Essential Tools

The Pans Every Baker Should Have

July 11, 2016

After a lifetime of baking—first at home and then in my bakery and now at home again—I’m pretty clear about the type and size of pans that I prefer.

Here is what I know for sure:

Photo by James Ransom

The best pans for cakes, cookies, and brownies don’t cost the most dollars, and you don’t need bells and whistles. My grandma often said, “plain is best.” We rolled our eyes, but today I know that less really is more went it comes to cooking equipment. I sigh when I see pricey, over-engineered, and heavier-than-necessary pans (not to mention gadgets!) even in good kitchenware stores—because they are not necessarily the best. But then I can hardly keep myself from intervening in the grocery store when I see someone reaching for those inexpensive dark colored lightweight nonstick cake pans or cookie sheets.

Shop the Story

My favorite pans are available online or in restaurant supply stores at very good prices; some are also available in good kitchenware stores. Online is easy, but if you really love to bake and have never visited a restaurant or bakery supply store, you can’t imagine the fun (and relative bargains) you are missing. Even now, I love an excuse to go restaurant supply shopping.

Here’s what’s in my kitchen now that I would buy again if I were starting over:

Photo by Alpha Smoot

Half Sheet Pans

These are the 12-x-16-inch, medium-weight (there is no need to pay for the super heavy ones) aluminum pans used in bakeries and restaurants. They are sturdy enough to last a lifetime in a home kitchen, and relatively inexpensive. In addition to baking cookies, use them for jellyrolls and other thin cake sheets (and tripled brownie recipes). Use them to toast nuts or croutons, roast vegetables or chicken pieces, or keep pancakes warm—and a thousand other things, too. Have at least 2 half sheets on hand. I’ve seen them in 2-packs in big box stores like Costco. The heavier and more expensive type will not do a better job with your cookies!

More: One oven, 2 baking sheets, a zillion cookies. Yes! You! Can! Alice breaks it down.

Cookie Sheets

It’s good to have a rimless cookie sheet for sliding under delicate cake layers in order to lift or move them, but I bake cookies on half sheet pans, which are so useful for other things as well. I don’t buy or keep “cookie sheets” for cookie baking, and if I did, I would avoid nonstick (unnecessary and easily damaged), dark-colored (cookies burn on the bottom before the tops are fully baked), insulated (they lengthen the baking time and rob you of caramelized edges), and cookie sheets with special surfaces (unnecessary).

Cake pans are also very good for ice cream cakes. Photo by Mark Weinberg

Layer Cake and Brownie Pans

Ideally, you need both 8- and 9-inch round pans 2 inches deep for cakes, and both 8- and 9-inch square pans for brownies and bars. (See below for springforms). If you have both shapes in both sizes you can follow most recipes as written instead of trying to increase or decrease recipes by awkward amounts, or end up with flat cakes because you baked batter in a 9-inch instead of an 8-inch pan. If you need to start your collection slowly, flip through a couple favorite baking books and look at recipes you are most likely to make and buy pans accordingly. For cake layer and brownie pans, as with sheet pans, avoid dark finishes (they overcook the sides of the cake before the center is done) and don’t be swayed by nonstick! (That's what parchment is for!)

Springforms and Cheesecake Pans

I stopped buying springform pans decades ago when I discovered “cheesecake” pans with removable bottoms (made by Parrish Magic Line and more recently by Fat Daddio's—these companies make my favorite cake and brownie pans as well). Would it be melodramatic to say that pans with removable bottom are life changing? They are sturdy aluminum pans with a light-colored finish that won’t overcook the sides of cakes; there are no springs to loosen or break, and the bottoms are simple, sturdy metal plates with no unsightly grooves or elaborate rims. Ideally, get both an 8- and a 9-inch round pans, each 3 inches deep. Use them when springforms are called for.

9-x-13-Inch Baking Pan

You should have a glass one for casseroles and serve-in-the-pan/take-to-picnic cakes (that call for glass pans or baking dishes) and a metal one for double brownie batches and sheet cakes.

Photo by James Ransom

Bundt Pans (12-Cup)

Get one if you love Bundt-type cakes and the decorative contours of these special pans! If you are Bundt-less, note that Bundt cake batter can usually be divided in half and baked in two loafs pans or the full recipe can be baked in a plain tube (a.k.a. angel food) pan instead of the Bundt pan. Heavyweight, dark-finish Bundt pans make for the nice brown crusts appropriate to this type of cake—my usual insistence on light-colored pans does not apply here!

Angel Food (10-Inch)

The only angel food cake pans that I have are very old—one might have been my mother’s. They're aluminum and very lightweight. They work beautifully. Go figure. You can make any cake than calls for a tube pan—including Bundt cake, sponge cake, and chiffon cake in an angel food cake pan. But you can’t usually make sponge, chiffon, or angel food cake in a Bundt pan (because these are likely to stick to the pan rather than unmold perfectly)!

Loaf Pans

I have a motley collection of these in all sizes and materials, but you probably can start with two 6-cup pans or start by buying the size called for in a few recipes that you want to make. Save glass or ceramic pans for meatloaf. Heavyweight steel pans are good for yeasted breads where a heavy dark crust, or at least a good amount of heat directly against the sides as well as the bottom of the loaf, may be wanted. But here’s a surprise: For loaf cakes, including pumpkin and banana breads and other “quick” breads (without yeast)—which are actually cakes, not breads—I get excellent results with all kinds of metal pans. You can use heavy or lightweight, dark- or light-colored, cheap or expensive loaf pans, just so long as they are lined on the bottom and all four sides with parchment paper. (I also love how this looks.) The liner protects the surfaces of the cake from over browning in both heavy pans and lightweight dark pans. So feel free to pick up bargain pans to make loaf cakes!

What are the must-have pans in your own kitchen? Share your list in the comments.

19 Comments

Tante C. August 1, 2016
I agree 100% with the assessment of Parish Magic Line springform pans. They are life changing! I bake a lot of cakes and admit to having 6", 10" and 12" and use them with cake strips. No dome in the center. I like to make four layers and use mousse as filling and the removable bottom really has been a game changer. I line them with plastic and build my layers and don't have to struggle with removing the cake from the pan when it has set. Wonderful straight sides. I never have to worry about uneven baking. I find them superior to Fat Daddio. BUY THESE you won't be sorry.
 
Tante C. August 1, 2016
I also have the 8" and 9"!<br />
 
keg72 July 18, 2016
I, too, would recommend a tart pan with a removable bottom. And, as for loaf pans, in addition to starting with two 6-cup pans, I'd suggest a set of four mini loaf pans. I find that I often don't want a whole large loaf -- plus it's often nice to give mini loaves away.
 
Rachel B. July 17, 2016
A plug for the insulated cookie sheets: in my younger days I used to bake massive amounts of rugelach at Christmas time for gifts. I also had small children back then. And inevitably, one of my children would need something right when the oven timer would go off. After discarding too many over baked and ruined rugelach, I invested in a set of insulated cookie sheets, which gave me a couple of much needed minutes of grace and saved many a batch of rugelach. I don't bake nearly as much rugelach now (only 12 dozen as opposed to the 36 or 48 dozen I used to make), but I still rely on those insulated cookie sheets. Especially as I now have my 2 and 4 year old granddaughters 'helping' me.
 
HankG July 12, 2016
I got a cast-iron skillet as a gift from my girlfriend last year, and it's since become an everyday staple in our kitchen. <br /><br />My question: Does anyone know if there's a real purpose to cast-iron loaf pans or muffin tins? I can't seem to find anything online as to why these would be better or worse than the standards?
 
Lee T. July 14, 2016
I use cast iron skillets, but loaf pans made of cast iron are uselessness in my opinion.
 
Windischgirl July 11, 2016
I use springform pans in place of cake pans (much easier to unmold while reducing the risk of breakage). But I'd want to add a muffin/cupcake tin to the collection in its place.
 
Smaug July 11, 2016
I consider a proper cookie sheet (a plain old sheet of steel with one raise edge) an absolute necessity not only for cookies (you can line up a million cookies on parchment or silpats and cook them on one cookie sheet) but for other kitchen uses- makes a great pizza peel substitute, for example. Since virtually none of the energy produced by an oven is in the visible spectrum, I really don't think that how dark a pan is makes any difference at all.
 
AntoniaJames July 11, 2016
An interesting test of this point about dark vs light cookie sheets, smaug: http://blog.kingarthurflour.com/2013/07/10/the-secret-to-perfectly-browned-cookies/ <br /><br />I agree wholeheartedly with your recommendation to use an open-sided cookie sheet as a pizza peel substitute. It's handy, has many uses, and stores so much more easily. I picked up for 50 cents apiece at a charity shop several years ago 2 insulated one-rimmed sheets, knowing full well that I would never use them in the oven. They're great for quickly getting batches in and out of the oven when making lavash crackers and huge quantities of cookies during the holidays; they save so much time when doing production work on parchment. In addition, the sheets take virtually no space in my narrow vertical cabinet. Ms. Medrich has a great piece with tips relating to this here: https://food52.com/blog/9216-how-to-make-a-zillion-cookies-in-1-oven-with-2-cookie-sheets ;o)<br />
 
Smaug July 11, 2016
Interesting, but since the pans are different materials and textures, and some are grreased for some reason, it doesn't really say anything significant about the effect of the color.
 
Greenstuff July 11, 2016
My understanding is that darker objects absorb energy from infrared radiation as well as from the visible spectrum. I'd love some more physics and hope someone will speak up, but I have plenty of empirical evidence for dark pans burning the bottoms of my baked goods.
 
Smaug July 12, 2016
My physics career ended as a college freshman a million years ago, but I don't think radiant transfer is any kind of a factor; heat in an oven is transferred by convection (with air or, in some cases, steam as the medium).
 
Brian C. July 11, 2016
Great list! I'd agree - a pie dish is one I'd add to this list. They are very versatile...
 
Greenstuff July 11, 2016
Removable-bottom tart pans, Madeleine pans, and popover pans. My tart pans and Madeleine pans were my mother's, and she has been gone for more than 30 years. I'm still looking for the ideal popover pan, as I find they all start to stick after a while, no matter how well I treat them.
 
Cookie M. July 11, 2016
What are your thoughts on silicone baking pans? I recently came in possession of a ton of these (cake pans, loaf pans, muffin pans, etc etc) but haven't had a chance to use them yet. Keep or donate?
 
AntoniaJames July 11, 2016
Cookie Monster, you may find helpful the section on silicone in this well-researched, well-written and insightful piece (as usual) from the Serious Eats pastry expert: http://www.seriouseats.com/2016/07/how-to-choose-the-best-muffin-pans-and-liners.html ;o)
 
Greenstuff July 11, 2016
Loved that Serious Eats article! It brought back some bad memories of a silicone Bundt pan I had. It was difficult to use in all ways, especially because it had a harder ring that had to be fitted into the top to maintain its shape. It was a big relief when I realized I could just get rid of it. That floppy factor is a deal breaker.
 
Smaug July 12, 2016
I remember during the height of the silicone craze looking at a bunch of assorted Bundt pans, muffin pans etc. in silicone and wondering how the devil you'd ever get them in and out of the oven alive- apparently you wouldn't. I'm big on Silpats, however.
 
foofaraw July 11, 2016
Mind if I add one more? Pie tin/pie dish. Best for quiche and all kinds of pies. My husband's grandma said that the best one is the CorningWare dish (the one with the cornflower on the middle), not too dark, not too light, and even cooking on the bottom crust.