For most of the year, chances are good that the top of your range sees more action than your oven. But come holiday time, that ratio tends to change, particularly if you’re baking cookies or other sweets in batches for an exchange or to give to friends and family.

More on Baking

The first secret to getting great results? Well, it’s not that much of a secret, really—you need a good oven. At Consumer Reports, we put ranges through the ringer. And our range ratings of more than 150 models include 16 that earn top marks for their even baking. If you’re happy with what you have, or you can’t splurge on a new range or wall oven now, these tips—sourced from professional bakers, industry experts, and CR’s in-house food team—will help you get the best results possible.

Visit Consumer Reports’ 2017 Holiday Gift Guide for updates on deals, expert product reviews, insider tips on shopping, and much more. And be sure to check our Daily Gift Guide.

Prepping Dough and Batter

It’s said that cooking is an art, and baking is a science. And any good science experiment is both controlled and repeatable. Weigh your ingredients whenever possible. “But if you don’t have a scale, make sure to use dry measuring cups for dry ingredients and liquid measuring cups for wet ingredients,” says Ellen Klosz, who oversees CR’s food testing. “It really does make a difference.” Klosz also advises other best practices, like thoroughly dusting your work surface, dough, and rolling pin when rolling out cookie dough, and making sure the dough is chilled before starting to work it. More good practices:

  • Use fresh ingredients, even if they’re things you typically think of as having an indefinite shelf life. This holds especially true for leaveners like baking soda and baking powder, which lose some of their potency after six months. Same goes for the flavor of dried spices.
  • If you measure dry ingredients, rather than weigh them, use a spoon to dish ingredients like flour out of the bag and into your measuring cup—that’s how the pros do it. Scooping flour directly into a measuring cup can pack it in more densely, leading to a finished product that’s dry or crumbly.
  • Always grease or dust pans to prevent sticking. For white or yellow cakes, dust with white flour. But for chocolate cakes or pies, you can dust the pan with cocoa powder so that your dark-brown cake isn’t flecked with fine white specks.
  • Use floss (yes, floss) to slice delicate yeast dough, like what you’d use for cinnamon rolls. Don’t cut it with a knife, because that can pinch the dough and create irregularly-shaped rolls. Instead, wrap the dough log with unflavored dental floss, tie a knot, and pull to make a clean cut.

Getting the Most From Your Oven

There’s no substitute for an excellent oven, the best of which can bake two racks of cakes or cookies evenly without requiring additional time. “In ovens that don’t do as well in our baking tests, we’ll see big differences in browning when we bake sheets of cookies on two different racks,” says Tara Casaregola, who leads CR’s testing of ranges, cooktops, and wall ovens. Other must-follow rules include allowing the oven to preheat fully and never baking on the floor of the oven or buying extra racks to try to squeeze in more sheets of cookies than your oven was built to handle—even if you’ve committed to making 100 lemon bars for a school bake sale.

  • Read the manual. Really. Don’t assume that your oven was built to bake simultaneously on three racks, even if three are included. Some recommend baking only a single sheet of cookies at once, and others advise baking cakes on multiple racks when possible, for the best results. Same goes for selecting rack positions—if your owner’s manual doesn’t make specific recommendations, bake on no more than two racks at once, with one rack in the lower third of the oven cavity and one in the upper third.
  • Consider bakeware carefully. Most baking recipes are developed with standard, reflective aluminum bakeware. If you use dark, nonstick bakeware, drop the oven temperature by 25° F.
  • And enlist extra bakeware when necessary. If you’re baking a pie and worried about the bottom crust coming out soggy, heat a cookie sheet or pizza stone on the rack where you’ll bake the pie, then place your pie pan directly on that surface. The hot sheet or stone will transfer heat immediately to the bottom of your pie pan, helping firm up the lower crust, and it’ll catch any filling that bubbles and spills over before it lands on the floor of your oven.
  • Long live parchment paper. It’ll prevent cookies from sticking to bakeware, and if you’re making multiple batches, you can precut your parchment paper and place the rolled cookies directly onto it. If you find that the parchment blows around in the oven, tack down the corners to your cookie sheet with some extra dough.
  • Move items from front to back, and rack to rack, to ensure the most even results. Unless you know your oven delivers perfect results in every spot, it’s a good idea to rotate any baked goods halfway through the cooking process.

Cooling, Frosting, and Storing

There’s nothing worse than pulling beautiful cakes or cookies from the oven, only to ruin them when you try to transfer or frost them too quickly. “Always cool cakes thoroughly before you try to remove them from the pan or frost them,” advises Maxine Siegel, who oversees CR’s food department. Having multiple sets of bakeware on hand will get you through the holiday crunch without being tempted to remove items prematurely.

  • Always allow cookies and cookie sheet to cool fully before trying to transfer them. Moving cookies while they’re still warm can cause them to break, and placing dough for your next batch of cookies onto a warm cookie sheet can cause the next batch of cookies to spread too thin and scorch.

  • For layer cakes, invert the baked cake onto a cooling rack as soon as it’s out of the oven. That will help press the center of the cake down, keeping each layer level.  

  • Frost cakes in stages. Rather than putting a big glob of frosting onto a cake, apply a thin coat—often called the crumb coat—just to seal in any loose crumbs. Once the first layer sets, apply a second, thicker frosting layer without worrying about loose cake crumbs mixing into the frosting.

  • Make use of your freezer by freezing cakes and finished cookies and defrosting them a few days before you need them. You can also make cookie dough in batches, roll it into a log wrapped in parchment paper, and thaw the dough just before you start to bake.