While baking is one of the most rewarding aspects of cookery, it can, nonetheless, be frustrating – especially when things do not work. Now things not working can occur when trying out a new recipe for the first time, error with the techniques or even when baking a reliable favourite that has never yet failed……..and then it does!
You can look at countless recipes for many bakes and get told slightly different oven temperatures, whether for a fan oven or not. This can be frustrating to say the least, and while experience plays a big part in sensing what seems right at the time, most people don’t want to blindly wing it and hope for the best!
The purpose of his post
Which? Magazine got in touch with me to tell me about their new oven temperature guide, which focuses on arguably the most iconic of bakes, a Victoria Sandwich sponge cake. This inspired me to adopt a similar approach with other bakes. And as I bake a lot (three batches of croissants, two batches of sourdough baguettes and four batches of macarons in the past week: sadly not all for me!), experimenting is part of the fun.
The Which? Magazine article on baking temperatures is an excellent read, with additional photographs and fascinating analyses of the effect of different temperatures on the Victoria Sandwich sponge. The article can be found here.
A work in progress, and I have updated it a few times, this post currently focuses on the optimal temperature for baking macarons and choux pastry. I will be continuing to adding extra comments as I bake further batches, and will shortly include shortbread and meringues.
Macarons and choux pastry are bakes that are, in some ways, at opposite ends of the spectrum: macarons are notorious for being tricky, whereas choux pastry is much more straightforward. However, even supposedly straightforward bakes can have their off day. Ok, it’s mostly human error – cue my recent audition for Bake Off!
I have given my recipes for making choux pastry and macarons at the bottom of this post. The macaron recipe in particular has full instructions for perfecting them, along with many flavour variations.
Get to know your oven!
While I am not advocating date night with your oven, it is important to get a feel for your oven’s quirks, such as which shelf certain bakes are best suited to and which temperatures work best in your oven for various bakes.
I thoroughly recommend an oven thermometer, especially if your oven doesn’t seem quite right and things are not baking as they should be. For example, one of my ovens is about 10°C too low compared to what it should be. So with something that asks me to bake at 190°C, I set the oven to 200°C.
Ok, that does not make a huge difference for some things (bread for instance, especially at the higher temperatures), but when it comes to cakes (Victoria Sandwich, certainly, and whisked sponge most definitely), and certainly macarons, that can be the difference between a successful bake and, at the risk of sounding melodramatic, a disaster. Yes, adjusting the time can remedy things somewhat if the temperature is not quite right, but this is not necessarily a guarantee for success.
Trying to get a fair test
I made up standard batches of choux pastry and macarons and baked them in the centre of my main oven with the fan on.
I baked most for the same duration per batch, and these are the ones in the photos. I have also played around with longer and shorter baking times, and those observations have since been added to this post, with other additions as I experiment further.
I was interested in the following qualities in the finished bakes:
I went for a 20°C difference each time with the choux pastry: 150°C, 170°C, 190°C and 210°C.
They were piped out into small mounds of dough to as close to the same size as I could (more profiterole size rather than larger choux buns) and left them without an egg glaze. They were then baked for 15 minutes in the centre of the oven: a standard time for small choux.
Having experimented scores of times with macarons several years ago while trying to get to grips with them, I can testify that even if they are made up perfectly (no mean feat!) they are particularly sensitive to slight variations in temperature – more so than most bakes! And it is such a shame to ruin a batch of macarons that have been so lovingly made, only to be thwarted when they go in the oven!
An ideal macaron should have a thin, crisp outer shell, giving way to a soft, melt-in-the-mouth interior. They shouldn’t be at all dry or crunchy.
I coloured the macaron mixture a pale yellow for the photos in this post, and decided to bake the macarons at 10°C difference each time: 140°C, 150°C, 160°C and 170°C.
The macarons were baked for 12 minutes, turning the tray around after 7 minutes once the feet had started to form and left to cool on the baking tray. Some of the macarons baked at 170°C were removed from the oven a few minutes earlier when they had started to darken slightly too much but they were still on the crunchy side.
The results of the tests
Baked at 150°C (fan)
Baked at 170°C (fan)
Baked at 190°C (fan)
Baked at 210°C (fan)
- Appearance: at 150°C they are far too pale, going to a nice golden-brown at 190°C and 210°CC. The 210°C choux rose the most in the oven with the 190° choux also having an excellent rise: but there was not much in the rise at those two higher temperatures. The 150°C didn’t rise too much. Some of the choux at 210°C were starting to darken too much, so if making larger choux they might start to burn with the longer baking time they would need.
- Texture: at 150°C they are very soft, and slightly collapsed. The 170°C choux, while starting off fairly crisp, went softer within a couple of hours whereas with the 190°C and 210°C choux went very crisp and retained their crispness longer.
- Interior: at 150°C the choux are ever-so-slighty undercooked, almost eggy. At 170°C they have a more baked interior. The 190°C and 210°C choux are fully baked with a nice open texture.
- Flavour: as expected, there is not much difference between the flavours, but the 150°C choux are somewhat on the bland side.
For choux baked at 150°C for a little longer, ie) until they then looked right, they had set more inside rather than being too eggy but were too dense. Not a good quality in a choux. Their exteriors were not that crisp either.
Summary: lower temperatures result in less rise, a paler appearance and softer texture, with a tendency to be a little gooey inside. The choux baked at 190C and 210C gave excellent results. At 210C, though, the choux could be prone to burning if made larger for choux buns or large éclairs. Having made larger choux before at 210C, reducing the cooking time at this temperature still results in slightly under-cooked choux inside.
Baking preference: 190C (although 210C for smaller choux works brilliantly)
Baked at 140°C (fan)
Baked at 150°C (fan)
Baked at 160°C (fan)
Baked at 170°C (fan)
- Appearance: 150C gave the right appearance in terms of colour and feet. At 140C the feet form but are not as well defined. At temperatures exceeding 150C they darken too much
- Texture: 150C gives the right level of gently crispness as you bite into the shell, and have the melt-in-the-mouth texture they should have. The texture at 140C is almost the same. At temperatures exceeding 150C the shells start to firm up too much: 160C give shells that are a touch too firm, whereas at 170C they are totally crunchy which is not the point of macarons.
- Interior: at 140C and 150C the interior is soft and fluffy. At 160C and 170C they are baked too much, becoming dry and biscuit-like
- Flavour: there is not much difference in the flavour at 140C, 150C and 160C. However, at 170C there is a slight bitterness with the macarons baked at 170C: as indeed you get with over-cooked biscuits.
Macarons baked at 140°C for a little longer, until they no longer “wobble” on the baking parchment, are absolutely fine, despite not having as well defined “feet”. But that is not a huge issue as they still look good and they certainly taste great.
NB: it is worth pointing out that if the macaron mixture is not made effectively (for example, over-mixed), the higher temperatures (160°C upwards) make them more prone to souffléing up and cracking – which you really don’t want with macarons – whereas they are slightly more forgiving at lower temperatures.
Summary: lower temperatures are the way to go with macarons; even a smaller increase of 10C or so gives macarons that can go too dark and too crisp.
Baking preference: 150C is the ideal temperature for macarons, but 140C gives very good results indeed.
The links below go to my recipes on macarons and choux pastry. The macarons post in particular has step-by-step photographs to document the process, as well as troubleshooting and top tips. It also has ideas for many different flavours of macarons.