Understanding oven temperatures in vintage cookbooks.

Understanding oven temperatures in vintage cookbooks.

So you've just received that vintage cookbook in the mail and you hurry to the kitchen in a fit of excitement about being able to actually taste history and culture circa 1902.  You crosscheck the recipe ingredients with the items in your pantry and you're reasonably sure that you're ready to mix up a vintage culinary creation worthy of Teddy Roosevelt's dining table.  You start putting ingredients into the bowl and mixing them up with your special wooden spoon.  You check the recipe to verify which temperature the oven should be set at.  You love it when a plan comes...

Wait.  What on Earth?!

You check your oven settings again and no dice.  

There isn't a setting for a "hot oven."  Just the normal numbers that have been on the oven dials your entire life.  What in coal-fired fury is going on?

Let us explain. 

Black and white image of a domestic science program where women a baking on a vintage stove.

Humans have been trying to control cooking and oven temperatures for centuries (probably millenia, if the Yale Culinary Tablets are to be believed).  And it wasn't really until the 1940s that we had thermostats and temperature regulators at hand to be able to create a standardized method for acheiving and maintaining a consistent temperature control in an oven.

Prior to the 1940s, cooks had to learn numerous techniques for gauging oven temperature manually.  And those techniques included everything from sticking paper into the oven and counting how long it would take the paper to turn golden brown to holding one's hand in the oven to see how long it could stay there before it literally couldn't stand the heat anylonger.  The 1946 edition of the Joy of Cooking even suggested that folks could stick a pan of white flour in the oven and then gauge the temperature based upon the resulting color of the flour after five minutes - light, golden, or dark brown correlated with a low, moderate or hot oven.  So, now you know how to bake your vintage cake recipe.  We're done here.

Just kidding!  There's actually more to it.

The notion of a low, moderate, or hot oven remains a bit of a secret language between modern chefs that prefer to still use a certain abstraction in oven temperatures because they understand that oven temperatures today can still vary by a lot.  Cooks' Illustrated studied this variance in 2015 and found that oven temperatures can swing as much as 90 degrees.  Mark Bittman, the decidedly modern cookbook author of How to Cook Everything once said, "I tend to think of oven temperatures in maybe four ranges. Really low, under 275 degrees; moderate, between 275 and 350; high, over 350 but under, say 425; and maximum. But I don’t think about those numbers … I just think ‘what am I trying to do here? Blast this stuff or treat it gently, or something in between?"

Woman standing beside a stove that is floating over a grassy area

So, why are there numbers on your oven dial if the technology and actual physical science of cooking and baking can be so imprecise?  Like so many advancements in home economics and domestic arts, it all comes down to the post-World War II cultural shift that perceived science, technology and industry combined with a well-regulated approach to living as the key to leading a happy and healthy life.  Americans wanted precision and precision they got in the form of 25-degree tick marks on their oven dials.  And it's also why many British cookbooks still instruct readers to set their ovens to a certain heat mark, rather than a specific temperature.

Before you throw your new found recipe for Teddy Roosevelt's Birthday cake in the trash, not all is lost.  We've all been cooking, roasting, braising, and baking our way through countless culinary masterpieces and no one seems to really care as long as the food is still tasty.

So, what is a 'hot oven' after all?

I would set my dial to 450 degress and then turn it down to 400 once the food is in the box and you've closed the door.  But, I'm hoping that Teddy Roosevelt's Birthday cake recipe calls for a 'moderate oven,' which is about 350 degrees.

Except for my oven, which I know runs cool by about 25 degrees. 

Because of course it does.

Common Temperature Ranges for Vintage Cookbooks

Description °F °C
Cool oven 200 °F 90 °C
Very slow oven 250 °F 120 °C
Slow oven 300–325 °F 150–160 °C
Moderately slow 325–350 °F 160–180 °C
Moderate oven 350–375 °F 180–190 °C
Moderately hot 375–400 °F 190–200 °C
Hot oven 400–450 °F 200–230 °C
Very hot oven 450–500 °F 230–260 °C
Fast oven 450–500 °F 230–260 °C


If you're into vintage cookbooks as much as we are, then check out our Antiquarian and Junior League collections.  We add new books to the collections regularly!

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