Beautiful cakes don’t just happen. It takes the right recipe, the right technique, and the Best Baking Pans.
And this ain’t it.
Most likely, you either inherited a mismatched collection of baking pans from Mom, or you picked up some basics along the way – pans you’ve used since leaving the dorm room. I know I did, anyway. And over time I realized if I wanted to make a cake or tart or muffins that tasted AND looked beautiful, I really needed to invest in a decent set of baking pans.
After a few cooking and baking classes, I started to pick up on the styles and brands of baking pans that my teachers preferred. And reading through several dozen cookbooks and the always-helpful Cook’s Illustrated magazine (which I highly recommend), I’ve put together a great collection of the best baking pans, best cake pans, and best bread baking pans that will serve you well for life. And you can even proudly hand them down to your kids!
What Do You Need?
So what comprises a good collection of baking pans? Here’s a list of the things you really should have on hand in your kitchen. Depending on the size of your family and the size of your yearly gatherings, you can add more of each.
13″ x 18″ x 1″ Sheet Pan
Technically, this size is called a “half-sheet”, but a full sheet wouldn’t fit in any kitchen I’ve ever owned, so for most home cooks, this is a full sheet.
This pan features a shallow rolled rim, which makes it perfect for sheet cakes or for pouring brittle. You need one that features a rather thick bottom and walls (18 gauge is standard), as the cheaper ones tend to bow after a time, causing uneven distribution and uneven baking.
They usually come in aluminum, and I know some people have issues with aluminum. I don’t, as I’ve studied it at length and know aluminum baking pans don’t impart any traceable levels of aluminum to food (see my article here). You can buy steel pans, but they will be much thinner and will almost certainly bow in the middle.
I recommend having two of them. Usually they do stack inside one another, so space isn’t too much of a problem.
Here’s a selection of professional-grade pans that will serve you well for years:
I make a lot of cupcakes and I own three 12-well muffin pans, as well as two 6-well pans. Mine are made of light-colored steel. Dark colored pans will absorb heat more quickly and can brown the outside of your cakes faster than you might want.
I avoid the silicone pans, as they are more of a hassle than anything. You have to set them on a baking sheet, which can hog room in the oven so much so you can’t even get two pans in at the same time. And I always use cupcake liners anyway, so the point of silicone for that task baffles me. No thanks.
I do insist on pans that have a lip to grab on to when you’re pulling them out of the oven, or at least some extra space on both ends. My big man knuckles get burned when I try to pull out a pan with no lip on it. Ouch.
If you buy the same type, they will stack inside each other, which is a real space-saver.
Here are the best professional-quality muffin pans for your kitchen:
9′ x 5″ Loaf Pan
I own 4 of these loaf pans – two in Pyrex and two in steel. I use the steel pans for baking regular bread. The Pyrex pans I use in recipes that add more sugar, like Dwaine’s Harvest Loaf. The glass heats much more slowly but retains the heat longer. You can keep your sugar from carmelizing too much if you remove it from the pan quickly, or you can leave it in longer if you are looking for a crunchy coating.
Pyrex is heavy and storing can be a pain, but I find them indispensable, so I make room. The steel pans stack neatly, usually come with a good non-stick coating and clean up well. Just don’t use a dishwasher, and make sure you dry them by hand right after cleaning.
Here are some good choices for loaf pans that will last a lifetime:
You may have an angel food cake pan that you are tempted to use in place of a real Bundt pan, but you can run into problems with that. Angel cakes have to climb the sides of the pan as they’re rising, so the pans are usually not non-stick. You can wind up with a mess trying to remove your Bundt cake batter from an angel cake pan.
And besides, Bundt pans are so pretty, and they often come with a hanging hole, so that you can place them on the wall when not in use – adding decoration and saving space in your cupboards.
I would avoid pans that have excessively sharp creases or crevasses. The more rounded pans provide an impressive-looking cake without worrying if you’ve greased it well enough to release from the sharp edges.
Here’s my recommendations for the best Bundt pans for your kitchen:
Like I said above, a plain tube pan can sub for a Bundt pan most of the time, but a Bundt pan will not substitute for an angel food cake. You do not want a non-stick surface for an angel-food cake pan, as the cake needs to be able to grip the side of the pan to get that angelic height.
Many tube pans come in two parts because they are so deep. It makes releasing a light cake easier. The pans with “feet” on them are handy – the feet allow you to suspend the cake upside down to cool, protecting the height you’re trying to create. But if you don’t have “feet”, you can always tip if upside down over a bottle. Check out the video on how to remove a cake from a tube pan:
Here are the best tube pans out there:
9″ Round Cake Pan
This is the pan that can reduce you to tears. Paying a bit more money for this item can mean the difference between a lovely layer cake and a poorly-baked, crumbly mess.
Maybe you’ve dreamed about creating something like this:
To get there, you’ll need straight-sided round baking pans. They need to be very sturdy with bottoms that will not bow. And they need to be light-colored metal to keep your white cake from browning too much.
Because they are so deep, compared to the cheaper pans you can buy at the grocery store, you can even split these cakes into to layers with a cake leveler. Check out the video below on how to do this:
Here’s the best selection of these straight-sided, professional-quality cake pans (and cake leveler):
9″ x 13″ Baking Pan
The 9″ x 13″ pan is the workhorse of your baking kitchen. Again, I own Pyrex and metal versions of this pan – the Pyrex for savory foods, and the metal pans for sweeter, non-acidic foods. I also own some ceramic pans, like Le Creuset, for baking and serving.
A metal 9″ x 13″ baking pan must be sturdy with a good lip to grip when pulling it out of the oven. I prefer steel pans in this size. I tend not to remove oblong cakes from the pan, opting instead to frost them as they lie, so the bottoms can get scratched when cutting cake slices. Aluminum pans are just too easily scratched for me to use in 9″ x 13″.
Here are my top choices for a metal 9″ x 13″ cake pan:
For anything other than cake, the Pyrex or ceramic pans are a must. The ceramic pans are great in that they clean up so much easier than the glass Pyrex.
Here are the top selections for a covered steel/ceramic 9″ x 13″ baking and serving pan
9″ Square Baking Pan
I just call this my “Brownie Pan” because that and Millionaire’s Shortbread is pretty much all I ever make with it. You have to double the recipe to make brownies in a 9″ x 13″ pan, and unless you’re feeding an army, that’s a bit much. Again, I usually don’t remove the baked product from the pan for cutting, so a metal other than aluminum is preferable.
Here are some good 9″ square baking pans on Amazon:
9″ Pie Plate
You will save yourself a world of hurt by sticking with clear glass pie plates. Browning is one of the most easily-recognizable signs that your crust is baked properly, and the clear glass lets you see the progress. I just wouldn’t bother with anything else.
And if you’re going with glass, just use Pyrex. It’s been around forever and the quality is still quite good.
Best 9″ Pie Plates from Amazon:
If you have all of this, you’re pretty much set. But here are a few more things to consider if you bake cookies, cheesecake or fruit tarts.
Insulated Cookie Sheet
In this house, after cupcakes, we bake cookies. A lot of cookies. Dwaine’s Famous Chocolate Chip cookies are a mainstay of any party or gathering we go to, and I’ve found that insulated cookie sheets bake cookies so much more evenly, they are worth the space. The other nice thing is that they last forever. We’ve had our two for at least 20 years and they show no signs of giving in.
Here’s the insulated cookie sheets we use. I highly recommend them:
A springform pan allows you to unlock the rim of the pan from around your creation, reducing the possibility of ruining it due to sticking to the pan. I say “reducing” because it’s not a guarantee. But it really is a must for cheesecake (It’s not like you can turn the pan upside-down and tap a cheesecake out, right?) So if you love cheesecake, get yourself one of these. They’re simple to use and there’s really no substitute. Oh, one more thing – “Leakproof” should really say “Leak-Resistant.” Yeah.
The best professional-grade springform pans that will last a lifetime:
And finally, though we aren’t into tarts here in the States as much as they are in Europe, they really are delicious and relatively healthy. Plus, they are quick to make and look super-impressive. I mean:
You really need to find a two-piece tart pan to serve it like this, however. Trust me – it is impossible to get a tart out of a solid tart pan!
Here’s a good choice for you:
With the right recipe, right technique and now the right equipment, you can see consistent results in your kitchen! Best of luck to you as you broaden your skills.