Weeknight Cooking

5 Smart Tips to Make Sheet Pan Dinners Even Easier

September 28, 2017

I lust over shiny new appliances. Ice cream makers, blenders, food processors, pressure cookers, milk frothers, tofu presses, juicers, spiralizers... I want them all. (I know I do not need them all, so I mostly admire from afar.)

But my penchant for the cool new kids means I often neglect to give the less fabulous pieces of kitchen equipment—cast iron pans, chef's knives, spatulas, baking sheets—their fair share of admiration. And they work so hard! They all deserve trophies, or at least small medals.

The latest book from writer and recipe developer Raquel Pelzel, called Sheet Pan Suppers Meatless, has reopened my eyes, giving me a newfound appreciation for what this simplest, cheapest of tools can accomplish. Sheet pan meals are not just a passing trend to be eclipsed by the slow- and pressure-cooked.

No, we would all be wise to wrangle our sheet pans—because if you don't have a crew of flashy, new appliances in the wings, it's still likely that you'll have an oven and a sheet pan or two (even in the sparest vacation rental).

Pelzel's book features 100 vegetarian recipes to make on sheet pans—from caramelized onion dip to roasted tomato gazpacho, mushroom risotto (yes, in the oven) to broccoli vodka pizza, chocolate chip cookie cake to pumpkin pie squares to vegan biscuits made with silken tofu (!!!)—along with countless tips for making the most of your sheet pan. Here are (just) five of our favorite:

1. For the crispiest roasted vegetables, let your pan heat up along with your oven.

To speed up the cook-time, and ensure that your vegetables get a good sear right off the bat, stick your baking sheet in the oven as the oven preheats. By the time you're ready to add the vegetables, the pan will be sizzling-hot, as if you were adding them to a hot skillet. "Not only does this jump-start the cooking process and decrease the total roasting time," explains Pelzel, "but it also assures you'll get caramelized crispy edges and even charred bits, if that's your thing."

You can take this tip for a spin in Pelzel's Blissed-Out Crispy Cheesy Broccoli Gratin. The pan is so hot by the time you add the florets, they'll sizzle upon contact. Fifteen minutes later, the broccoli is charred and ready to be topped with the cheese and breadcrumbs that'll melt and brown after just two minutes under the broiler.

2. You can bake a whole lot of different grains—not just rice!

Maybe you're familiar with rice baked in a casserole dish or oven-proof pot, but you can cook all sorts of grains (and pseudo-grains—we see you, quinoa) on a sheet pan in the oven. It's a little more cumbersome than using a pot on the stove (you'll have to add hot water to a sheet pan, then cover the pan with a makeshift aluminum foil "lid"), but it's a game-changing method for when the stovetop is full. And since the grains are all on one layer of the pan, they'll cook more evenly, which makes this method both reliable and forgiving.

Pelzel's book includes a chart that outlines how to cook black, white, and brown rice, bulgur, couscous, and quinoa on a sheet pan based on the required amount of added liquid, temperature, and cook time. To reduce clumping, toss the grains with a teaspoon or two of oil before putting them on the pan.

In her Crispy Roasted Shallot and Lentil Mujadara, Pelzel starts by roasting shallot slivers on a preheated baking sheet (see tip #1). She then add lentils and water, scrapes up all of the shallot fond (a.k.a the brown bits), and blankets the pan in foil. Once the shallots are partially cooked, she adds rice, additional water and salt, and recovers the pan. Twenty-five minutes later, the rice has steamed, the shallots have cooked through, and you've got a not-at-all-mushy mujadara (and only one pan to clean!).

3. If you're using one sheet pan for multiple steps of a recipe, don't clean it in between.

When you cook grains on the pan you've just used to roast vegetables or make stew, all of those caramelized bits (or leftover sauce) will make your rice or couscous all the more delicious.

You'll start the recipe for Creamy Carrot Polenta with Winter Squash Ragù, for example, by roasting squash, mushrooms, and onions, then adding tomatoes and white wine and cooking it into a thick sauce. You transfer this mixture to a bowl before baking the polenta—but you don't wipe out the pan. That way, all of the roasty tomato goop left over from the ragù can flavor the cornmeal, as well.

4. With a bit of craftiness, you can recreate the smoky flavors of the grill in your oven.

One disadvantage of sheet pan cooking? You won't achieve the same smokiness that comes from charring food on a charcoal grill. To compensate, Pelzel turns to ingredients like smoked paprika, smoked sea salt, and smoked soy sauce, along with the smoky black tea Lapsang Souchong (which is also the secret source of smoke in Tyler Kord's Vegetarian Bacon Mayo). You can use the brewed tea in a marinade or crush the leaves, along with other herbs and spices, into a dry rub for tofu, eggplant, or beets.

To truly take advantage of your sheet pan, lay your vegetables on a wire rack positioned in the sheet pan. Pour brewed Lapsang Souchong tea onto the sheet pan below, then cover the whole set-up with foil and roast in a hot oven—you've just created a miniature smokehouse. (If you have wood chips, soak them, tuck them in a flat aluminum foil packet, poke a few holes, then set this bundle on a sheet pan below a wire rack loaded with vegetables.)

5. Consider vegetable juice and vegetable purée in place of stock or cream.

Pelzel's smart, versatile tips will up the vegetable content—and the flavor!— in many recipes that call for stock or cream.

First, you can replace some of the vegetable stock or cooking liquid in a recipe with fresh vegetable juice. "Fresh vegetable juices making incredible cooking liquids" for rice or polenta and "are often much purer and tastier than purchased vegetable broth," especially when they're blended with fresh herbs like basil and cilantro. For her Creamy Carrot Polenta, Pelzel adds carrot juice to the cooking liquid, which makes the polenta naturally sweeter (and orange!). To make your life simpler, Pelzel suggests buying the juice from the grocery store, juice bar, or smoothie shop.

Another tactic for elbowing vegetables into dinner? Try replacing half of the amount of cream or whole milk in a dairy-rich recipe with puréed carrots, squash, or cauliflower. For Pelzel's No-Boil Mac and Cheese (that's right: you don't have to cook the pasta first), which is baked on a sheet pan for ultra-crispy edges and a still-creamy center.

A (Wo)Man, a Plan, a Sheet Pan

Still not convinced that your sheet pan deserves some sort of reward for all of its amazing abilities? We're here to convince you otherwise:

These recipes are excerpted from Sheet Pan Suppers Meatless by Raquel Pelzel (Workman Publishing). Copyright © 2017.

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