When a recipe calls for an 8″ x 8″ or a 9″ x 13″ pan, or another such dimension, what pan do you reach for? I’ll bet for the most part you don’t even think about it, that you have a favorite go-to pan you’ll press into service. But there’s more than one kind, and good reasons to choose one over another.
Baking pans are made of metal, glass (Pyrex or Corningware), ceramic, or clay. Silicone bakeware also exists, and it gets mixed reviews. Its main benefit is: items baked in it are said to unmold easily. However, its flexibility also means that unless you handle it carefully, a filled silicone pan can bend or twist and spill its contents; and you must always use a peel or a baking sheet beneath it. I bought a tartlet pan made of silicone several years ago and have yet to use it, so I’ll refrain from commenting further on this material. I’ll leave ceramic and clay for another time.
Metal pans come in aluminum, tinned steel, stainless steel (including darkened steel), and cast iron. Aluminum is an excellent heat conductor, so goods baked in it brown evenly. It’s inexpensive, lightweight, and cools quickly once out of the oven. Anodized aluminum has been specially treated to make it more durable and slower to corrode. I prefer aluminum pans to glass for baking breads and cakes because they brown better and seem to have a better texture; glass holds more moisture.
Tinned steel is the classic French metal used for baking pans, and works well. Tin is a soft metal, though, so resist the urge to scrub it clean – you’ll remove the tin lining. And steel will rust, so careful washing and drying is essential if you choose this material.
Stainless steel is strong and easy to clean, but not as good a conductor of heat as aluminum. It’s OK for cookie sheets, and the fact that it’s heavier means it’s not as likely to buckle as a cheaper metal pan, but I’m not crazy about it for cakes. It’s also more costly than aluminum. Darkened steel pans absorb heat really well, so you may need to adjust time and temperature to keep from burning things. A black baking sheet I bought in Switzerland did that to my cookies a couple of times before I caught on and lowered the oven temperature and started checking them earlier. When I started using heavy aluminum sheet pans, I abandoned the black one altogether.
By the way, what many call cookie sheets aren’t. A true cookie sheet has very low sides, and often one end is open to allow for easily sliding cookies onto a cooling rack. A baking sheet has slightly higher sides, although they’re still low, on all four sides; and is used for making jelly rolls, rolls, croissants, and the like. Very useful sizes for home use are half sheet (so called because they’re half the size of commercial baking sheets) and quarter sheet pans. In addition to making baked goods, they’re great for roasting vegetables or baking hors d’oeuvres.
Pyrex is excellent for baking bar cookies like brownies, vegetable dishes, and casseroles like lasagna or pot pies. It’s non-reactive, which makes it good for cooking acidic foods. Remember if you’re using a glass pan rather than a metal one, to reduce the cooking temperature by 25° F, and don’t put it under the broiler. While there are glass loaf pans, I prefer metal for breads or meat loaf. (Actually, I gave up using any kind of pan for meat loaf years ago after I tried baking them free-form and never looked back.) Glass pans are the cheapest and the best for great pies – and you can see through the bottom to see how the crust is browning!
One material I didn’t mention is anything non-stick. While non-stick pans are easy to clean, I question their safety. Besides, they require special care and once they’re scratched, things will start to stick. A good coating of butter will keep your food from sticking, enhance the taste, and aid in browning and/or crisping. I cleaned all the non-stick out of my kitchen a few years ago, and I’ve never missed it.