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13 by 9-Inch Baking Pans/Dishes
Could it possibly make much difference which metal 13 by 9-inch pan you use? Several dozen rounds of baking later, the answer was an unequivocal yes.
What We Learned
We can’t think of a piece of cookware that’s more basic than the 13 by 9-inch metal baking pan, but we also can’t think of one that’s more essential. It’s the vessel that we pull out for everything from sheet cakes and sticky buns to cornbread and bar cookies (though it can’t do everything, so we use glass and ceramic baking dishes, too; see “Completing the Trio” below). At first glance it might seem as though any one of the generic-looking metal boxes on store shelves would do just fine. But you’d be surprised: Choose the wrong one and your brownies will be overbaked and dry at the edges, and the sticky part of your sticky buns will stick to the pan, not the buns.
Out of the gate we knew that we would only consider pans with sharp, 90-degree (rather than sloped or curved) corners. These are actually harder to find—manufacturers more often opt to make pans with rounded edges since it’s a cheaper process. But decades of experience have taught us that pans with straight sides not only produce bars with well-defined, professional-looking edges but also, and more important, ensure that batter sits level and thus bakes evenly. Consider a batch of brownies baked in a pan with rounded corners (we’ve all had them): Their thin, overbaked edges and domed, underbaked middle happen because the batter can’t pool as deep at the shallower curved edges of the pan.
But sharp corners alone don’t guarantee perfect results, as we discovered when we set out to find our ideal 13 by 9-inch metal baking pan. We were looking for a sturdy, durable pan that would easily release food and yield baked goods with crisp, tidy corners; uniform color; and a tender crumb from edge to center. In fact, in the eight pans we tested (priced from $9.99 to $32.95), batches of cornbread, brownies, and sticky buns baked up in remarkably different ways. So what exactly makes a pan worth seeking out—or avoiding?
If the pan’s surface is too dark in color, it can be problematic. One pan's dark surface browned cornbread nicely, but when it came to brownies, the surface conducted heat just a little too well, and the resulting brownies had tough, cracked edges by the end of the baking time. Sticky buns fared even worse: The buns overbrowned and ended up glued together by the rock-hard, nearly burnt glaze. Pans with lighter surface colors didn’t have such extreme problems—none that we tested had issues with undercooking—but a surface that is too light may not deliver browning when you want it. Light, shiny silver vessels produced decently tanned cornbread, but the loaf turned out by our front-runner, a pan whose color falls somewhere in between dark and light, was so go...