It seems like just about every baking recipe includes the line "Preheat the oven to 350ºF." But what makes that temperature so special, in baking? What's happening at 350°F, scientifically speaking — and is it really a one-size-fits-all temperature for your baked goods?
Let's heat up the oven and find out.
Why Do So Many Recipes Use 350ºF?
Baking at 350ºF seems to be more of a convention and a default than anything else. It most likely came directly from early recipe instructions to bake in a "moderate oven," a common instruction at a time when ovens didn’t come with digital temperature displays and internal thermometers.
In most cases, recipes called for baking at “slow” or “low” temperature for delicate foods that burn easily, “moderate” for cakes and cookies, or “high” for crusty bread.
What Happens When You Bake at 350ºF
A lot of things happen when you place your cakes, cookies, and breads in a hot oven to bake (like chemical reactions, phase changes from liquid to gas, and other exciting things).
When baking at 350ºF (or at least at a temperature above 300ºF) all these steps happen in a speedy, efficient fashion, so that, for example, cake batters yield fluffy, light, tender cakes, and not flat, chewy disks of cooked dough. The changes are listed stepwise, but really a lot of these steps overlap:
- At room temperature (and up to 170ºF or higher), baking soda and baking powder begin to react, releasing carbon dioxide gas, but some baking powders are formulated to require heat to activate them (this is especially true for double-acting baking powders, which contain a slow-acting chemical leavener that requires more energy to leaven baked goods)
- Above 90ºF, fats melt and tenderize baked goods, but at this stage, the fats also release trapped air and water, which contribute to the rise of baked goods as the water evaporates and the gases escape
- Around 135ºF, microorganisms die. In breads, the yeast dies, which prevents over-fermentation of bread dough and overly sour flavours from forming. Heat also kills pathogenic microorganisms, like salmonella, rendering your baked goods safer to eat
- As temperatures rise above 140ºF, eggs and gluten proteins begin to dry out, stiffen, and set, starch granules swell with water and gelatinize up until about 200ºF
- Around 160ºF and above, enzymes are rendered inactive from the heat that destroys their native structure. This step is essential because these enzymes would slowly digest and break down your baked goods were they active in the final product
- At higher temperatures, the gases formed evaporate, contributing to the crust of bread and other baked goods.
- Get above 300ºF and guess what happens? Sugar caramelization and the Maillard browning reactions, which contribute that "golden-brown delicious" color and flavors to baked goods.
350ºF is a solid temperature that helps all these things happen in quick succession as your baked goods heat up, hence its wide use.
But Is 350ºF Always Best? Nope, and Here's Why
While that is true and you can bake everything at the ubiquitous 350ºF, from breads to cookies to cakes, sometimes 350ºF isn’t the most appropriate temperature for what you are baking.
There’s nothing to stop you from baking everything at 350ºF, and we all know that an oven set to 350ºF will get the job done, but sometimes 350ºF isn’t the best temperature for what you are baking:
- Breads: High temperatures (>425ºF) are really important in bread baking because higher temperatures lead to a better, faster rise before the gluten in the bread (and also the crust) has a chance to set.
- Puff pastries: Baked at 350ºF, puff pastries fall short when compared to those baked at 400ºF, because at 400ºF steam is released quickly between the layers, allowing for more expansion and height before the layers set and dry in place.
- Muffins: Baking muffins at 350ºF works, but did you know that if you start muffins in a hotter oven (even as high as 425ºF), you will get a taller muffin top? Baking the same recipe at 350ºF will lead to a less-domed muffin that has spread out and not up. (See image: The muffin in front was baked at 350ºF, the muffin in back at 425ºF first, then finished at a lower temperature.)
- Cookies: Whether you are looking for your cookies to brown a little in the oven (like chocolate chip cookies) or to bake without getting any color (like certain types of shortbread) are factors that will determine the temperature you want to bake your cookies at. Chocolate chip cookies are sometimes baked at 375ºF or more for a very short baking time so they color fast on the surface while keeping the inside soft and under-baked. On the other hand, some shortbread recipes bake at 300ºF so they crisp and dry without coloring.
Next time you tackle a recipe, think about what your goal is when it comes to baking before switching on your oven. Maybe you are aiming for baked goods with impressive height and a fast rise in the oven. Perhaps you want cookies that stay pristinely light throughout the baking process without a trace of caramelization or color. Once you know what the goal is, you will know what to do next.
Do you bake all your baked goods exclusively at 350ºF? Or do you vary the settings of your oven according to what you are making? Do you have recipes that you have found work better at a temperature other than 350ºF? Let me know in the comments.