Some recipes suggest using the middle oven rack to bake cookies, other recipes mention using the bottom oven rack to bake pie, and then you might naturally choose to use the middle rack to bake a cake. Does the oven rack position matter? What oven rack position should you bake with?
My oven racks' default positions are the middle and bottom racks. Most of the recipes I bake use these positions. But for specific recipes, I may use one or the other, and they cannot be used interchangeably.
Basic oven rack positions
Most ovens have 5 or 6 rack levels and each serves a different purpose.
- The top rack is for broiling. It's the closest to the top heating element of your oven. When you set your oven to the "broil" setting (as opposed to the "bake" setting), only the top element heats up and the heat of the oven is concentrated towards the top of the oven. When you want to brown the top of a casserole, the cheese on top of a lasagna, or caramelize the sugar layer on top of crème brûlée in the oven, you will use the top rack for these specific baking tasks.
- The middle racks are for even baking. You likely have 3 middle racksThese racks are evenly spaced and approximately halfway between the top and bottom heating element. You would use the middle racks when you set your oven to "bake" for baked goods that you want to feel an even heat (not too hot on top, and not too hot on the bottom).
- The bottom rack is for recipes that require more directed heat on the bottom. Any baked goods that you have trouble baking through on the bottom specifically should be baked on the bottom rack, which will benefit from the heat of the bottom element concentrated on the bottom of the baking pan.
What to bake at each position
- Top oven rack: you will use the top rack for these specific baking tasks:
- To brown the top of a casserole or the cheese on top of a lasagna or a gratin
- To caramelize the sugar layer on top of crème brûlée in the oven.
- Middle racks: these are especially useful for cakes and cookies. These require even heat, when you don't want heat concentrated on top or on bottom of the baked goods.
- Bottom rack: it's best to bake pies on the bottom rack. Pie filling is quite insulating and prevents the bottom crust from cooking without more heat directed to the bottom of the pan. Therefore baking and browning the bottom crust of a fruit pie can be very difficult. You need more heat directed to the bottom crust to help it cook, which is why using the bottom rack is your best best!
Utilizing multiple rack levels
As you become a more skilled baker, you will likely start to transition to using different racks for different stages of baking:
- You may start a pie on the bottom rack to ensure the crust gets a good amount of heat early on, then you may slide your pie to the middle rack to finish heating the pie all the way through.
- You may begin to bake casseroles on the middle shelf, then in the last 10 minutes, move the pan to the top rack to broil, creating a delicious golden-brown top that you would never achieve on the middle rack.
Baking on two racks simultaneously
You might find yourself in a situation where you have two sheet pans of cookies to bake at once. But technically, there's only one true middle rack in your oven. You have two choices:
- Bake the two pans separately on the middle rack, one at a time. When the first is done baking, take it out and slide the second pan in.
- Bake both pans at the same time, using the first and third middle rack positions, leaving the true middle rack empty.
If you choose to bake multiple sheet pans of cookies or layers of cake at the same time, make sure to rotate and swap the pans partway through the baking time to ensure that they bake evenly.
How to know which rack to use
If you are ever unsure of which oven rack position to use (or if the recipe doesn't specify), ask yourself a few questions to establish what your goal is:
- Do I want to caramelize the top of something? Brown cheese? Crisp up the top? Use the top oven rack position in conjunction with the broil setting!
- Am I worried the bottom of my baked goods won't bake properly? Use the bottom oven rack in conjunction with the bake setting!
- Do I want an even bake throughout? Use the middle oven rack position in conjunction with the bake setting.
Once you know where you are headed, you can adjust your baking rack positions accordingly and utilize your oven's full potential.
Here's a rundown of recipe categories and which oven rack to bake them on:
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