 2020
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When it comes to baking, the exact temperature of your oven is pretty important, but so is where the heat is located. If the heat is uneven, it can result in baked goods that are burnt in places and still cooking in other places.

While an oven thermometer can show you the overall temperature, and tell you whether your particular oven runs hot or cold, it can’t tell you whether the heat is uneven or where the cold spot are. If you want to test your oven quickly, a pan of granulated sugar is the best cheap and readily available tool you’ve already got.

Much like grilling a loaf of white bread slices can quickly give you a read on your grill’s hot spots, roasting a pan of sugar will get you familiar with a new or unfamiliar oven in less than 30 minutes. Here’s how to do it.

Credit: Meghan Splawn

How to Test Your Oven’s Temperature with Sugar

Last year we featured Sister Pie as part of our Kitchn Cookbook Club, by Detroit baker Lisa Ludwinski. In the “Sister Pie Primer” section, Ludwinski notes that your relationship with your oven (i.e., how well you know its ups, downs, and hot spots) is the key to baking better pies. If you know the back right corner runs hot, you can push pies there to help them brown, or move them away when you need to bake the filling in a dense fruit pie.

The idea of baking sugar to quickly read the hot (and cool) spots of your oven isn’t new or novel — I learned this in pastry school — but Sister Pie’s technique is much faster for home bakers. Here’s what you do.

  1. Set your oven rack to the middle (where it would be if you were baking) and crank the heat to 400°F.
  2. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper (trust me — you don’t want to clean burnt sugar off of your pan) and sprinkle an even layer of granulated sugar onto it. Ludwinski suggests using a cup of sugar, which should be just enough to cover a 11×17-inch pan with a light dusting.
  3. When the oven is preheated, put the pan in the center rack and set a timer for 10 minutes.
  4. After the timer goes off, immediately remove the pan from the oven, and inspect the sugar.

Voilà! You’ve got a map of your oven’s hot and cold spots. Where the oven was exactly 400°F, the sugar should be melted without being burnt. Darker, burnt areas indicate hot spots, while unmelted areas are cool spots.

What to Do with the Sugar

Sure, you could bundle up the parchment with the sugar on it, and put it all in the trash. Or you could carefully transfer the melted sugar to a saucepan, mix in a cup of water (or an equal amount of water to the sugar you used), and heat it over low until the sugar is dissolved. This would give you a burnt sugar simple syrup that tastes incredible in a whiskey Old-Fashioned, among other cocktails.

As for your oven, hot spots shouldn’t prevent you from baking — in fact, now you can bake more with greater success because you know what areas to avoid or that you’ll need to rotate pans of cookies regularly. If you find that the temperature is highly inconsistent, you might consider having the oven calibrated (if this is your long-term kitchen) OR you can take a page from home bread bakers and add a baking stone to the bottom of the oven to help regulate the temperature.