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Why oven temperature matters

By Jane Darling

Cakes not turning out Bake Off worthy? Find out why an inaccurate oven may be to blame.

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Do you blame yourself when your sponge cake fails to rise or you burn your biscuits? It might not be you. 

We've tested hundreds of ovens, and found that many don't stick to the temperature you set them at. Some have even veered over 40°C from the set temperature.

Read on to find out how oven temperature affects cooking and see the consequences of baking at the wrong temperature. To get straight to our pick of ovens you can rely on, head to the best built-in ovens.

How oven temperature affects your cooking

We made a classic Victoria sponge to test how much difference an oven with flaky temperature controls will make to your cooking. Using exactly the same recipe, we baked four cakes at different temperatures, ranging from 20°C under the recommended temperature to 40°C too hot. 

As our results show, even a 20°C difference can have a marked effect on the appearance and texture of your cake. And the same applies to other dishes - you may find your dinner isn't ready when you expected or that it's burnt and bubbled over before the timer goes off.

Too cool (140°C)

The cake is too light in colour, sunken in the centre and not completely baked in the middle. The structure is very compact as few air bubbles developed in the baking process.

About right (160°C)

The cake has a good pale to mid-brown colour. After cooling it is fairly flat and has a good soft structure throughout. There are some small air bubbles and  few medium-sized ones. A few cracks appear on the surface towards the end of the baking process.

A little too warm (180°C)

This cake turned out slightly too dark and, after cooling, was higher in middle than at edges. There are a fair number of surface cracks at the centre from where the cake has risen then sunk back down during cooling. The structure of this cake isn't too bad – soft in the centre but slightly harder near base.

Too hot (200°C)

The surface colour is too dark and the cake is burnt around the edges. Its rise is uneven – much greater in the centre – and there are lots of surface cracks. The middle of the cake is soft textured but the base and edges are much harder.

*We used a fan oven where the recommended temperature for the Victoria sponge recipe was 160°C.

What’s happening inside your oven?

At the right temperature your cake mix should turn into a light, airy and hopefully tasty sponge that’s evenly risen, cooked through, and gently browned on the surface. This is because the reactions that occur in response to the oven’s heat – such as the fat melting, the sugar dissolving, the formation of those nice airy bubbles and caramelisation on the surface – happen in the right order and for the right length of time.

But if you unwittingly cook in an overheated oven, the stronger heat will cause moisture to evaporate too rapidly from the cake’s surface, resulting in an overbrowned cake that may be burnt on the edges before the insides are done. The overheating also affects the structure: you’ll get drier, harder sponge around the sides than in the middle.

Cooking at a too-low temperature slows the reactions down, so each stage takes longer. And although you don’t risk burning the outside, the structure of the cake can be adversely affected. The rise is less, so you end up with a denser, less airy sponge.

How common are inaccurate ovens?

Today's ovens have all sorts of hi-tech features to tempt you, including steam cooking and self-cleaning. But unfortunately, this doesn't mean they get the basics right. In our most recent 2016 tests, we came across an oven that soared to 222°C when we had set it to 180°C.

While it's more common for an oven to overshoot the temperature you set it at, we do come across models that struggle to get up to the right temperature. One of our recently tested ovens was set for 180°C, but we measured the temperature in part of the oven to be just 150°C.

42°C- the amount one oven exceeded its set temperature by in our 2016 tests

You can adapt to an oven if it averages just a handful of degrees away from the correct temperature by turning it up or down a little. But if it's a larger gap - or the temperature fluctuates a lot during cooking - you could be in for some disappointing results.

And it's not just built-in ovens you need to worry about. We've also found freestanding cookers that struggle to maintain the right temperature. In fact, 17% of all the ovens and cookers we tested in 2015 overheated by 20°C or more. So it's worth checking our freestanding cooker reviews or range cooker reviews before you buy to ensure you get a model that cooks to perfection.

How to make your bakes great

There are many variables that can potentially affect the outcome of your bakes, from the ingredients you use to the temperature and humidity of your kitchen. Some things you can't control, but using an oven that accurately maintains the right temperature is a great starting point. Here are a few tips to stack the odds in your favour for results worthy of the Great British Bake Off.

Don’t open the oven door This can spell disaster for sensitive dishes such as soufflés, and delicate sponges don’t appreciate it either. Our reviews highlight which ovens have great visibility through the door, so you can keep an eye on your bakes without compromising their rise.

Don’t overfill the oven While some ovens are better than others at spreading heat evenly and supplying your food with enough heat, this is a greater challenge if the oven is overloaded. Generally speaking, cooking on any more than two levels risks poorer results.

Measure ingredients carefully While it can be tempting to guess quantities if you're in a hurry, this is risky. The ratios for butter, sugar and flour are best stuck to in order to maximise your chances of good baking results.

Use foil to avoid overbrowning If you notice that your cakes or pastries are browning before they are cooked in the middle, loosely covering with silver foil may save the day. This lets the warm air circulate but protects the surface from more fierce direct heat.

Now you know how to achieve brilliant results, make sure you get an oven that will help rather than hinder you by comparing models using our built-in oven reviews.

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