The bug around the kitchen came to me when I was very young, but I didn’t take it seriously until I became the official family pastry chef. At first, I followed the instructions of books, blogs and magazines to the letter, and soon I internalized that common maxim of “Bake at 180 degrees Celsius in preheated oven”. But why always at that temperature?
They are the degrees that are indicated in the vast majority of pastry recipes, from cookies to cakes, muffins or cakes, and can also be read in roasts of vegetables, fish or poultry such as roast chicken. It is a standard measurement and equates to typical Anglo-Saxon 350 degrees Fahrenheit, although it does not match 100%. The explanation is quite simple, and they have it, in part, those old ovens of our grandparents.
Three easy and quick baked recipes, to eat well without messing up
It wasn’t always easy to control the temperature
The human being “invented” the kitchen when he began to apply heat to food before eating it. The use of the first furnaces is lost in the origins of humanity, and of course its use was widespread already in antiquity. But until relatively recently it was not easy to control the temperature.
At least not with the precision and simplicity with which we do it today. A primitive oven could consist of a large clay or stone receptacle heated by wood or charcoal, the interior of which could hardly be controlled at will. Bakers, pastry chefs or cooks they had to make do with experience, intuition, and artisan methods to check the temperature.
One system to know if the oven was hot enough consisted of adding flour to monitor how long it took to burn, or simply insert an arm, holding on for as long as humanly possible.
The old cookbooks hardly gave indications about the temperature of the oven
Little by little, technology advanced and furnaces also benefited from the innovations of the industrial revolutions, but it would still take time to gain precision. When cookbooks began to become popular in the 19th century, it was not very common to find exact indications about baking, or they were very vague.
For example, in ‘The Woman Suffrage Cookbook’, a volume from 1886 that compiles recipes for housewives and family care of the sick, we find many recipes for cakes and biscuits no clues about baking temperature. Other preparations only indicate phrases like “bake in a quick oven”(“ Bake in a fast oven ”) or“bake in an oven not very hot”(“ Bake in a not very hot oven ”).
Low, medium or high temperature
Surely your ovens already include a digital display that allows manually regulate the temperature degrees, adjusting with more or less exact precision the desired power. Or, at the very least, they have the typical knob for functions and the temperatures to use. But until a few years ago that was a thing of the future.
I still remember my parents’ first oven in the country house, which had to be manually lit by turning on the gas flame inside. It only included three options: low temperature, medium / moderate temperature and high temperature. And chimpún.
Some more sophisticated models had a British-style dial, with ten marks, similar to the power range that glass ceramic and induction hobs usually carry today. But it was not very clear how many degrees level six, or eight, equaled.
That is why these indications are still read in old cooking magazines or old books, and they also survive in handwritten homemade cookbooks that many of us keep like gold on cloth. Relics that bear witness to a time past, but not so distant, in which you lived happier without obsessing so much by the oven temperature.
Translating power to degrees of temperature: the famous 180º are actually a convention
There are many, many recipes that begin by stating that we must “preheat the oven to 180 degrees Celsius” -in Direct to the Palate we have for all tastes-. Equivalent, roughly, at 350 degrees Fahrenheit that we usually see in the Anglo-Saxon world, although the exact conversion is the following:
- 180 degrees Celsius = 356 degrees Fahrenheit.
- 350 degrees Fahrenheit = 177.6 degrees Celsius.
It is a way of simplifying the matter, because actually our oven is never 180 degrees. Ordinary domestic ovens do not achieve this precision -although the latest generation models are making great strides to achieve it-; it is a mere question of operation.
As a general rule, an oven works by means of a thermostat internal that heats up within a more or less variable range depending on the temperature that we have set. If we think we are baking at 180 degrees, actually the figure will fluctuate between 175 and 190, approximately. At least it’s the thermostat temperature, because the oven space will also be somewhat different.
The famous hot spots or the opening and closing of the door also affect the temperature, so it is advisable turn what we are baking at half time to try to achieve a more homogeneous result. There are also ovens with a poorly calibrated thermostat, and others that are simply more precarious.
A domestic oven is never at the exact temperature we think
The 180 degrees as a general convention to indicate a moderate temperature, which could be medium-high if we also use a fan or if the oven is electric, compared to gas, which has less power. At that temperature it is easier to bake cakes, cookies or vegetables without much risk of charring them.
Maillard’s famous reaction
Maillard’s famous reaction is responsible for obtaining delicious results in the vast majority of culinary preparations. It is a chemical process by which the molecules of proteins and sugars in food react with each other thanks to heat. Thus, for example, the meat is browned and the juices “caramelized”, flavors are enhanced, new aromas and colors are developed or a crispy crust is created and toast of meats, breads or pastry dough.
This reaction it is only achieved after a certain temperature – that’s why sous vide cooked meat needs a final grilling phase – and 180 degrees is a good standard measure. With this power we can bake almost anything without running so much risk of ending up with burned food.
In fact, I have checked how an old Swiss cookie recipe book indicated baking at 200 degrees, but the revision of the current text has lowered the temperature to 180 degrees of rigor. Probably because old furnaces were less powerful, or because now domestic pastry chefs are more clueless.
Taking this measurement as a basis, more specific elaborations already play to increase or decrease the degrees depending on the results that are sought. Bread and pizza, for example, need much more heat to grow properly and develop a good crust; sweets with a lot of sugar benefit from milder temperatures because the sugar may burn too quickly.
In any case, you have to get used to the idea that each oven is a world and we should not blindly be guided by the indicated temperature. Once we are confident that it is properly calibrated, it is best to gain experience and learn to drive yourself the baking, always watching what happens behind the door.
And if we want to precisely control the process, a good investment is an instant thermometer to measure the internal temperature of food, and not so much from the oven. Only then will we really know the degrees to which each product is being cooked to act accordingly.
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