The three essential baking pans everyone needs in their kitchen

I recently made several pound cakes in this Nordic Ware loaf pan to give to friends and neighbors. One neighbor, witnessing the Facebook posts of my pandemic baking spree featuring myriad layer cakes, breads, Bundts, and other baked goods, asked me how much room I needed to store my baking pans. The answer is…a lot. Since my kitchen is not large, these pans are kept on our back porch in a wide floor-to-ceiling cabinet dedicated to baking equipment including pans, decorating tools, parchment, cookie cutters and more. The photo below represents about 20 percent of my collection.

As I inventoried dozens of pans ranging from round cake pans from 6 to 12 inches (multiples of each), square cake pans, rectangular baking pans in everything from glass to stoneware to metal, savarin molds (regular and mini), tart pans (round, square, mini), brioche molds, petit four molds, several shapes of Bundt, sheet pans of various sizes, springform pans, and the list goes on – I think I’m just shy of having a hoarding problem. Having this collection is a luxury that provides me with copious opportunities for baking, but I also see the flip side to this: the enormous variety of baking pans can intimidate novice bakers. I decided to make a list of essential pans to let budding bakers know that you don’t need an entire cabinet full of equipment to be successful in the baking sphere.

Many other food writers have weighed in on this, with Sally’s Baking Addiction recommending eight baking pans to stock your kitchen, whereas The Kitchn suggests seven baking pans every household should have, and The Washington Post’s Becky Krystal touts a mere five essential pans. I wondered if I could winnow the list down further, with a goal of just one pan that could serve almost all baking purposes. I could not make it that far, but succeeded in narrowing it down to three pans that serve almost every baking need.

Here is my initial list:

  • Round cake pans/springform pans – useful for layer cakes, quiche, cheesecakes, shortbread, pan pizza, and flan. Flexible silicone pans are excellent for cheesecake.
  • Speaking of cheesecake, we come to springform pans – ideal for cheesecakes and layered desserts like Triple chocolate mousse cake.
  • Rectangular baking pans (glass, metal, stoneware) – used for sheet cakes, cinnamon rolls, lasagna, brownies, slices/bars, slab pies, cobblers/crumbles/crisps, casseroles.
  • Square cake pans – suited for layer cakes, brownies, slices/bars, cobblers/crumbles/crisps.
  • Loaf tins – perfect for bread, meatloaf, and pound cake.
  • Bundt and other fluted pans – As Jenny noted in her wonderful cookbook, there are at least 101 things you can make in them, but the most common uses are cakes and monkey bread.
  • Tube pans – ideal for angel food cake and chiffon cake.
  • Sheet pans (ranging from 1/4 sheet to jellyroll to full size) – these accommodate thin cakes for roulades, and work well for roasting meats and vegetables, toasting nuts/coconut/grains, making slab pies, cookies, and some slices/bars.
  • Cookie sheets – the name says it all.
  • Muffin tins – suited for muffins, cupcakes, and mini cheesecakes.
  • Pie tins (glass, stoneware, metal) – useful for sweet and savory pies, as well as cobblers/crumbles/crisps.
  • Specialty pans – savarin molds, brioche molds, tart/tartlet pans (with removable bottoms), pain de mie (lidded loaf pan), and more.

Right off the bat we can eliminate all of the specialty pans. For instance, you do not need brioche molds to make brioche, as you can braid it or just make it in a loaf tin (brioche loaf makes excellent French toast). While I love my collection of Bundt pans, again these are not strictly necessary (please don’t hurt me Jenny) as almost any Bundt cake can be made in a loaf tin, although you will probably need two tins or use a half recipe. Tube pans can also be scratched off, as you can make angel food cake in loaf pans as well (as long as they are not non-stick).

Muffin tins, while useful, can be omitted because there are many workarounds. One is to use canning jar rings or ramekins to hold paper muffin cups, and you can purchase extra-stiff papers that do not require support. Besides, the cupcake craze of the aughts is over and we are all making cakes and loaves now, right?

Pie plates are another category that can be relegated to the not-strictly-necessary pile. You can make slab pies in sheet pans, regular or deep dish pies in cast iron skillets (my favorite), or even bake pies in round cake tins, although it is a bit more difficult to get a pretty fluted edge. You can also make free form pies, aka galettes, on sheet pans. My husband prefers galette to pie because he feels there is a better crust to filling ratio.

Cookie sheets are relative unitaskers, so they get bumped as well. If you need something without an edge (to slide pizza dough onto a baking stone, for example), just turn a sheet pan upside down.

So now we are down to five types: round cake pans, rectangular and square baking pans, loaf tins, and sheet pans, but I can whittle two more off the list. Round cake pans are great for layer cakes but not absolutely necessary. You can bake a sheet cake and cut it into rectangles or rounds to make equally stunning layer cakes, and in fact some bakeries do just that, saving the trimmings for cake balls. Doing this eliminates the often slightly over-baked edges that you get in a cake pan, ensuring each bite is delicate and soft.

Since all squares are rectangles, but not all rectangles are squares, I opt for a 9 x 13 pan as one of my final three. (If you are mainly baking for 1 or 2, you might choose an 8 inch square pan instead.) Most recipes devised for an 8 inch square pan can be doubled in a 9 x 13, just know that the doubled recipe will be just a bit taller in the rectangular pan. This is my desert island go-to pan, because it makes sheet cakes, cinnamon rolls, slices/bars, and lasagna or casseroles to feed a crowd. I have them in glass, stoneware, and metal, but if I had to choose one material it would be metal. While you could technically use a cast iron skillet for all of the above, so many recipes are written for the 9 x 13 pan that it makes sense to have one. Plus it is easier to cut brownies and such into portions in a rectangular pan.

Having a sheet pan is a no-brainer due to its extreme versatility. I recommend a half-sheet pan because you can use it to make thin cakes for roulades, roast vegetables and meats, toast nuts, and bake pizzas and galettes. You can use a thick wad of aluminum foil to divide a half-sheet pan into a 1/4 sheet pan for a slab pie. Since a 1/4 sheet pan will nest nicely in the half-sheet pan, I would recommend one of each, but you can get by with just the larger one. I like plain, heavy aluminum sheet pans, which have the bonus quality of being inexpensive. If you want to splurge, USA Pans are fantastic and feature a durable silicone coating. (Stay tuned to the EYB blog as Jenny will soon post a promotion/giveaway featuring USA Pans.)

This leaves the loaf tin, which in the list above had the least uses of any pan. So why did I include it in my final three? Loaf pans are inexpensive and don’t take up much room, two reasons they landed on my essential pan list. While you can bake bread free-form, you get more uniform (and taller) sandwich slices from a loaf pan. You can make a small lasagna in a loaf tin, the perfect size for a dinner for two. Finally, even if you don’t bake any other type of cake, a pound cake is something you should have in your baking arsenal. They come together quickly, do not require fancy ingredients, can be made in a single bowl without need of a mixer, and are relatively foolproof. I consider having a pound cake in the freezer to be a necessity, because it’s easy to pull out for unexpected company (although that is not happening much these days) or for those times when you want something sweet but aren’t in the mood to bake.

My go-to dessert when I’m crunched for time is crumbled pound cake mixed with a touch of melted butter sprinkled over the top of berries and baked to bubbly perfection. I cribbed this from a Jacques Pépin recipe: Put a single layer of fresh or frozen berries in any shallow oven-safe dish (the size and shape depends on how much you want to make), top with the crumbled cake/butter combination (add nuts if you like), and bake at 350F until the fruit bubbles and the top is lightly toasted. Serve with a dollop of sour cream, mascarpone, or whipped cream and you have an impressive dessert that takes but a few minutes of prep.

Which pans do you find essential?

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  • Jenny  on  August 6, 2020

    One of the pans that I love and will take whenever we downsize is the deep multi-size tin. You can move the dividers to make all different sizes of baked goods and it folds away, taking little storage space. The pan can be seen in my GBBO pantry post.

  • Indio32  on  August 7, 2020

    Great post….. thanks!

    Am planning to add some baking pans etc tomorrow.

    Need to make a decision between Nordicware & Silverwood. Nodicware means a trip across town but seems to be slightly better quality with a larger in stock range. Silverwood is available at my local cookshop but is probably only available to order but is made by a small family run company in Birmingham, UK.

    Currently we’ve been using a few Le Creuset bits and bobs but personally (don’t know why) I don’t really get on with it.

  • LeilaD  on  August 7, 2020

    Hmmm… I live in a very small apartment with almost no storage room so my baking inventory is very small. I counter with my three: 1) your nixed cookie sheets because I can use them for anything flat- my Tollhouse comfort cookies, pizza, and even baguettes- and they store flat on a bottom shelf; 2) muffin tins because cupcakes, corn bread muffins, muffins, anything round a ramekin can do, and even Coquille Saint-Jacques à la Parisienne in a pinch (I get desperate with my limited stock)- and one 12-muffin pan does for all; 3) 9×13 baking dish for everything- and I do mean everything- else. I do have a larger collection than this, but these are the three I’ve had since my college studio apartment that I would not be able to do without.

  • Esylvia  on  August 7, 2020

    Jenny – I have that pan as well and I feel like a true artiste when I bake with it.

    I will never give up my muffin tins! They can be used for many single portion foods from tarts to buns to meatloaves to quiches and in the summer they don’t require one to run the oven for an hour+, as a loaf of quick bread will.

  • annmartina  on  August 7, 2020

    Any updates on where the Silverwood multi-size tin is available in the US? Amazon doesn’t seem to carry it anymore

  • MarciK  on  August 8, 2020

    Definitely the 9×13 cake pan and the half sheet pan. I really wouldn’t want to be without a pie pan either.

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