Is Oven Rack Position Important?

September 20, 2011 27 Comments

Is Oven Rack Position Important?

How Important Is Oven Rack Position?

Someone emailed this question to me a while back:  Which oven rack position do you use for different applications? For instance, baking cakes, cookies, etc; braising, breads, roasting meats, etc.”¨  Thanks

I realized that I had never really given much thought to which rack to use.  I usually just follow the directions in the recipe, such as “Set rack in the bottom third of the oven,” or “Bake in the middle of the oven.”  If it’s something that I rarely think about, I figure that it’s something that most other home cooks don’t really pay attention to.

But what if we don’t have a recipe, or if a friend writes down a recipe for us and doesn’t say what rack to use?  Or maybe we just want to reheat some casserole.  Then what?

Obviously, oven manufacturers wouldn’t make the racks adjustable if it weren’t a useful feature. And that’s where this response comes in.  If we know a little about how ovens heat, we can use those adjustable racks to their full advantage.

How Ovens Work

Most ovens are insulated metal boxes that contain two heating elements, one on the top of the oven and one on the oven floor.  During preheating, both elements heat up, but when in baking mode, all the heat comes from the bottom.  The bottom heating element cycles on and off to keep the temperature at an average of what you’ve set temperature for.  For example, if you set your oven at 350F, the temperature can fluctuate from about 325F to around 375F, but the temperature over time averages out to 350F.

When the heating element is on, intense heat is generated.  Since heat rises, this extremely hot air rises to the top of the oven where it cools slightly (we’re talking fractions of a degree).  When the air cools, it falls again, only to be heated by the element again.  This sets up a gentle convective current, even without a convection oven. (A convection oven circulates heated air quickly through the use of a fan).

It’s Hotter at the Top

Since the oven’s heating element does not stay on all the time and only emits intermittent bursts of intense heat, it is actually consistently hotter near the top of the oven.  So, as a general rule of thumb, if you need something to brown very well on the bottom, such as pizza or a pie crust, put it on the lowest rack.

If you want something to brown well on the top, such as a casserole, put it on an upper rack.  The middle rack is truly the happy medium, applying fairly consistent heat from the top to the bottom of whatever you’re baking.

Placement

One thing to consider with middle-rack cooking is how deep the cooking vessel is.  Do you want the center of the food in the middle of the oven, or do you want the base of the vessel in the middle of the oven?

If you’re baking a 2″ cake, it’s fine to put the pan on the middle rack.  If, however, you are baking a Bundt-type cake, where the finished cake will be 4″ thick, it’s best to put the pan in the bottom third of the oven. This allows the center of the cake to be in the oven’s center.

Adjusting Along the Way

Also, there is no rule that says you can’t move items from one rack to another during baking. Let’s say you’re baking an apple pie, and you want to make sure that the bottom gets crisp and also that the filling cooks all the way through.

You can start baking with the pie on the bottom rack, and after a few minutes, move it to the center rack to finish baking.  If the pie is almost done but you’d like it to brown a bit more, just move it up into the top third of the oven.

Safety First

Here I should note that you should never move an oven rack that has a baking dish or pan on it.  For safety’s sake, it is best to adjust the racks before pre-heating the oven.  If you have to move a rack once the oven is hot, make sure to use oven mitts or thick oven pads, and use both hands to reposition the rack. (Not recommended)

Using Both Racks

Of course, ovens are also designed so that both racks can be used at once.  When baking cakes and cookies, for example, you can certainly bake two pans at once.  For cakes, if the pans are small enough that there is at least an inch of air space between the pans and the oven walls and in between the pans, you can bake them on the same rack.

If there is not enough room, you will need to bake on two racks.  Since cake batter is less stable than cookie batter before it starts to “set up” in the oven, do not move the pans until the cakes are almost done, and then carefully rotate the pans.

For cookies, the ones on the lower rack will brown more quickly on the underside while the cookies on the higher rack will brown more quickly on the top.  Rotating the sheets half-way through the baking process helps all the cookies to bake evenly.

Placing one cookie sheet on top of another sheet can help to insulate the bottom so that the bottoms of your cookies don’t brown too much.  You can also purchase those double-layered “Airbake” pans to help with that.

How About Broiling

If using your oven for broiling, the bottom element does not come on at all, but the top element provides constant radiant heat.  The closer to the element the food is, the more quickly it will brown.

If broiling a very thin piece of meat–maybe 1/2″ or so, you’d want to have it on the top rack, as close to the heat as possible.  For thicker cuts–maybe an inch–set the rack lower.  This allows the heat to evenly penetrate the meat, making sure the center cooks before the outside gets overly brown.

Capon in Oven

Rule of Thumb

These are the basics of oven rack position.  A good rule of thumb is that, if it is more important for the bottom to brown while baking, place the rack low.  If it is more important that the top brown, place the rack high.  Of course, the converse holds true, as well:  if the top of your pie is browning too quickly, place it on a lower rack.  If the bottoms of your cookies are browning too quickly, put them on a higher rack.

For most baking, positioning the food in the center of the oven is ideal.  Just remember for the center of a large turkey to be in the center of the oven, you’ll have to place the rack lower than if you’re roasting a pork tenderloin or baking cookies.

Last modified on Tue 10 December 2013 5:20 pm

Comments (27)

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  1. Julie says:

    Thank you, RG, for that information. It’s very helpful. I’ve never given enough thought to oven rack position except when baking sugar cream pie.

    Hi Julie, you are very welcome. – RG

  2. Jessy says:

    I can’t believe no one has ever told me about this. My mother has passed on so much cooking info to me, but she never mentioned anything like this. I think you’ve solved a lot of my baking problems for me, RG. Thanks!

  3. Kevin says:

    Hi RG, Good info… thanks. Now how about convection or Tangential ovens. Is there a need to change racks since this kind of heat is supposed to be evenly circulated ?

    Great question Kevin, let me do some more research but I would guess the same rules apply. – RG

  4. Jack Hunt, PE says:

    Analyzing heat transfer inside an electric oven when baking is quite complex. I am a heat transfer engineer recently retired from DuPont. Having modeled this process at work, I will offer some comments from a technical point of view. Both convection and radiation contribute to the overall heating. The hotter the element and the longer it is on, the greater the radiant contribution. Conduction heating via the rack is probably minimal due to poor rack contact with the oven and bake ware. The key heating mechanism is likely radiant transfer from the “red” hot elements to the walls and subsequent heating of the air inside the oven due to contact with the hot oven walls. The effect of rack position is a result of the balance between convective and radiant heating. I think your rule of thumb comments on where to place the rack are on target for home ovens. Even heating is achieved in commercial ovens by moving the baking pans through the oven via a conveyor. Hopefully, these comments will improve basic understanding of a very interesting, but complex subject and perhaps spark more conversation.

    Hi Mr Hunt, great to have a real engineer offering their expertise on The Reluctant Gourmet. Look forward to more comments and congratulations on your retirement. – RG

  5. Brian says:

    This article was exactly what I was looking for, right down to the example of an apple pie. Speaking of apple pie, would your suggestion hold true if the pie was frozen?

  6. Lorry says:

    very useful piece of info to consider!
    just what i was looking for after burning my cake. =D

  7. Phylicia says:

    I found this as a result of searching for the advantages of having 6 rack positions vs 5. I’m about to buy a new range (BOSCH) – and they seem to think the 6 positions are a feature. I can’t see why. The overall oven side is larger but that is making the storage drawer below smaller. I don’t usually put two sheets (of cookies) in at a time because they don’t cook the same – and they’re still only giving me 2 racks – so I’m wondering – what’s the big deal? I would appreciate your thoughts.

  8. Jenni says:

    Phylicia, sounds like it’s a case of Spinal Tap’s this-amplifier-goes-to-11 syndrome. Meaning that it’s a meaningless feature. An inch or two up or down in position isn’t going to make a huge difference, and I doubt you’ll ever need to utilize all six racks anyway. It’s the 6 is greater than 5 so 6 must be better approach. ;)

  9. Cliffton says:

    I loved this I never knew the reason why the top of my pumpkin bread was burning so fast Love this guide!

  10. Freddie says:

    I love the perspective of your post. You have explain good points about how to use kitchen equipments mannerly to cook or roast.

  11. shirley says:

    I was told to always place the cake in the center of the oven, but I just wanted to get a second opnion. But I wasn’t aware of the other things that you mentioned earlier, regarding the pies, etc;.

    Thanks,
    Shirley

  12. Brenda. A says:

    Thanks so much for this info. Just baked oven-ready rolls higher up in my oven and for once they browned on the top and the bottoms weren’t burnt. Will apply your theory to further baking and cooking.

  13. Nes says:

    Interesting. I put my cookies in the middle rack at 180°C but they always get badly burnt on the edges (and look nothing like cookies in photos). It’s very annoying. I’ll try a different rack. Would it help to turn off one of the heating plate (top/bottom)?

    Hi Nes, I asked my pastry chef friend, Jenni, and she says it sounds like you just need to turn down the heat a bit. She wouldn’t turn off either of the heating elements, although usually the baking element is on the bottom and the broiler is on the top. If the top element *is* on during baking and it is turn-offable, I would definitely do that.

    Hope this helps – RG

  14. Shirley says:

    Every tube cake I bake begins to burn on the outside before it’s done on the inside. If I bake it the full time, the entire outside is burned. If I take it out when I can smell the outside beginning to burn, I drops 1-2 inches in just a few seconds and it’s not fully baked. Is there a solution?

    • MEME says:

      Your pan is too thin, batter too thick, or too much
      batter in the pan. Try adjusting each one by one.

      Also, Angel food cakes are to be cooled upside down. That
      is what those fee on the tub pan are for.

      Enjoy

  15. amado says:

    I am using gas oven, when I bake bread, It doesn’t turn brown at the top but the bottom is very overbaked and turning into black but the upper portion of the bread doesn’t heat and does not turn to brown, what can i do?

    • Jenni says:

      What position is your oven rack? Sounds like it needs to be moved up towards the top. I’ll be better able to answer your question if you provide just a bit more information. Thanks!

  16. Gledz Enaj says:

    It help much.. Thanks!!!!

  17. Wavolyn Norville says:

    I always wondered, too. I ask every time I get ready to bake – “which rack should I use”? This has been extremely helpful and very interesting.

    Thank you.

  18. Elizabeth says:

    I have never heard this question before. We just bought a new stove with 7 levels and 2 racks. The area inside is huge….not sure at all if that was really necessary, but now I have it….so….the question is: Would it be possible to purchase an extra rack so you could have 3 levels? I know this would not be used very often, but sometimes I think it would be handy.

    • Hi Elizabeth, I don’t see why not. Did you check with the manufacturer or the store where you purchased it?

      • Elizabeth says:

        I contacted the manufacturer but have not heard back. Not sure the store people would really know….
        Do you think it would hurt the heat distribution?
        I would sure like to try it!

        • Personally I don’t think it would but I’m not an oven expert so I would continue to ask around and even call the manufacturer. They usually have help lines for their products. I’m guessing you would have to adjust the times you cook something if you have the oven loaded up but that’s something you can do with an instant thermometer. Please let me know if you hear back from the manufacturer.

  19. Lisa says:

    I have baked all my life in a gas oven wonderful cakes and roasts, now married and in a condo, we have electric oven baking isn’t too bad getting that, but baking meats they dry out all the time and I am getting tired of it! How can I bake meats in electric oven and be happy again!!

  20. Judy says:

    Finally! I knew placement had to be key to proper cooking, baking and roasting. I had been having issues with casseroles and with baking chicken pieces, so after reading this, I moved the chicken up one space (about 3-4 inches) and it made all the difference in the world.

    Now I have racks in all the spaces with future baking items in mind. If you can find it, there are racks with removable areas to make room for a larger item, such as an oven stuffer hen, etc.

  21. Anna says:

    I am doing a science project for school about oven rack and which level is most effective when baking cookies and this was very helpful and interesting, thank you so much.

  22. Thank you so much for this informative post! My oven seems to be the opposite of the ones you are describing: the broiler is a separate drawer below the oven, and the main (perhaps only?) heating element is below the oven at the top of the broiler drawer. I just tried to determine whether there is also a heating element near the top by turning my oven on and observing, but the results were inconclusive. Any thoughts on whether the top is still the hottest part of the oven for a model like mine? For example, I sometimes transfer chicken to the broiler to crisp up the top, but it burns quickly, and I’m wondering if I would get better results baking it higher in the oven.

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