“Preheat your oven to 350°F.” 

If that’s not the very first thing you read in a baking recipe, it’s certainly right up near the top. Whether you’re baking cake or cookies, muffins or cupcakes, the first thing you do is preheat the oven. 

Or maybe not. 

Tradition has it that you always put baked goods into a hot oven, the better to quickly and completely activate any leaveners and ramp up the baking process. But what happens if you neglect to turn on the oven and just start “baking” cold, as the oven preheats?

I recently tested an array of recipes in two different ovens to find out, and the results were both surprising and satisfying. Yes, you can absolutely skip the preheating step for many (but not all!) of your baked goods and they’ll still turn out perfectly fine — sometimes even better. 

Blueberry muffins cooling on a wire rack. PJ Hamel
Famous Department Store Blueberry Muffins reaching new heights: Cold-oven start on the left, preheated oven on the right. 

Why start with a cold oven?  

First, because it’s the perfect way to eliminate those frustrating “Darn, I forgot to turn the oven on!” moments. Slide your sheet pan onto the center rack, turn on the oven, and go.   

Second, some baked goods actually fare better when started in a cold oven. A longer, slower bake can result in a more controlled spread for drop cookies, a higher rise for muffins, a fully baked center for quick breads, and, in the case of some cakes, a tasty caramelized crust.

Vanilla pound cake baked in a loaf pan and sliced on a cutting board. PJ Hamel
Velvet Pound Cake started in a cold oven.

What baked goods can you start in a cold oven? 

Cake (and cupcakes), cookies, muffins, quick breads, and fruit pie are the best recipes for a cold-oven start. Moist, soft yeast breads (think a sandwich loaf or dinner rolls) do fine so long as you only let them proof about three-quarters of the way to fully risen before putting them into the cold oven.

I did 24 tests over the course of writing this article, and only twice was I disappointed with my cold-oven start. Fresh Apple Cinnamon Scones dried out and didn’t rise quite as well. Beautiful Burger Buns over-proofed and fell as they baked. Why? User mistake: I let them rise fully before putting them into the cold oven. 

Which baked goods really do need a preheated oven? Biscuits and scones started in a cold oven don’t rise as high and are drier. And crusty breads made with “lean” doughs (baguettes, ciabatta, pizza crust) should bake hot and fast (read: preheated oven). One exception: crusty bread baked in a Dutch oven, which produces excellent results when started in a cold oven. 

Apple pie with perfectly browned top crust and edge, bubbling filling leaking out of the side, PJ Hamel
Apple Pie: Note the nicely browned crust and the thoroughly cooked filling, as indicated by the bubbling juices around the edge.

Will you need to adjust the baking time if you don’t preheat your oven? 

Each recipe will behave a bit differently depending on the temperature called for, how long it takes your oven to heat once you turn it on, and the duration of the bake. In general, I’ve found that you can estimate total baking time when starting in a cold oven by adding the amount of time it takes your oven to come to temperature, plus the length of the bake (as directed in the recipe), minus a few minutes. Warning: If you have a newer oven whose top element becomes super-hot during its preheat, be sure to shield the top of what you’re baking with foil, or place it on a lower rack until the oven reaches temperature. 

The first time you transition any recipe to a cold-oven start, keep your eye on whatever it is you’re baking; when it tests done, note and record the total time. That way you’ll know, going forward, what adjustment that specific recipe needs when baked in your particular oven. 

The cold-oven start: What differences can you expect? 

Let’s examine those tests I did and find out what happened — and why.  

Drop cookies spread more slowly and evenly. If you have trouble with drop cookies either staying frustratingly mound-like or pooling into puddles, try starting them in a cold oven. The gradually increasing heat guides the dough with a gentle hand, allowing it to spread slowly over the course of time before setting.  

Molasses cookies on parchment showing their nicely fissured tops. PJ Hamel
The cracks and fissures in these Soft Molasses Cookies are more evident when you bake them starting in a cold oven.

In addition, cookies featuring a crackly, fissured top — think Chocolate Crinkles — typically look more dramatic when started in a cold oven. My theory is with more time to spread, they’re able to crack more before the outside of the cookie sets.   

Muffins rise higher. Muffins typically rely on baking soda or baking powder for their leavening. All of baking soda’s leavening power is released when it comes in contact with liquid. Double-acting baking powder is activated first when it’s combined with a liquid, then again when it’s heated. That said, much of its rising power happens before it hits the heat of the oven. So the more time those chemical leaveners have to do their work before the batter sets in the oven’s heat and stops rising, the higher the muffins will rise. 

Cross-section of perfectly baked banana bread PJ Hamel
Whole Grain Banana Bread started in a cold oven: Never an underdone center.

Quick breads bake more evenly. We’ve all made banana bread with a perfectly browned outer crust and goopy center, right? Introducing heat to your loaf gradually browns its crust more slowly, allowing the center time to bake thoroughly before the crust toughens and over-browns.  

Fruit pies brown evenly and beautifully, top and bottom. Skip the “start at 425°F and reduce the heat to 350°F” strategy. The two pies I tried, peach and apple, were a deep golden brown, their fillings aromatic and bubbling, after 2 hours starting in a cold oven set to 350°F. The longer, slower bake encouraged the fruit to cook thoroughly without the crust becoming too brown.  

Cakes rise higher and exhibit finer texture. Like muffins, cakes are nearly always leavened with baking powder and/or baking soda. Starting in a cold oven gives those leaveners more time to work. In addition, the edges of the cake don’t set as quickly when starting in a cold oven, which enables the cake to rise higher. 

Pound cake slices showing one with a think golden outer crust, one with a darker, thicker crust. PJ Hamel
Note the darker, thicker outer crust of Velvet Pound Cake baked in a preheated oven.

But that’s not all: Because the cake spends longer in the oven at an overall lower temperature, the outer crust tends to be slightly thinner and more delicate, rather than thicker and tougher from too much browning. At the same time, it develops a wonderful caramelized flavor — win-win! 

Want to try cold-oven baking? Start with pound cake 

Cold-oven pound cake has been a Southern baking “secret” for decades. And recently, renowned Savannah pastry chef, bakery owner, and author Cheryl Day has helped popularize the technique by including it in her latest book, Cheryl Day’s Treasury of Southern Baking. 

Cold-oven pound cake is also a regular topic on a popular Facebook group — The Pound Cake Chics. With 64,000+ members and lots of encouraging, enthusiastic posts, the group is a font of pound cake expertise. I connected with group administrator Michelle Hutson-Crawford, who gives this method an enthusiastic endorsement after trying it recently.   

“I am now sold that the cold-oven method is the only way!” she says. “My cake cooked perfectly, was super moist, and had a delicate texture. One noticeable difference was in the color of my cake. It came out golden brown and was even in color vs. the preheat method, which usually results in uneven color and darker cakes.”

Want to conduct your own cold-oven experiment? Try our Velvet Pound Cake. In my oven, adding 8 minutes to the directed bake time yields perfect results. 

Cover photo (Velvet Pound Cake) and food styling by Liz Neily.

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Velvet Pound Cake
Velvet Pound Cake
4.7 out of 5 stars 109 Reviews
1 hr 45 mins
one 9" x 5" loaf cake
Recipe in this post
A headshot of PJ Hamel and her dogs
The Author

About PJ Hamel

PJ Hamel grew up in New England, graduated from Brown University, and was an award-winning Maine journalist (favorite topics: sports and food) before joining King Arthur Flour in 1990. Hired to write the newly launched Baker’s Catalogue, PJ became the small but growing company’s sixth employee.PJ wa...
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