For years, I baked bread and tested for doneness by eye and feel – how brown it looked, if it sounded “hollow” when thumped. But “hollow” is a sort of subjective sound, really. I wasn’t always sure if I was hearing it or not.
Then there were a couple of embarrassing incidents where I put rolls on the table and then it turned out they weren’t quite done, so I had to yank them off the table and put them back in the oven. Which never really turns out well.
So I finally I broke down and bought some thermometers, after reading umpteen million recommendations to do so in bread books and online.
Using these thermometers really improved my bread.
First, the probe thermometer. These are also used to test meats for doneness. I don’t use them every time – there are some breads I’ve baked enough that I can tell by how they look and how long they’ve cooked whether they are done enough. In that sense, the thermometer is sort of like training wheels. After awhile, you might not need them. But for new recipes, I like to test with the thermometer. A general rule of thumb is 190 degrees F for sandwich type breads and 200 degrees for leaner breads like french bread that are made with little oil and no eggs, etc.
But, as Mike at Sourdough Home says, “If I suggest that 195 or 205 is the perfect temperature to bake a bread to, you have every right to say you prefer a higher or lower temperature. The temperatures aren’t holy writ, just guidelines. If your bread is too done, try a lower target temperature next time, if it’s not done enough, try a higher target temperature next time. You’re the boss of your kitchen. Not me. And certainly not a thermometer.”
Sticking a thermometer into the middle your loaf of bread does leave holes. If I’m baking two loaves, and one will be for a gift, I only test one loaf and give the one without a hole as a gift. I put the hole in the bottom of the loaf to make it less conspicuous. It still shows up when the bread is sliced, though.
I also use my probe thermometer for meats. This has made cooking poultry less nerve-wracking. I have a cookbook that consistently calls for cooking chicken for about twice as long as needed, resulting in chicken breast shaped hockey pucks. But cooking half as long always made me nervous. Now I stick a thermometer in and go by internal temperature.
There are digital and dial-type probe thermometers. Digital are more expensive, but having used both, I prefer the digital readout. Also, my digital is faster.
The oven thermometer has also been incredibly useful, although I only use it occasionally. It turns out that my oven runs about 25 degrees hotter than the temperature on the dial, and takes longer to preheat than I previously believed. For some things the 25 degrees doesn’t matter, so when a recipe says 350, I’ll still turn it to 350, because the cook time will be a little shorter.
But for pie, say, I turn it down 25 degrees. This helps the crust from getting burnt before the filling is completely cooked. It has really improved my pies, and resulted in a lot less burned fingers for me. I used to have to put aluminum foil strips all around the pie edges after the pie had cooked awhile, to avoid burning the crusts. I would invariably burn myself, not seriously, but enough to seriously annoy me.
What are your favorite kitchen tools?