Visual cues are subjective. Even times—thanks to equipment variances and distractions—are inexact. For truly accurate cooking, temperature can be an important—and more reliable—tool for getting it right.
We know this for poultry, long admonished to hit 165°F. Some of us use it to gauge the perfect 125°F rare steak. But few home cooks realize how much baked good and desserts also benefit from cooking to temperature.
Bread, for example. Depending on the accuracy of your oven, the interior can overbake before the exterior shows any signs. Cakes face similar problems, in reverse. The high sugar content means the exterior can brown before the interior is cooked.
To arrive at our recommended temperatures, we started by surveying the suggestions of others. And we quickly discovered that guidance is scarce and confusing, with sources sometimes varying by as much as 20°F.
So we went into the kitchen and began cooking. In each case, we used a recipe we knew to be successful, then prepared it and took its temperature at the moment of perfect doneness.
In each case, we cite the temperature to which a dish should be brought, then taken off or out of the heat. The syrup for caramel sauce, for example, should be heated to 350°F, then taken off the heat and the butter added.
Our preferred tool is a digital thermometer—widely available and inexpensive—which instantly registers temperatures. Of course, cooking to temperature is only as accurate as your thermometer. To test it, fill a glass with ice water, then temp it. It should read 32°F. Alternatively, you can temp boiling water, which should read 212°F at sea level.
Where to temp a food matters, too. For yeasted and quick breads in baking pans, insert the tip of the thermometer at an angle from one end into the center. For cakes and breads not in pans, insert from the top into the center. Just avoid making too many holes in cake, which can deflate it. For frothy caramels, custards and simmering sauces, carefully tip the pan to pool the liquid to one side and temp at the center of it without touching the sensor tip to the bottom of the pan.
|Type of Food
|Enriched American-style breads (such as Parker House rolls)
|Rustic European-style bread (such as crusty French loaves)
|Quick breads and muffins
|150°F at the center, 170°F about 1 inch from the edge
|Yellow layer cake
|Chocolate layer cake
|Angel food cake