Making bakery-quality sandwich breads and pound cakes at home isn't hard. You just need the right loaf pan.
How We Tested
Loaf pans give baked goods a distinctive tall, rectangular shape that would be impossible to achieve with any other piece of equipment. They're a must-have for zucchini and banana breads, sandwich loaves, and pound cake. We also use loaf pans for more intricate baked goods, such as brioche, babka, and flan, and for small lasagnas.
A decade ago, the Williams Sonoma Goldtouch Nonstick Loaf Pan, 1 lb ($22.95) won our testing of loaf pans. Its internal dimensions are 8½ by 4½ inches at the top of the pan, about ½ inch smaller in each direction than a classic loaf pan. It sounds negligible, but the narrower dimensions result in loaves that rise slightly higher and have taller, prettier domes. (Pans of both sizes can hold about 1 pound of dough and are sometimes labeled that way.) After years of use in the test kitchen, our winner continues to impress us by baking foods evenly and releasing them cleanly. There's just one hang-up: Its corners have little crevices that trap food and are a nuisance to clean.
We resurveyed the market and were pleased to see more options in the smaller size we prefer. We purchased 10 pans, priced from $7.53 to $24.95. Most were made from metal or silicone and marketed as 8½ by 4½ inches. We couldn't find any glass pans in those dimensions and were curious about how the material performed, so we included two that were the right length but slightly wider. Then it was time to start baking.
How Did the Pans Perform?
We baked three foods in each pan: sandwich bread, pound cake, and mini lasagna. All the pans released food easily. However, we did see some subtle differences in overall browning, particularly with the breads and cakes. They varied from golden brown to darker brown, but all were acceptable.
The pans were generally easy to maneuver, too. Those with handles felt more secure, but even a simple rolled edge offered enough room to grip. With good performance and maneuverability across the board, we focused on aesthetics, paying particular attention to the breads and cakes, where we saw clear differences. Our preferences came down to two factors: size and shape.
Why Pan Size Matters
Pan size affects the shapes of baked goods. If the pan is too small, the batter or dough can overflow more easily. One pan produced a pound cake that almost overflowed and mushroom-shaped sandwich bread with a bulbous top that rose up and out; the exposed edges on both burned. Several other pans produced noticeably wider loaves that looked comparatively chubby and squat. Our favorite pans created cakes and breads that rose straight up and had rounded tops that didn't slump or spill over the sides. They looked like something straight out of a bakery case.
As it turns out, there are different ways to measure a loaf pan, and some models in our lineup were not exactly 8½ by 4½ inches. They also varied in height, from 2¾ inches to 3⅛ inches, and in the sizes of their bases. This meant that even with the same measurements across the top of the pan, they differed in capacity. To compare this, we measured how much water each model could hold. The pan in which pound cake overflowed held the least water, about 1.31 liters, and was one of the shortest pans. The others were slightly bigger. Our favorites were roomy and almost exactly 8½ by 4½ inches across the top edges. They each held about 1.5 liters of water.
Construction Is Key
After size, pan construction was the most important factor in determining how the baked goods looked. The glass pans and the majority of the metal pans had gently curved corners, and they produced bread and pound cake with rounded edges. The baked goods still tasted great, but they didn't look quite as polished. The prettiest and tallest loaves came from metal pans that were folded together at the ends, like wrapping paper at the end of a box, forming right angles. Their sharp edges looked downright professional.
We Also Considered Durability and Cleanup
Although we don't use a loaf pan every day, we still think it's important for bakeware to be sturdy and durable. During each recipe test, we ran a butter knife around the edges of the pans to loosen the foods we had baked. Using a paring knife, we halved the lasagnas and made six parallel cuts across the width of each pan as if slicing bread or cake. The glass pans were the most durable, looking good as new after these tests. We worried about accidentally cutting through the soft material of the silicone pan (though with care, we never did), and the metal pans all scratched. Some scratches were deep enough that we could feel them when we ran our fingers over them, but we were willing to forgive a little light scratching if it didn't have a noticeable effect on the pan's performance.
Finally, we considered cleanup. Odors clung to the silicone pan. After we'd thoroughly soaked and scrubbed it twice, it still smelled like lasagna. Fortunately, every other model resisted stains and odors. But our longtime favorite and the other two folded metal pans were difficult to clean. We had to wash them carefully after food baked into the cracks in each corner. Another pan had a ridge around the top where food collected. The other metal pans, which were smooth and seamless, required much less elbow grease to clean.
Picking the Best Loaf Pan for You
Ultimately, you have to make a choice when you buy a loaf pan: Do you want picture-perfect baked goods or easy cleanup? Because, technically, you cannot achieve both. A bakeware engineer at USA Pan, which manufactures two of the three folded pans in our lineup, explained that we couldn't find one pan that met all our criteria because of production methods. The pans in our lineup were either molded or folded. Molded pans are typically made by pressing a hot, pliable sheet of metal into a loaf-shaped form and then pressing it tight against the walls and corners. (Imagine stacking two loaf pans with a flexible sheet of metal between them.) That sheet of metal that will become the loaf pan is under stress and would likely tear if it were pressed into sharp 90-degree corners; that's why they're rounded. If you want sharp edges, you have to fold the metal instead.
Of the easy-to-clean molded pans, we liked one from OXO the best; it produced some of the prettiest rounded loaves and was durable, with bumps along the bottom interior that prevented scratching. But in the test kitchen, we generally prioritize the appearance of our baked goods over easy cleanup. All three of the folded metal pans in our lineup required a little extra scrubbing in the corners but produced beautiful baked goods with sharp edges. These three pans performed identically, so we've ranked them in order of price, giving an edge to the least expensive model. Our new winner, the USA Pan Loaf Pan, 1 lb Volume ($14.95), is made by the longtime manufacturer of Williams Sonoma Goldtouch bakeware but costs less.
We tested 10 loaf pans, priced from $7.53 to $24.95. Our lineup included nonstick metal, silicone, and glass models. Testers used each pan to bake pound cake, sandwich bread, and lasagna. We measured the pans' capacities and the internal dimensions along the pans' topmost edges and the interior height of the walls. Information on materials was obtained from manufacturers. Prices were paid online. Results from our tests were averaged, and products appear below in order of preference. We weighted baked good appearance more heavily than easy cleanup. When performance was identical, we rated less expensive pans higher.
Baked Good Appearance: We preferred loaves with tall, straight edges and sharp corners. Pans that produced short, squat, or misshapen loaves lost points. We also deducted points if loaves tended to overflow and burn around the edges.
Cleanup: Pans got high marks if they were easy to clean. If pans retained odors even after repeated washing, we downgraded them. We also docked points from models with hard-to-clean crevices.
Durability: Models lost points if they became deeply scratched in our abuse tests or if they were made from soft or fragile material that required special care.