We Were Today Years Old When We Learned We’ve Been Using Our Oven Racks Wrong

Here’s a little-known kitchen tip: Where you put your food inside your oven affects how it cooks (and tastes). Find out if you’re placing casseroles, cookies and pizzas on the right rack or if you need to revamp your oven interior.

Photo: Background + Oven illustration by Diane Labombarbe/gettyimages.com Pizza illusration by vectortatu/gettyimages.com

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When you open your oven door and prepare to slide in a tray full of veggies, which rack do you use? The answer is probably the middle rack, which is truly the middle ground of any oven. Sure, sometimes you might opt for the top rack when you want a perfectly crisp topping. But otherwise, you likely have a go-to rack for everything you bake or roast.

Yet placing your food on the top, middle or bottom rack can have a surprising impact on your cooking and baking. The different heights of your oven racks can result in different cooking temperatures and speeds; they can change the texture of certain foods too. And it can absolutely make a difference between perfectly crunchy cookies or blackened bottoms.

If you’re unsure which rack is best for different dishes, keep reading to find out when you should use the top versus the middle versus the bottom. 

How ovens heat and cook

When you open your oven door and think about where you should place the food you’re about to bake, it’s important to know how ovens are engineered to heat and cook.

Most conventional ovens feature dual heating sources, which means they heat up in two places: top and bottom. There’s one heating element located at the top of the oven and one at the base. Some ovens have just one heating source, and in these ovens the heat comes from the bottom of the appliance.

Your oven’s heat sources are meant to provide even, all-around heat. But another element is at play. Hot air naturally rises, so it’s typical of an oven to be hotter at the top than at the bottom.

Additionally, whether you have a single- or dual-heating oven, the bottom heating element in your oven doesn’t run consistently. When you first turn your oven on, both heating sources kick into action. Once your oven reaches the desired temperature, the bottom heating element turns off. It then only turns on in bursts during the cooking process to help the oven maintain its internal temperature.

So, when you’re thinking about rack placement or where you should cook certain foods, it’s important to keep the placement of heating elements – and the hottest oven zones – in mind.

Which rack is the right choice for different dishes?

It’s time to rethink your oven racks and where you’re placing different foods to cook. Here’s exactly what your top, middle and bottom rack can do – and what cooks best on each one.

Top rack

Because the top of your oven is the hottest location out of all three options, you want to think about this rack as similar to a broiler. Any food you place here will melt, char or crisp fast – so it’s great for items that need a quick finish or a quick crisping.

You can use your top rack to toast garlic bread, finish off the crunchy topping of a casserole, brown the edges of a gratin or quickly melt the cheese on a pizza. However, you don’t want to cook foods here for more than a few minutes. The high heat can lead to a bit too much char if you don’t keep a close eye on your top rack, and you can wind up with a burnt dish.

Bottom rack

The bottom rack of your oven sits right above the slightly unpredictable heating element – the heating source that kicks on whenever your oven starts to dip below its preset temperature. This can make cooking on the bottom rack a little tricky to master, as sudden bursts of high heat can throw off an otherwise even-tempered oven.

So, you should really only use your oven’s lowest rack if you’re cooking or baking items that are okay with short bursts of intense heat. It’s the area of the oven that’s most similar to a wood-burning oven – it’s where flame-like heat will flare upwards. 

Another great way to use your bottom rack is for any foods that need their bases browned. Pizza crusts and flatbreads, for example, will get nicely crisp from underneath when baked on the bottom rack. If you want to toast the bottom side of slices of bread, or want to brown veggies on both sides, you can move these items down from the top rack to the bottom for crispy-on-all-sides results. Some people even like to start their pie crusts on the bottom rack for a nicely brown finish that sets up the rest of the pie baking process.

Cookies and baking in batches require special treatment

There are two exceptions to the guidelines above: cookies and baking big batches of food. 

When you’re baking cookies, you want the final result to be a little crunchy and a little chewy, without getting burned on either the top or bottom. In order to achieve this, you’ll want to start your cookies on either the top or bottom rack. Then, halfway through the cooking time, switch to the opposite rack.

And when you’re baking up batches of cookies (or other foods, like casseroles on Thanksgiving or trays of baked goods), you’ll also want to use this method. Put two items into your oven simultaneously – one on the top rack, one on the bottom. Halfway through the cooking process, swap their positions to achieve even results.

Middle rack

Your oven’s middle rack is the right spot for any dish that doesn’t require special treatment, like crisping, browning, quick melting and other specific use cases. It’s meant for longer baking times and larger, thicker items that need consistent heat.

The middle rack is the perfect place for many foods, since you’re putting items right in the center of your oven’s heat. It’s the mildest, most even-cooking destination for both cooking and baking. Your oven’s middle rack allows for even all-around results that work whether you’re working with thin cookies, chopped veggies, thick casseroles and deeper dishes like breads and brownies. Hot air will surround anything you place on this rack, and you won’t run the risk of excessive heat on the top or bottom of your trays, pans or bakeware. 

However, the middle rack won’t allow you to crisp up or brown foods as easily, but it’s great for cooking dense foods completely through. And if you’re ever unsure of where, exactly, to bake something, the middle rack is a perfectly safe bet. 

Now that you know exactly how to master each one of your oven’s racks, it’s time to take on other common kitchen questions, mistakes and organization issues. Keep reading:

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