Knowing how to choose the right oven rack to cook on can mean the difference between beautifully melted cheese and a lukewarm topping that won't brown, even after several minutes in the oven. It can also mean the difference between deliciously crunchy cookies and those that are burned on the bottom. Most ovens have three rack options for your baking needs: the top rack, situated under the broiler, the middle rack and the bottom rack, located just above the lower heating element.
Place items on the top rack when you're using the broiler. This rack sits just a few inches below the upper heating element in your oven and is ideal for items you want to cook quickly at a high temperature. Use it to broil steaks, fish, chicken and vegetables. Also, choose the top rack when you want to melt cheese or brown toppings to an appealing golden color — like for an open-faced sandwich or a casserole.
Place items on the middle rack for most of your baking, including casseroles, cookies and cakes. This position in the middle of the oven allows for the most even baking, because the hot air can circulate around the food efficiently.
Choose the bottom rack when you're cooking items that don't require long baking times and that benefit from a crispy texture. Pizzas, for example, bake well on the bottom rack, because the intense temperature creates a crispy crust.
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Select both the middle rack and top rack when you're preparing several items that don't all fit on one rack. Avoid using the bottom rack, which may burn the bottoms of your cookies or casseroles. Stagger the pans, to allow heat to circulate, and switch them halfway through your cooking time for even cooking. You may also need to add two to five minutes of baking time to make up for the extra items absorbing the heat.
An oven thermometer can help you get to know your oven, since temperatures and air circulation can vary quite a bit by model and can also change over time. Most conventional ovens also have "hot spots" that bake items more quickly than other areas.
You may want to transfer pizza to a higher rack if you're cooking it for longer than 15 minutes, since the crust may get too brown.
S.B. Plunkett has worked in online publishing for 10 years as a senior content director, programming director and managing editor at major media companies. Before that, she was an English teacher. She has a Master of Arts in English.