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What is the logic behind the choice of temperature for baking?

Obviously if you're following a recipe it will say what temperature to use, but I'd like to understand the reasoning behind it.

Is it a matter of density (thicker foods need to be cooked lower to reach the inside without burning the outside), or are there other factors in play?

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3 Answers

If we had a magical (or 4d) oven that could heat up the inside of the food all at once and uniformly, the baking rule would be simple:

  • bake batters and doughs at 100°C / 212°F until dough expands and dries, and
  • then increase to 150°C / 302°F to brown.

Any recipe that followed it would take way longer (several hours) than regular recipes, but the timings would be forgiving. The rule works because baking consists of growing the dough bubbles with water vapor and after that browning for flavor. Without a magical 4d oven and without hours to bake a dish, recipe authors have to experiment.

In ovens at higher temperatures the water near the surface of the dough or batter will first evaporate, keeping that region at 100°C. Once the surface dries its temperature starts to rise and eventually browns. While it browns, the region below goes into bubble growing mode and the process repeats. To get the whole dish cooked and browned at the same time requires an impossible balancing act because of how the bubble region moves depends on the dough's shape, its water content, its initial temperature, air flows in the oven ... There are many solutions to the balancing act and therefore many possible baking temperatures.

The exact details of all this are still the subject of research, as a recent paper exemplifies.

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papin, do you have any info on how temperature affects chewiness or crust formation? –  Joe Jul 13 '10 at 5:33
    
@Joe, I've read Crust formation and its role during bread baking –  papin Jul 16 '10 at 22:00
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let's use steak as an example.

first decide what temperature you want in the middle of the food - if you want it more "done" than "rare", the internal temperature would need to be higher.

then, decide how quickly the surface temperature would be conducted into the food, it is a matter of physical concept, it depends on (1) thickness, (2) conductivity of heat of material

then, decide how you want the outside temperature. it would need to be higher if you want it browned. you want it to be higher if you want to release the aroma of herbs, but lower if you want the outside more tender.

fast cooking with high temperature leads to a crusted outside and a relatively rare inside

slow cooking with medium temperature leads to a tender outside and a relatively evenly cooked inside

very slow cooking leads to dehydration

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Very slow cooking, if done right, doesn't lead to dehydration. Southern (US) BBQ, for example, cooks slowly over low heat for long periods, sometimes in excess of a day. Baking something in a dutch oven doesn't, either. If done right, very slow cooking leads to extremely tender meat. –  derobert Jul 11 '10 at 6:40
    
but if we are just baking, usually very slow baking does dehydrate. –  bubu Jul 11 '10 at 7:13
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Looks to me like the OP wants to hear about cupcakes, not fillet. –  bmargulies Jul 11 '10 at 17:18
    
+0: A good answer, but not related to baking, unfortunately. –  JYelton Jul 11 '10 at 19:24
    
The concept is definitely the right idea and it's a great answer. I would still love to hear any responses about baking since I'm much more familiar with cooking meats than breads, cakes, etc. –  Gabriel Hurley Jul 11 '10 at 19:47
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Another factor that will affect baking -- the material of the cooking vessel. As glass will pass radiant heat, and darker pans will absorb the radiant heat, you should typically reduce the temperature slightly (about 25F, um ... 15C ?) from whatever a recipe says, unless it calls specifically for cooking in glass or a dark pan.

When making a layer cake, you actually want less rise to get a denser cake, and so you don't have a dome because the sides set before it's finished rising, so you'll want to use a light colored metal pan and reduce the temperature. If you're dealing with larger cakes (above 10"), you can get "baking strips" which you wet down, and attach around the pan to keep the outer edge cooler longer.

Things in muffin pans when you don't have enough batter to fill all of the cups can cause problems, too, as the empty cup will heat up causing uneven baking for the items next to it -- my mom would add a little water to the empty cups to counter this problem.

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