Is Oven Rack Position Important?

September 20, 2011 51 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.


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 re-position 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 Wed 22 August 2018 10:34 am

Comments (51)

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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.

    • Heather says:

      It is just giving you more options for positioning. Lowest rack for a large turkey for example. Different dish heights, more separation when utilizing both racks… My new oven came with 3 racks. I’m not sure I will ever use all 3 at once. Maybe for h’odeurves? The only disappointment is that the gliding rack can’t go on the lowest position.

  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. 😉

    • David says:

      Always have to replay that scene a couple times since i’m crying with laughter. Can’t you just see Adam from test kitchen: “This oven has 6!” Ha!

  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;.


  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.


  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.

  23. Glenda Houck says:

    Thanks so much for this much needed information. I have never seen or read anything about oven rack position either. I’ve had a terrible time baking pumpkin pies recently, so I am expecting trying the lower rack on these last two will turn out much better.
    One more thing. The oven on my Kitchenaid glass cook-top model does something I have never seen before. The TOP element comes on when the oven is adjusting the temperature during baking. This tends to burn the top of whatever I am baking, if I happen to forget to place foil over the top of the dish. It is really an annoying feature. There’s nothing in the manual to warn you about this either.

  24. Christine Crouse says:

    I’m baking a 3lb. pork I place in bottom third of the oven or middle? Thank you.

  25. Phyllis says:

    For those of you who have your top element coming on at inopportune times, I would suggest looking at your oven settings which are separate from the temperature settings. It might be both elements come on because the wrong setting is selected. Another reason for poor temperature control is that one of the elements is not working properly and needs to be replaced.
    From a grandma with lots of years of experience.

  26. marilyn says:

    thank you, your advice has mainly validated guesses made over many years of baking. Wish I had this info earlier, as it took me many tries to bake cookies without either the tops or bottoms overdoing. Found all the other info very interesting and enlightening – appreciated very much.

  27. Pat Flynn, Jr says:

    Thank you. Very helpful.

  28. jerrieglassgow glassgow says:

    Every recipe should include what rack to bake cakes or anything that goes into the oven….Also each recipe should specify what kind of sugar.

  29. Mrs Bunny says:

    Thank you so much for this information. I have never been a great cook but maybe this will help. I am going to be taking care of my elderly father & I don’t want him to suffer! lol

  30. B. Bailey says:

    I just stumbled across this article from a google search about oven rack placement. Thank you for the thorough and helpful information. I love your website!

  31. Jill B says:

    Thank you for your clear explanation of what rack height is suitable for different items to be baked, In a bit of a panic as I am cooking a 10lb ham for Christmas and now I know that the top rack will give my scalloped potatoes a nice brown top. Thank goodness I bought frozen mixed veggies that will steam on surface elements. Cake and scalloped apples the day before…..results: 8 happy, well fed people and their 4 begging dogs.

  32. CJ says:

    Started cooking cake on top rack… top got brown very fast… long before rest of cake was done cooking. Moved to middle of oven. Hopefully I can save this cake! 🙂

  33. rick says:

    Thank you for taking the time to share.
    I learned a lot from what appeared to be a simple subject.
    Improvement is what it’s all about….thanks.

  34. Deidre says:

    still don’t know where to put oven rack for roasting a 3 lb. chicken.

  35. Maxine Ledbetter says:

    You made a comment that you use the rack position that the recipe calls for . I don’t know where you are from or what recipes you use, but in all my years (let’s just say quite a few) I have NEVER seen a recipe that told which rack to use. Yes, I do read all the instructions. I have read the same comment you made from another Chef. I have cookbooks from all over the USA and no-not one ever mentions rack position. I wish I had the recipes that did have that info. Maybe you have a new mission for the culinary world?

    • Maxine, I’m not saying I see them that often but I do see them especially when it comes to baking. I’ll keep my eyes out for more examples but I think your idea of someone making it their mission to post rack positions is a good one. It most likely will not be me but I do hope someone takes your idea and runs with it.

  36. Karen says:

    I recently baked a cranberry chocolate quickbread in the Frigidaire Oven. I followed the recipe carefully and put the batter in a 9 x 5 loaf pan I set it for the right temperature at 350 and the oven beeped to indicate that the temperate was reached to bake it at. I put it in for the required amount of time (40 minutes). But when I brought it out it hardly rose and yet the top was light brown on the edges. It was on the rack that was on the third one from the top. It said it doesn’t brown in the recipe but it doesn’t mention about it not rising. I put in the 2 tsp of baking powder. So is it the oven or is the pan or the recipe?

    • Hi Karen, this is a reply from my friend Chef Jenni from Jenni is a wonderful baker and blogger and I highly recommend you visit her site for more.

      In reply to Karen.

      So frustrating when that happens. I will try to help you troubleshoot.

      First, was your baking powder fresh? Usually baking powder is only good for a year or so, so if it was an older can, it could have lost some of its ability to make bubbles and thereby leaven the cake.

      If your baking powder is fresh, the next thing I’d look at is preheating time. The oven beeps when the air inside it reaches baking temperature, but that doesn’t necessarily mean the structure of the oven is more than just warm. When you open the door to the oven, all the hot air comes spilling out, and then it takes that much longer for the oven temp to rebound. My rule is to let the oven heat at least 15-20 minutes after it beeps.

      Third, do you have an oven thermometer? Maybe it is running much lower than it should? Get a $5 oven thermometer, hang it in the center of the oven, and see how close the temperature you set is to the actual temperature in the oven. Then you can either have your oven calibrated or adjust the thermostat temperature to compensate for the difference.

      Hope this helps. If you can provide some more details about the interior of the bread, maybe I can help some more. Was it baked through or still batter inside, for example.

  37. lil says:

    I have a 3 layer chocolate cake recipe that calls for the cake to be bake on the middle rack at 300 degrees for 1 hour and 10 minutes. My racks do not hold 3 pans at one time. Do I bake on rack 2 and 4 or can I leave the third cake pan to sit on the counter until the other 2 are done?

    Thank you

  38. EL Mehdi says:

    I have always thought it doesn’t matter what position you set the racks in the oven. After reading your article, i think it does make sense to choose carefully the position where racks should be for perfect cooking. Thanks for sharing this informative article.
    By the way, from the example you have given us about the heating element cycles, you have mentioned that the temperature can fluctuate from about 325F to around 375F. Does the fluctuate differ from oven to another? or is it a fixed number that i can base on for expecting the temperature once it changed. like when i set it to 500F, will it be 475 to around 525? or the number would be lesser and higher than that? Also, how long do you think it will take until the temperature settle on the temperature desired?

  39. Bobbi says:

    Left out in all these discussions is how unreliable the computer temperatures are on the newer ovens especially electric.
    My new home came with GE Profile ovens. It is important to buy an oven thermometer and use it every time especially for baking sensitive items such as cakes and cookies. Most of the time my oven is off 40 – 60 degrees !! My husband spent $500 for a new computer after only 2 years and many service calls. It did not help. These GE Profile appliances that were an upgrade, are the worse appliances I have ever owned. I hope this helps…

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