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.
How We Tested
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 gorgeously bronzed that it garnered oohs and aahs in the test kitchen.
A nonstick coating isn’t always required—we line pans with a foil sling when making brownies and bars, guaranteeing easy removal—but it is essential for any recipe for which you might need to invert the pan to release the food once baked, such as an upside-down cake or sticky buns. We found that sticky buns baked in pans without nonstick coatings either had to be chiseled out one by one or, if they did release from the pan, left behind nearly all their glaze. Meanwhile, most pans with nonstick coatings easily released the caramel glaze, including our favorite pan up to this point, which left not a trace behind.
The sticky bun test also highlighted a different issue with two pans boasting innovative features that we initially held high hopes for. One was a pan with a removable bottom. We thought that this pan would make recipes like sticky buns easier to manage. Not so. Instead, it leaked the buns’ sugary glaze, filling the kitchen with smoke and leaving the buns bare; it also allowed cornbread batter to ooze out. We experienced the same leakage problems with another product, a metal frame used by bakeries that sits in a 13 by 9-inch sheet pan to create an instant baking dish.
Cleaning and durability are also important considerations. Nonstick pans that released food readily were also simpler to clean. While we knew that cutting with a metal utensil is generally a bad idea in these pans, it’s something we all admittedly do at one time or another. So we cut and served cobblers with metal utensils, and we dragged a knife across the surface as if we were cutting brownies, slicing a grid shape into each empty pan 12 times. Every pan became scratched, the worst being a model whose dark finish chipped off in spots. Aluminum is a comparatively soft material for cookware and bakeware, so we weren’t surprised that uncoated aluminum pans didn’t fare all that well, becoming deeply grooved. Our front-runner did well in this test, with scratches that felt slightly shallower than the rest and a finish that showed no signs of chipping. But the corrugated surface of a nonstick-coated cake pan fared best in our durability tests: Its textured surface disguised scratches and also prevented the knife from penetrating as deeply.
In the end, we had a clear winner. Our winning pan gave us moist, evenly baked brownies that required no trimming for crisp, uniform edges; perfectly tender and browned gooey sticky buns with no mess left behind to clean up; and cornbread with star quality. Plus, its reasonably durable finish released baked goods beautifully. It was the most expensive pan in our testing, but the outstanding results it produced make it worthwhile.
COMPLETING THE TRIO
While a metal baking pan is ideal for making bar cookies, cornbread, sheet cakes, and sticky buns, glass and ceramic dishes are a must for certain jobs.
Why You Need It: Tempered glass won’t react with acidic foods such as tomatoes and is safe for use with metal utensils. Its transparency lets you track browning, and the rounded corners make it easy to scoop out soupy desserts and casseroles.
OUR FAVORITE: Pyrex Bakeware 9 x 13 Baking Dish
Why You Need It: Unlike glass and metal pans with nonstick coatings, some ceramic baking dishes are broiler-safe, making this material the only option for dishes that cook entirely or finish browning under the broiler’s intense heat.
OUR FAVORITE: HIC Porcelain Lasagna Baking Dish
We tested eight metal baking pans measuring 13 by 9 inches, baking our chewy brownies, sticky buns with pecans, and cornbread in them and assessing the pans on their performance, design, cleanup, and ability to withstand scratches.
This is the manufacturer’s washing recommendation.
We baked brownies, sticky buns, and cornbread in each pan, observing the degree of browning, evenness of cooking from edge to center, and release from the pan. Scores of good, fair, and poor were assigned to each test, and the aggregate score determined the overall rating.
We gave high marks to pans that were easier to move in and out of the oven and flip while still warm and full of food.
Pans received higher marks if we found it easy to remove baked-on food.
As an abuse test, we served cobbler with a metal utensil and used a paring knife to cut each pan as if we were slicing brownies, repeating each stroke 12 times. Pans were downgraded for deep grooves and damage.