In Baking Hows, Whys, and WTFs, food editor Shilpa Uskokovic will answer your burning baking questions and share her tips and tricks for flawless sweets. Today: How can you tell—accurately—when your baked goods are done?
In a there’s-an-app-for-that world, I say we should be doing better than imprecise baking instructions like “check for doneness by inserting a tester into center.” Even worse, the absolutely ruinous advice when it comes to baking bread: “Bake until bread sounds hollow when tapped on the bottom.” (No, you try to tap the butt of a steaming hot loaf.) Can it be done? Yes, we’ve been doing it for years. Is there a wide margin of error? Also yes. Just ask that gummy loaf of banana bread you pulled from the oven too early.
Using a digital thermometer to test the internal temperature of baked goods is the most foolproof, low-effort way of getting consistently great results. All of baking is a rapturous sequence of temperature changes. Things go in an oven, temperatures rise, water evaporates, structures set, and a cake—or a cookie or a cheesecake—is born. If you stop the cooking process at just the right temperature, your muffins will always be moist, your custards wobbly, and your bread crusty.
Of course, you should still pay attention to sensory cues, like a golden brown color and toasty, rousing smell. But throw in a meat thermometer and—poof!—flawless results every single time.
A brief and useful guide to doneness
Behold: the desired doneness temperatures for some common treats. Insert the thermometer in the very center and at a slight angle to avoid touching the bottom of the pan, which will be hotter and give you a false reading. It’s okay if your temperature is higher or lower by 2–3 degrees! Check the temperature when the minimum bake time specified in the recipe has elapsed. If it’s too low, check again, every five minutes until it reaches the right temperature. I use, love, and always recommend the Thermapen, a test kitchen favorite, for quick and accurate results.
It’s as simple as that—no more underdone or overdone baked goods. Using a thermometer is an easy way to go from WTF to “look at this beautiful cake I baked.”