The Oven Preheat Element That Could Be Ruining Your Food

How often do you hear instructions starting with "preheat your oven?" You may have read it on the box of your frozen pizza or in a recipe to make some homemade macaroni and cheese. No matter where you hear it, it's a kitchen instruction as common as "wash your hands," "drain off water," or "wash the dishes." 

Although the purpose of preheating your oven is to get the interior of the oven as warm as possible so your food isn't thawing out inside of a cold oven, have you ever wondered if it's actually all that important? Could this simple instruction — so commonplace that it's in almost every recipe — even be messing up your food? If you have an oven that has two heating elements, it actually might be. 

Well, hold on: You may say that your home oven has two heating elements and everything you make turns out fine most of the time. What we're referring to are ovens that have one heating element on the top of the oven and one at the bottom. Both of these elements are installed in such a way that the oven's interior will reach the desired temperature faster, so how could something so convenient be messing up your food? The answer is that the top heating element may be doing its job a little too well, not only superheating the inside of the oven but also your food.

The top heating element can burn the top of your food

Here's a scenario for you: You decide to make a frozen pizza for yourself and put the pizza in a preheating oven to help it cook faster. Once you come back, however, you find something's wrong with your pizza — the top is all burnt and black, yet the bottom seems almost perfectly done.

This is because your food is directly exposed to the heat from the top heating element. While the pan or pizza stone may absorb some of the heat from the bottom heating element, the food within the pan is exposed to the intense heat given off by the top heating element. In some cases, once the oven's interior has reached the desired temperature, the top heating element shuts off while the bottom heating element continues to run to maintain temperature. In the above scenario, this leads to uneven cooking, with the top of the pizza being overcooked and burnt while the bottom remains intact. 

How exactly can you prevent such a scenario from happening? What can you do to ensure your food remains perfectly cooked, even in a preheating oven?

You should only put your food in a preheating oven if it's absolutely necessary

You're more than free to put your food in the oven as it preheats — we can't stop you. But the question of whether or not you should is a little bit more complex.

It's usually considered a bad idea to put food in a preheating oven, as the food may wind up cooking too early. A cake may not be fully set in the middle and the top ends up burning, a casserole may come out looking done but still be undercooked on the inside — all of these things can happen due to uneven temperature distribution. In a preheated oven, your food will be cooked much more evenly. 

But this isn't to say that it's always a bad idea to cook food in a preheating oven. If your food needs to be at least somewhat cooked right at the beginning, chef and restauranter Claudia Sidoti told Allrecipes it can work. Even then, take care to ensure the food doesn't burn or cook too much. In short, while you're free to do whatever you like, it may not be a good idea to use your preheating oven to cook food without being extremely careful doing it.