For many, including myself, preheating the oven is a reflex. I hit the little square button while rifling through cabinets or reading over a recipe, paying very little attention to the fact that soon, 350° of pure heat will radiate through my kitchen. Whether your stove is gas or electric, energy makes it possible to bake, and that comes at a cost to our bills and planet alike. So how does baking compare to other home energy use, and how can we become more energy-conscious bakers?
Let’s be clear: Home oven energy use pales in comparison to other appliances like furnaces, air conditioners, and fridges. “Ovens and other kitchen cooking equipment make up a small portion — an estimated 4.5% — of overall home energy consumption,” says Rachelle Boucher, an executive chef and electric kitchens expert at Kitchens to Life. While ovens contribute to a small portion of home energy consumption, it could still be significant: It’s estimated that homes and buildings help make up 13% of America’s greenhouse gas emissions. Another study puts the number higher, stating that "residential energy use accounts for roughly 20% of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions in the United States."
But not all ovens are equal, and some have a more detrimental impact. Gas stoves may be prized by many chefs and home cooks, but from a health and sustainability standpoint, electricity comes out on top. “Your oven will have a bigger carbon footprint if it is a gas oven, especially as we look into the future five years from now,” says Alejandra Mejia Cunningham, a building decarbonization advocate at the National Resources Defense Council.
The rise of renewable electricity, which draws from sources like solar and wind power, means this energy form will shrink its carbon footprint over time. Meanwhile, natural gas is mostly methane, a notorious planet-warming greenhouse gas, so it naturally has a substantial environmental footprint. New research from Stanford University found that gas stoves leak significant amounts of methane when lighting up and even when turned off due to loose fittings: Over a 20-year period, gas stove emissions in the United States could be the climate-warming equivalent of half a million gas-powered cars.
The impact of cooking with natural gas isn’t just limited to the environment — using a gas stove and oven for only an hour can produce unsafe pollutant levels throughout your house, all day. Ventilation is critical, so be sure to run your oven hood and even open a kitchen window for fresh air.
Baking requires thoughtful choices — which ingredients to use, how long to let your bread rise, whether homemade frosting is the way to go for your cake. (It is.) Similarly, using the same level of thought you give to selecting flours can create a positive change in your home (and energy bill). Here are eight tips for making the most out of every oven preheat, sourced from energy experts and bakers.
1) Turn your oven on intentionally
If you’re gearing up for a big day of baking multiple recipes, it can be confusing whether or not to leave your oven on all day or repeatedly power up and down. “If you're using your oven continuously, it certainly makes sense to leave it on if there are very short periods between batches of what you're cooking,” says Boucher.
Electric ovens that tout a “fast preheat” use a big boost of power to quickly climb to temperature then use insulation to maintain temperature, so it’s smart to leave your oven on if you plan to use it again soon. Gas ovens, meanwhile, don’t use a meaningful amount of energy to start. “Fossil gas cooking appliances often use an electric spark to ignite a flame, but the energy consumption from the spark is negligible,” she says. That said, it still isn’t a good use of energy to leave a gas oven running all day, so try to schedule your baking thoughtfully (more on this below).
2) “Waterfall” your bakes
Have a full day of baking planned? Start with items like crusty bread that usually require the highest heat before dropping down the temperature to bake cookies, toast nuts, or more. Such items can be made now then stored in the freezer for long-term use, ready to be thawed when you need them without turning the oven on again. If you’re making something that doesn’t require total precision, you can even use the residual heat left in the oven after it’s been powered off for the day. Try drying out meringues, re-crisping pie shells, or slow-roasting fruit as the temperature slowly drops.
3) Don’t peek
It might be tempting, but don’t open your oven door to check on your bake before it’s done. Even a quick peek lets out precious hot air, dropping your oven’s internal temperature by around 25°. This heat loss has to be addressed with increased energy consumption.
4) Choose bakeware carefully
Selecting the right pan for the job ensures you’re using a heated oven to its fullest extent and minimizes the need to bake for longer than the recipe requires. Many baking pans are made from steel and aluminum, which is excellent at evenly conducting heat. Glass pans can be slow to heat but retain heat for longer once they've reached temperature, while both ceramic and stoneware are slow to heat without a longer retention time. King Arthur recommends opting for metal pans to evenly and accurately conduct heat without the need to tack on additional baking time.
5) Make sure your oven is properly sealed
Ovens are tightly sealed to prevent cold air from creeping in or hot air from leaking out, but this mechanism can wear down over time. “Rubber gaskets sit around the edges of oven doors to create a tight air seal and keep heat in,” says electric kitchens expert Boucher. “Check to make sure they’re still flush when the door is closed. These wear down over time and can lead to longer preheating and more heat loss while cooking.” Handy cooks can usually replace the gaskets on a turned-off oven with a quick trip to the hardware store — or let a professional easily handle it.
6) Maximize space
“When I’m baking, there’s never a moment when every part of my oven isn’t filled with some sheet tray,” says Daniel Skurnick, a former Le Coucou pastry chef who now runs Fox Bread Bakery out of his Brooklyn apartment. “It takes so much energy to get that metal box heated that I’m not going to waste it.”
Even if you’re not whipping up a small bakery’s worth of almond financiers and tart au citron like Skurnick, a bit of planning makes it easy to double up on oven tasks. Use your empty racks to toast nuts for tomorrow’s oatmeal, roast root vegetables for dinner, or bake off a few trays of cookies at once, rotating halfway through to promote even browning. If you’re heating up your oven in the first place, use as much of that heat as you can!
Choosing the right pan can help maximize oven space, too. “Once production started ramping up, we had to get creative to fit the most possible in our oven,” says Gautier Coiffard, who handles production for his French patisserie L'Appartement 4F out of his apartment with his partner Ashley. They switched to rimless cookie sheets, which allowed them to almost double their batches. If you're trying to make the most of your oven space, spend some time fitting various combinations of pans into your oven before you preheat, so you're not standing there letting out heat while you try to figure out how to fit everything in.
7) Keep it clean
If your oven is taking longer to heat than normal, grease and grime might be the culprit. A dirty interior can prevent radiant elements from effectively heating, leading to extended preheating times and uneven bakes. “I’ve found that dirty ovens just don’t bake as evenly as a spotless one, so I try to clean it weekly and run the ‘clean’ cycle every few months,” says Skurnick. “When the oven is baking evenly, I also don’t need to open and close the door as often to rotate.”
8) Heat up your home when done
If you’ve ever stood by a stove to warm up after being outside in the cold, you know that just standing in a powered-up kitchen can be cozy. If you aren’t using the oven’s residual heat for baking, don’t let that hot air go to waste! Open up the oven door after turning it off to let the heat wash over your house, especially during colder months.
And one final bonus tip: Make sure to turn off your oven as soon as you're done baking!
For more oven deep dives, see the previous post, Convection oven vs. traditional oven.
Cover photo by Andrew Janjigian.