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Chat Leftovers: Calibrating your oven

We use our ovens a lot in winter; it's the season for stews, roasts and braises. And as Bonnie Benwick writes in today's story about overnight cooking, it's the perfect time for the kind of long, slow baking that creates savory comfort food.

Maybe that's why several folks have turned to our Free Range chat lately to ask about ovens that have temperature problems. They want to know if calibration works, and how it can be done. As it happens, I've had some experience with that.

About 20 years ago, I moved into a place with a range that wasn’t baking hot enough. I put up with it for years, always setting the oven temperature 25 degrees higher than the temp I actually wanted, but then I finally called an appliance repair place for a recalibration. When the technician arrived, he was unsympathetic about my 25-degree difference: Most home ovens are about that far off, he told me, and some are much worse, so actually I should count myself lucky. But I insisted, so he did the job. The improvement was slight, and eventually I needed a new range anyway, so that solved the problem.

Years later, someone told me I could have adjusted the temperature control myself with just a screwdriver. So when the chat questions came in, I started looking around to see whether I could find some DIY calibration directions. Here's what I tracked down.

First, of course, you need to figure out whether your oven temperature really is off. For that, you need an accurate oven thermometer. Turn the oven on and set it to a desired temp, then put your thermometer in the oven and wait at least 20 minutes. Check to see whether the thermometer registers close to the oven setting. If it doesn't, calibrating is worth a try.

And here, as usual, there’s good news and bad news. First, the good news. Yes, if you have an older oven and the oven temperature control is on a knob/dial that you can turn, you might be able to reset an errant oven so that when you set it at 400, you get something close to 400. In many cases, the directions are right in your owner’s manual, which I’m sure you have carefully filed away and can retrieve in the blink of an eye. (And if not, just about every manual can be found online.) There are also plenty of Web sites that describe how do to this, among them Dr-Fix-It and eHow. If your oven is controlled by a touch pad instead of a dial, you can probably adjust the temperature control using the pad; again, go to your owner's manual for directions.

Now for a more negative view. I figured I'd better talk to a professional, so I consulted John Malina, a service technician for the R.S. Myers firm of Falls Church. Malina said that years ago, oven calibration was doable, but "those days are gone. Most ovens sold and made today cannot really be recalibrated." His theory is that range manufacturers would rather have you buy a new stove, because "they are not in business for you to fix or recalibrate an old oven."

Malina also pointed out that in an oven, temperature is always a moving target. "If you set your oven to 350, chances are it'll rise to 375, maybe 385, before it cycles off," he said. Then the temperature will drop below 350 for a while before the cycle begins again. So the temperature setting of your oven just reflects an average, and even that trusty thermometer I mentioned earlier might not give you a clear idea of how accurately the oven is working.

Temperature problems also don't necessarily point to bad calibration. The temperature sensor inside the oven might be failing; the thermostat could be broken; the door gasket might be old or torn and leaking heat. Or you might just need a new stove. Which, as Malina would say, will make some manufacturer somewhere very happy.

If anyone out there has DIY experience with calibrating their ovens, I'd like to hear about it, and so would the chatters with oven temperature problems.

And if you have any culinary question whatsoever, don't forget today's chat, at 1 p.m. We'll be joined by Andreas Viestad, whose Gastronomer column today is all about Spain's matchless bellota ham. You should join us, too.

-- Jane Touzalin

By Jane Touzalin  |  February 24, 2010; 7:00 AM ET
Categories:  Chat Leftovers  | Tags: Chat Leftovers, Free Range, Jane Touzalin  
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Im surprised the author didn't mention America's Test Kitchen's method for testing you oven temp. Involves a measuring cup of water in the oven to see how long it boils. Not done it, but keep meaning to, as I swear my digital oven is off by 50degrees.

Posted by: kellsaj | February 24, 2010 7:51 AM | Report abuse

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