It seems like just about every baking recipe includes the line “Preheat the oven to 350°F.” But what makes that temperature so special, in baking? What is happening at 350°F, scientifically speaking — and is it really a one-size-fits-all temperature for your baked goods?
Let us heat up the oven and find out.
Baking at 350°F 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” temperatures for delicate foods that burn easily, “moderate” for cakes and cookies, or “high” for crusty bread.
A lot of things happen when you place your cakes, cookies, and breads in a hot oven to bake (a chemical reaction — phase changes from liquid to gas, and other exciting things).
When baking at 350°F (or at a temperature of above 300°F) 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 below (but most of these changes happen at the same time).
- • At room temperature (and up to 170°F 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 90°F, 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 135°F, microorganisms die. In breads, the yeast dies, which prevents over fermentation of bread dough and overly sour flavors from forming. Heat also kills pathogenic microorganisms, like salmonella, rendering your baked goods as the water evaporates and the gasses escape.
- • As temperatures rise above 140°F, eggs and gluten proteins begin to dry out, stiffen, and set, starch granules swell with water and gelatinize up until about 200°F.
- • Around 160°F 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 300°F and guess what happens? Sugar caramelization and the Maillard browning reactions, which contribute that “golden-brown” color and flavors to baked goods.
350°F is a solid temperature that helps all these things happen in quick succession as your baked good heat up, hence its wide use.
But is 350°F Always Best? Nope and Here is Why
I had people tell me that they completely disregard the preheating instructions in recipes and they basically bake all of their baked goods at 350°F. They said they thought it did not matter because a hot oven will get the job done regardless. While that is true and you can bake everything at the ubiquitous 350°F, from breads to cookies to cakes, sometimes 350°F is not the most appropriate temperature for what you are baking.
Breads — High temperatures (>425°F) 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 350°F, puff pastries fall short when compared to those baked at 400°F, because at 400°F 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 350°F works, but did you know that if you start muffins in a hotter oven (even as high as 425°F), you will get a taller muffin top? Baking the same recipe at 350°F will lead to a less-domed muffin that has spread out and not up.
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 determine the temperature you want to bake your cookies at. Chocolate chip cookies are sometimes baked at 375°F 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 300°F 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 the 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.
Becky Hutchings is the FCS/4-H Youth Development Extension Educator for the University of Idaho Cooperative Extension in Minidoka County. University of Idaho Extension offers nutrition education classes for adults and youth that includes recipes, budget saving tips and healthy choices consumers can make.