Why Isn't This Working? 5 Variables That Affect Recipe Timing

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[Photographs: Vicky Wasik]

Whether you're baking Irish soda bread, simmering a sauce, cooking a custard, or just whipping up some sugar cookies, timing is crucial. Who wants to put a batch of bagels in the oven at 2 a.m.? Knowing how long each step of a recipe should take is a vital part of planning, so it's maddening when the listed times don't match up to your experience.

While it's normal to experience a bit of deviation one way or the other, major discrepancies can be red flags, indicating that some suboptimal condition hasn't been taken into account. In my experience, a few significant but often overlooked variables are at the root of most timing woes, and simply knowing what they are is half the battle.

Know Thy Thermostat

When it comes to baking, the elephant in every room is the temperature of the kitchen itself, which determines the temperature of pantry staples like sugar and flour, as well as equipment, such as mixing bowls and baking sheets. Since cakes, cookies, and breads all depend on temperature-sensitive ingredients like butter and yeast, it's safe to assume that anything above 75°F or below 65°F will cause some deviations from the script. Recipes are, after all, developed under "average" conditions rather than extremes.

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For example, my Old-Fashioned English Muffins dough should roughly double in size after about five hours in a 70°F environment. It may seem obvious that the dough will need longer to rise when it's cold, but even if you prepare a 70°F proofing environment, simply starting with a cold bag of flour mixed in a cold bowl can slow things down. Recipes can be adapted to any environment—just ask a pastry chef in a sweltering restaurant kitchen—but not unless the temperature of the kitchen itself is taken into account.

If it's a winter wonderland in your kitchen (due to the season or an overenthusiastic AC), know that butter and sugar will take longer to cream, yeasted doughs will take longer to rise, and cold doughs and batters may need a few extra minutes in the oven. You can counter a chilly kitchen by warming pantry staples and mixing bowls for a few moments in a low oven to knock off the chill, but remember that you're not actually trying to warm anything up; you're just trying to simulate the conditions of a 70°F kitchen. And do be careful: losing track of time is how I discovered toasted sugar, but not every accident is so delicious.

In warmer months, or when the temperature climbs past 75°F in a small but busy kitchen, the reverse will be true; you may want to consider briefly refrigerating pantry staples and equipment to cool them off. Again, the goal isn't to make anything cold, it's only to bring the overall temperature down to something more "average."

Know Thy Oven

If it feels as if you're always tacking another ten to fifteen minutes on the clock whenever you're baking a loaf of bread or an angel food cake, or if you're always hitting "golden brown" way before the time the recipe suggests, it's time to grab an oven thermometer. Other factors can influence the accuracy of the listed time in a recipe, such as the color or material of a baking pan, but nothing beats the assurance of knowing whether or not your oven runs true-to-dial.

To check your oven, pop in an oven thermometer and set the dial to 350°F. Check the temperature every 10 minutes until it stops climbing (this will also let you know how long it takes to truly preheat the oven). If the final temperature doesn't match what's on the dial, you'll need to re-calibrate the dial according to the manufacturer's specifications or make a simple chart. Repeat every 25°F until you've got solid readings for a range of common kitchen temperatures, as the mismatch doesn't always follow an intuitive pattern. For example, in my parents' kitchen, a setting of 350°F is actually 375°F, while 425°F is merely 400°F, but with an index card taped to the cabinet door, I never have any trouble baking when I visit.

Know Thy Equipment

Most recipes are pretty subjective when it comes to equipment, calling for nothing more specific than a "large" skillet or a "medium" pot. The idea is to keep things simple, so no one feels compelled to go out and buy a matching set. Thing is, "medium" can mean two dramatically different things depending on whose kitchen you're in. For that reason, I always make note of what size pot I'm using, to provide context for the directions that follow.

For example, in a five-quart stainless steel pot my cajeta casera comes together in less than an hour.

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Using a smaller pot will decrease the surface area of the milk but increase its depth, slowing down the rate of evaporation so that the cajeta requires much longer to cook. Meanwhile, a five-quart Dutch oven may be the same size, but it will take longer to bring the milk to a simmer in a heavy pan. Again, it's perfectly fine to adapt a recipe to the equipment you have, just bear in mind that different dimensions and materials will affect the timing of a recipe.

Every recipe I post to Serious Eats has been made at my house in Kentucky, our test kitchen in New York, and generally some random Airbnb where I lay my head. Yet despite this chaotic mess of variables, I'm able to have a consistent experience by treating the size, shape, and material of my cookware as a constant. More so than any other factor, honoring a recipe's equipment list as closely as possible will help keep you in sync with the suggested times.

Know Thy Stove

Even taking the specifics of your pots and pans into account, not all stovetops put out the same amount of heat. Whether I'm cooking on gas or electric—all my recipes are tested on both—I'm stuck describing the heat in hopelessly subjective terms: high, medium, and low, or some combination thereof. Sadly, there's no real way to be more precise, except to describe the intended results and quantify the process of cooking in terms of time ("about X minutes"). If it feels as if you're always standing around the stove longer than those times suggest, it's okay to crank up the heat to match the pace of the recipe.

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Consider my favorite caramel sauce. Sugar and water are dissolved together, then boiled until golden brown. In a three-quart stainless steel saucier, this process should take no more than 12 minutes from start to finish over "medium" heat. If you're using a similar pan but the recipe seems to stall and the solution stubbornly refuses to take on any color, it's a sign that your "medium" heat is different than mine, and an adjustment is required.

Know Thy Recipe

Of course, not all recipes are created equal. A quick-casual recipe posted on a personal blog won't necessarily be timed with much rigor, so take such estimates with a grain of salt. By the time any recipe of mine makes it onto Serious Eats, though, it's been tested at least twelve times in two states, on both gas and electric stoves, with a range of different equipment. That gives me a lot of data to help determine the average time of any given step. So if you're having trouble with the timing of a recipe from a trusted source, it's worth examining the points above to see if there's some quirk of your kitchen that should be taken into account.

Just remember that any time listed in a recipe is meant to provide a frame of reference; if it doesn't fit your experience, it's good to know what factors may be pushing you out of bounds. From there, you can adapt the timing of a recipe to the specifics of your kitchen, rather than fret that something went wrong.