Hundred-Year-Old Advice for Cooking by Temperature

Casserole dished filled with food
Source: Good Housekeeping (April, 1920)

When I cook foods in the oven, the first thing that I think about is: What temperature should I use?

Modern recipes indicate the temperature setting. A hundred years ago, recipes might say that a “medium” oven or a “hot” oven should be used, but the exact temperature was left up to the cook.  .

In 1920, many cooks still used wood or coal stoves which had their own unique challenges when it came to maintaining a constant temperature; but, more modern electric and gas stoves were becoming more common – though they may not yet have had a temperature control. However, cooking thermometers were available.

But, a hundred years ago the idea of regulating the oven temperature was still a new concept, and home economists were trying to figure out the best temperature to use when making various foods. For example, home economists at the Good Housekeeping Institute, which was affiliated with Good Housekeeping magazine, did experiments to compare how foods turned out when different oven temperatures were used. Here are some excerpts:

We Cook by Temperature. Do You?

From time to time this department has published articles on the cooking of foods by temperature. In our testing work here in the Institute, we have used these findings constantly, and each time become more and more enthusiastic over the uniformity and perfection of the results. We realize more each time the great importance which the correct temperature bears to the production of good cookery results. 

Just a word in regard to the use of a thermometer in baking. The thermometer should be placed as near the center of the oven as is convenient, and on the shelf, if possible, where the bulk of the baking is to be done. If your range has a very even distribution of heat, this precaution will not be so necessary. If several dishes are to be placed in the oven at one time, it is advisable to try the pans in the oven before it is heated so that the thermometer in a position which will best suit the necessary arrangement. The thermometer should be placed in the oven while it is cold, preferably and thus allowed to heat gradually as the oven heats. 

The experiments made to determine the best temperature for the baking of scalloped dishes proved most interesting. It is necessary that this kind of dish shall look well, because it is intended to be served at the table in the dish in which it is baked. So it was appearance that we looked for at first in determining the best temperature. But much to our surprise, we found a marked difference in the flavor as well, even though the dish was made in exactly the same way, when cooked at different temperatures. For the comparative test to determine the baking temperature for scalloped dishes, Delmonico Potatoes were made. Into a greased baking-dish were placed alternately layers of diced, cooked potatoes, and well-seasoned cheese sauce. The top of the dish was covered with thin slices of cheese. Dishes prepared thus were baked at 350° F., 400° F., 450° F., and 500° F. Another dish was placed at the very bottom of the broiler oven of a gas range and allowed to brown beneath the broiler flame.

The time required for browning at the different temperatures varied. At 350° F., twenty-seven minutes did not produce a very satisfactory brown, and the sauce “bubbled” badly, giving the dish a very unsightly appearance. Twenty minutes at 400° F. gave slightly better results, and fifteen minutes at 450° F. showed still greater improvement in appearance and flavor, but the dish cooked at 500° F. for twelve minutes proved without a doubt that this was the very best temperature of all. The sauce bubbled very slightly about the edges but did not give so unsightly an appearance to the dish as the lower temperatures had produced. The browning was good, but the perfection in seasoning and taste was the biggest determining factor. It was, indeed, supreme. The flavors seemed to be perfectly and thoroughly blended.

The dish baked beneath the broiler flame required only ten minutes for the browning. The result was very pretty to look at, because no bubbling had taken place, and the browning was even and delicate, but the flavors were not at all blended, so this method was immediately ruled out as not at all desirable. 

Good Housekeeping (April, 1920)

40 thoughts on “Hundred-Year-Old Advice for Cooking by Temperature

  1. I can not imagine having to cook in an unregulated oven. I’ve often wondered how people baked cakes that actually turned out decent when using a wood stove back in the day. We are so lucky to have the improvements in appliances that were not widely available for our great grandparents.

    1. I’ve baked bread and pies in the top of a two chamber wood oven. I found it taught me as much about baking as it did about different fires to build.

        1. It was our main heat from third grade till seventh and ninth through twelfth. It wasn’t our main oven, thankfully, and really only got put to use on big cooking holidays when the regular oven was already full.

    2. It had to be challenging to cook using an unregulated oven – though I suppose people just considered it business as usual a hundred years ago. When I browse through hundred-year-old cookbooks I’m often surprised by how many candy recipes there are, and how few cookie recipes. My guess is that candy was considered the easier dessert to make since it was made on top of the stove, and the cook didn’t need to deal with fluctuating oven temperatures (though I personally often find it difficult to make excellent candy.)

  2. Was looking for something different to make – it will be scalloped potatoes at 500 degrees. We had a wood stove – sawdust, actually, well into the 1950s in the logging camp. I guess Mum must have had her share of flops when first getting used to it.

    1. I can’t imagine cooking at 500 degrees either. Food would burn so quickly. It seems odd to me that the old magazine recommended such a high temperature.

  3. I found this very interesting! I have some recipes from Norway and they tend to cook things at a higher temperature for less amount of time. I thought perhaps it had something to do with Europe having a different voltage in their houses, but maybe it had more to do with their test kitchens 100 yrs ago when they were figuring out temperatures for recipes.

    1. It’s fascinating that the Norwegian recipes tend to call for cooking foods at higher temperatures for less time. It makes sense to me that the voltage differences might affect cooking procedures.

  4. My first apartment had a small gas oven/stove that had no pilot light and required a match to light. The oven door opened like a cabinet and there were no temperature indications – just on and off. It took me over a year to figure out where to set the oven to bake brownies, potatoes and meats. I finally found the “sweet spot” and marked it with a sharpie. I sometimes wonder if landlord removed the mark when I moved out…

  5. I cooked on a wood stove for many years when we lived in our cabin in the woods, and I loved it! It took a while to figure out the baking, but soon I knew by how much wood I had fed it and how hot the coals, how hot the oven would be, and if it was too hot, I propped it open. Sometimes the food let me know if it was cooking too fast, or if I needed to stoke it up. Often, after getting the stove really hot, I would just let the fire subside and there was plenty of radiant heat in the oven to cook dessert or even bread. I miss my stove!

    1. Your description of baking using a wood stove makes it sound wonderful. It sounds like fun – while being just enough of a challenge to make it fascinating.

  6. My friend’s mother had a large wood stove and really knew how to move things around and come up with a wonderful breakfast. I guess you get good at it when it is how you know how to cook. (Of course I even burned marshmallows over the camp fire, so I would not do too well with a wood stove.)

    1. Your mother’s friend sounds like a talented cook. I’d also probably not do well if I tried to use a wood stove – but it would be fun to try. 🙂

  7. Thank goodness for modern recipes with cooking and baking temperatures included! I’m not sure if I would have thrived in the kitchen 100 years ago, trying to figure out warm, medium and hot temperatures for myself. Without a recipe I am hopeless!

    1. I often take a stab at guessing what temperature to use when making a hundred-year-old recipe. What saves me is that I can always refer to similar modern recipes to get a general idea of typical temperatures for a given type of food. For example, many cake recipes call for 375 degrees and many drop cookie recipes call for 400 degrees.

      1. I was making bagels this week from a person’s paragraph of instructions and everything was exact enough for me to follow, including a 450 degree oven, but then no baking time… I looked up a second recipe to get the suggested time and all was well that ended well. Until the kids refused to try them. More gifts for friends it is.

        1. The bagels sound yummy. Too bad your children won’t try them. It sounds like you give some tasty food gifts. I wish that I was your neighbor.

    1. It’s fun to see how the Good Housekeeping Institute home economists tested various temperatures. They really tried to use scientific methods to provide advice to the magazine readers.

  8. Today’s technology makes it easier to cook with wood. There are probes that you stick in meat,or a lay down beside your dish. It will then tell you your temp in a thingy ( a remote ?) that you can have close by you. Hubby has several for the big wood cooker outside.

  9. I wish I could cook like my grandmothers and aunts; real cooks. I am not a cook and looking for help with simple, delicious and fulfilling meals to have ready when my husband gets home. I am following blogs like yours for help.

    1. I hope that you find the recipes and information on this blog helpful. With a little practice, you’ll soon be an excellent cook like your grandmothers and aunts.

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