When is hot TOO hot??

January 15, 2013

In checking voice mail messages the other evening, I had a message from someone, who by the sound of her voice was clearly upset. She had left a message asking about the baking temperatures listed on our scone mix bags, and wondered if there could be a misprint.

I called and asked her what had happened. She'd made the dough and baked all the scones--and the bottoms of all her scones were scorched or burned. I told her that the baking temperatures were correct as listed, but did she have time for me to ask her a few questions. I was reasonably sure I knew what had happened, but you know what they say about assumptions.

My questions were:
1. Did the parchment paper turn tan? (YES)
2. Did you make up the dough, cut the scones and put them on the cookie sheet to bake, and then begin pre-heating the oven? (YES)
3. How cold was the butter when you started making the dough? (refrigerator temperature)

The primary issue here is the answer to question 1. The fact that the parchment paper turned tan is a good indicator that the oven was running hot. I don't know why many ovens, mine included, age this way, but they do. As they age, they will often run true to temperature in the mid-temperature ranges, but as you get higher than 400 degees, will run significantly hot. The simple and inexpensive solution for this is to purchase an oven thermometer and do some simple checking of your oven settings. For me, the answer for the last several years has been to set the temperature back 20 degrees to 405, and then my scones bake as they should.

There were other factors, however, which contributed to the problems with her scones. Making the dough, cutting the scones, and then having them sit on the parchment paper while the oven preheated gave the butter time to warm to room temperature and begin to seep into the parchment paper. There was a nice buttery spot under each scone just waiting for the heat to hit it and scorch. (and by the way, she did NOTHING wrong by starting with refrigerator temperature butter--true, the colder the better--but it was the time spent waiting to bake that was the culprit). If you find out that you forgot to start the oven preheating, just pop the scones into the freezer while the oven heats, and then replace the parchment paper with a fresh sheet before baking.

Here are a few "ounce of prevention" baking tips:

1. If you are baking something for the first time, bake as few as possible for the first batch, and set the timer for the minimum time called for by the recipe. This lets you make sure both the temperature and time settings are accurate.

2. If you are baking one cookie sheet of scones, cookies, or biscuits--set the rack to the central position in the oven.

3. If despite your best efforts they still scorch slightly, double up your cookie sheet. Just the little bit of extra insulation on the bottom does wonders!

As for my unhappy caller--it is always disappointing to take out your finished creation and discover it is less than you anticipated. Creative thinker that this woman is, she sliced off the bottoms of the scones, served them anyway, and explained that they were lower in calories without the bottom crust!! And since the first words out of my mouth had been "we need to replace that bag for you", I'm now looking forward to hearing about her next batch of scones!

How to easily work in (nearly) frozen butter--and NOT slice your fingers to shreds in the process!

When you're hot. . .or not!

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