Often, the type of bakeware you use determines the success or failure of a recipe. Some bakeware conducts heat poorly, while others discolor certain foods. And certain pans or dishes can give food a metallic taste. But getting the most expensive bakeware doesn't guarantee the best results; the key is to use the bakeware best suited to what you are making.
Many recipes call for a specific type of bakeware: aluminum, nonstick, glass, insulated, black steel, or heavy gauge. But other recipes make no specifications. Knowing the differences between these types of bakeware will give you a culinary advantage.
Baking Pans and Cookie Sheets
Although cookie sheets are often referred to as "baking sheets," there is a difference. Baking pans have rolled edges, and cookie sheets do not. Cookie sheets offer the advantage of a large surface area ideal for holding a large number of cookies. But their lack of edges limits their uses: Roasting, for example, is impossible on a cookie sheet, because juices will run off the pan.
Basic Aluminum Baking Pans and Cookie Sheets
Affordable, durable, and easy to clean, these pans conduct heat quickly and uniformly. Aluminum can react to acidic foods such as tomatoes, however, resulting in a metallic taste, and can cause delicate foods to discolor. Aluminum imparts a metallic taste to some foods, too. To prevent such mishaps, line aluminum bakeware with parchment paper or a Silpat (a French nonstick baking mat).
Double-Thick Aluminum Half-Sheet Pans with Rolled Edges
These pans cost between $11 and $15 and are ideal for everything from baking cookies, pastries, and breads to roasting cuts of meats and vegetables. Typically, half-sheets measure 13 by 18 inches -- the perfect size, since most ovens have an interior rack that measures 22 inches wide (for optimal results, several inches are needed around the baking sheet for air to circulate). Similar baking sheets are available in smaller sizes. Quarter-sheet pans with rolled edges are the right size for many toaster ovens and are great for toasting breadcrumbs, nuts, and coconut in small amounts.
Heavy-Gauge Professional Aluminum Cookie Sheets
These cost about $20 and are ideal for baking large batches of cookies.
French Black Steel Sheet pans
These pans require special care. They must be seasoned regularly with kosher salt (rubbing salt into the surface prevents corrosion), and they must be kept dry, as a damp steel sheet pan will rust. These heavy-duty metal sheets conduct heat very well, resulting in even browning. If you find the pan cooks too quickly, lower the temperature by 25 degrees, or reduce the cooking time. These pans are excellent to use for puff pastry and, according to Martha, are the best baking sheets for palmiers.
Insulated Cookie Sheets
These sheets have a 1/2-inch lip and cost about $20. They are ideal for preventing thin or delicate cookies from browning too quickly. The tops and bottoms will come out evenly baked and evenly colored; pans like these are ideal for lightly colored treats such as spritz cookies and shortbread. Unfortunately, insulated sheets bake more slowly, so the baking times given in the recipe will need to be modified. Don't use these sheets if you want crispy edges or browned bottoms on your cookies; they are designed to prevent those results.
Nonstick Cookie Sheets
Because they are dark in color, these pans bake cookies more quickly than standard aluminum pans do. Cookies come out crunchy, and the nonstick surfaces are easy to clean. Keep in mind, however, that these pans vary greatly in quality, and all nonstick cookware must eventually be replaced, because the finish wears off.