READER QUESTION: I am never sure which rack to place things on when I bake in the oven. Is there a general rule to always use the middle rack unless otherwise noted or does it matter what food item I am cooking? How do I decide?
The short answer is Yes! You want your food to be in the center of the oven, which usually means the oven rack should be in the center of the oven.
Center Rack: Most of the Time
In most cases having the oven rack in the center will also allow the food to be in the center. This is the case if you're making a lasagna in a 9x13 pan or a sheet of cookies. You want the rack in the center because if it's too close to either the bottom or top heating element your dish (or dessert) will cook unevenly and possibly burn on one side or another.
However, if you're roasting a large ham or turkey, you may need to move the oven rack down a rung to prevent your main course from being too close to the upper heating element and to keep the food -- not the rack in the center. This allows for more even cooking. Again, you don't want your food too close to either the top or the bottom element.
Top Rack: To Broil
Many stoves have an upper heating element used as broiler. When broiling things like salmon or steak where you're trying to get a good sear on the outer crust, you need to move have a rack (my oven has 4 racks) closer to the upper heating element.
Baking in Convection Ovens
Convection ovens are a different beast all together. You still want your your oven racks spaced evenly, but when it comes to convection ovens there is a fan in the back of the oven that circulates the hot air and allows the food to bake more quickly, but also more evenly. If you bake two sheets of cookies in a convection oven there is no need to rotate the pans from the top rack to bottom rack like you would need to do in a conventional oven. However, if you're cooking only one thing, it's still best to have it on the center rack in the middle of the oven.
In a nutshell, if you keep your oven rack in the middle your food will cook evenly 95 percent of the time. You may need to move it for special dinners or techniques like broiling.
Summer, Senior Editor, lover of cookies, ham, and turkey
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