You’ve probably noticed that a lot of recipes
for things like cookies and cakes all seem to call for the same temperature: 350 degrees
Fahrenheit. You’d think there would be some variation
there, so why 350? It’s not actually arbitrary, and the reasons
why are an interesting mixture of science and history. Mankind has been baking for a long, long time,
but it was only at the end of World War II that ovens started to come with exact temperature
controls. In the few decades before that, ovens tended
to come with only three options for temperature: slow, moderate, and hot. If you happened to dig out any of your great-grandmother’s
recipes, you might be baffled by the bit that calls for baking in a “moderate” oven. It seems archaic today, but it was a huge
step forward over how Victorian-era bakers judged whether or not their ovens were hot
enough. They estimated oven temperature by sprinkling
the bottom of the oven with flour. If it didn’t catch fire and only started to
blacken, then it was perfect. Don’t try this at home! Over the years, recipes have changed along
with the technology we use to cook them. Old terminology was updated to new technology,
and when recipes that called for a “moderate” oven were updated, the temperature was just
estimated to be 350. A temperature which, incidentally, is usually
in the middle of most oven dials. In the early 20th century, oven technology
was given a massive update with the invention of the regulator. It was a huge deal, and one piece in the New
York Tribune from 1919 described it like this: “The regulator makes scientific cooking possible
to the most unscientific woman, and few realize how many perfect recipes are spoiled by the
wrong handling of oven heat.” But setting your oven to 350 doesn’t mean
you’re actually cooking at 350. The temperature of any oven will fluctuate,
with some of the most well-calibrated, high-end ovens set to stay between 330 and 370 when
you set it to 350. If you’re trying to be exact, it’s not a bad
idea to invest in an oven thermometer. Watch any cooking show for long enough, and
you’re going to hear about the Maillard reaction. It’s the chemical reaction that makes cooked
food delicious. According to the brainiacs over at Serious
Eats, it’s so complicated that scientists only began unlocking the mysteries of the
reaction in the 21st century. No worries though, you don’t have to understand
all the sciencey facts. The basic idea is that it all has to do with
temperature. The Maillard reaction only occurs at temperatures
well above boiling, which is why a boiled steak tastes and smells so completely different
than a grilled one. The reaction kicks in at temperatures closer
to 240 degrees and gets into full gear around 300 At these temps, proteins and sugars break
down and come back together in a way that makes flavors and aromas more complex. But we’re still not at 350 degrees, so where
does that number come from? Well, foods that are high in sugars and low
in proteins, like Mom’s tried-and-true cookies, work a little differently. The Maillard reaction still happens as they
bake, but thanks to the high sugar content there’s another reaction that occurs at even
higher temperatures. Imagine the taste of caramel: a mix of sweet
and bitter, with just a dash of nuttiness thrown in. It’s the difference between an acceptable
cookie and a delicious one, and you can thank the reaction called caramelization for that. Caramelization only happens when the temperature
hits 356 degrees. That’s a little higher than your 350 degree
oven, but thanks to the inexact settings and fluctuations in temperature, there’s a good
chance your 350 degree oven is going to hit 356 and probably a little above. Once your cookies start rising to 350 and
above, that’s where the sugars react and start forming all that sweet cookie taste. If caramelization is the reaction that happens
at the highest temperatures, would raising the temp of the oven to 400 when preparing
a recipe that calls for 350 make for better caramelization? The answer, simply put, is no. If you set the temperature at 400 and higher,
all those chemical reactions that happen will happen faster and less evenly throughout your
baked goods. That will lead to treats with odd textures,
a potentially gummy inside, hard crusts, and a burnt flavor. Go with an oven that’s lower than 350, and
you’ll have a light and fluffy cake with none of the caramelization. The sweet spot for light-and-fluffy as well
as flavor-filled is, you guessed it, 350. You can, in theory, bake everything at 350
and call it a day. Less to remember, after all, but, 350 isn’t
as optimal a temperature for everything as you might think. Take puff pastries, for one. If you bake these at 400 degrees, they’ll
rise even higher because of the steam that builds up between the layers. Breads, too, can benefit from higher temperatures. That’s because it’ll make the loaf rise faster,
while the crust is still malleable. Muffins baked at slightly higher temperatures
will rise more and have a higher muffin top, and cookies? Well, that’s all down to how you like them. “Okay, so what do these bake at? What temperature?” “They bake at 375.” If you like your cookies with a little more
crunch on the outside and soft on the inside, raise the temperature to 375. Changing up the baking temperature will change
how pretty much any of your baked goods turn out, so if your cookies, bread, or muffins
seem like they’re just a little less than perfect, use those same general principles
to figure out how you can adjust the temperature to get what you want. Check out one of our newest videos right here! Plus, even more Mashed videos about your favorite
treats are coming soon. Subscribe to our YouTube channel, and hit
the bell so you don’t miss a single one.