Baking, more so than stovetop cooking, requires the precise measurement of ingredients. But, as famed pastry chef Francois Payard wrote in The New Cook’s Catalogue (Knopf), “Pastry making is so much more than just following a recipe. It is an art before it is anything else, and it is a science. You have to be able to draw, to sculpt, to have a refined dexterity with chocolate. Then you need the scientist’s control of temperature, leavening, and crystallization, and you need to know the chemistry of the ingredients, butter, flour, chocolate, and eggs. You can only improvise and break new ground when you understand the ingredients, but once you do, there are almost no limits.”
Chef Payard’s sentiments are certainly true, but aside from the ingredients, it is the equipment that enables the baker to create perfect results.
Just as with cookware, the body of any bakeware refers to its shape and material makeup – both of which affect the efficiency of the baking vessel. Bakeware is made of a multitude of materials ranging from tin to multi-ply stainless steel, to glass to glazed earthenware. The main determinant of a bakeware piece’s efficiency is the material from which it is composed, including the weight or gauge of the material, as well as other features, which may include nonstick coatings.
Ceramic products are made from mineral materials. It is worked, shaped, and then fired in an oven to produce its final characteristics. Ceramic products fall into several major groups; however, for baking purposes, glazed earthenware, stoneware, and porcelain are most relevant.
Glazed Earthenware is a clay product fired at low temperature, creating a porous product that isn’t as strong as stoneware or porcelain. The right glaze – a hard, glossy finish or coating – can make it stronger and more colorful. When the inside surface is coated, it is waterproof, but if not, it is a very porous biscuit – the term used to describe pottery or porcelain after the first firing and before glazing. Earthenware is not a particularly good transmitter of heat as it requires heat for a while before it heats up. Therefore, it should be recommended for something that needs to be cooked a long time, such as a roast.
Stoneware is a high-fired ceramic made of clay that has not been highly refined. Stoneware may be brown, white, or buff, but not translucent. A porous biscuit, it has low abrasion and thermal shock resistance. The thicker the stoneware, the longer it retains heat. Stoneware must be seasoned; otherwise, its porous nature will absorb too much moisture, resulting in a dry finished product. Seasoning stoneware requires only that a high-fat item be baked in it, after which a further application of grease is usually not required. During the first few uses, it may be helpful to sprinkle the surface with cornmeal or lightly spray it with vegetable oil. A glaze may be applied to stoneware to make it more attractive for service from oven to table.
Porcelain has a clay body whose elements include kaolin, feldspars, and quartz. When it is fired, it becomes very hard and often translucent. Because it lacks iron impurities and is ground into fine particles, the porcelain is high in density, making it strong and thereby, abrasion resistant. Porcelain is easy to clean and does not interact with food; however, it may chip or crack at extreme temperatures or when it’s exposed to rapid temperature changes.
Ceramic bakeware heats evenly, retains heat well, and therefore, produces nicely browned crusts. The glaze adds to its durability, enabling it to go trouble free from freezer to microwave and making it dishwasher safe. Ceramic bakeware is recommended for savory dishes, as well as pies, brownies, or other cake batters. Since they can handle temperature changes up to 500 degrees F, glazed clay products are the bakeware of choice for oven-to-table.
Glass bakeware conducts heat well and also allows the baker to observe the dough while it forms a crust. Additionally, you can cut into your baked item without marring glass bakeware’s surface. Glass is recommended for baking pies, quick breads, custard cakes, fruit desserts, and savory dishes, such as terrines, or even meat loaf.
Aluminum bakeware conducts heat quickly and evenly. Relatively lightweight, aluminum bakeware is easy to handle. The aluminum’s thickness affects its baking ability. Thin-gauge aluminum heats up quickly, but may create hot spots, causing burns or uneven baking. Thicker-gauge aluminum disperses heat better, and as a result, bakes better. Aluminum can be polished, chrome-plated, or bear a porcelain-enamel or nonstick coating. Aluminum may be used for nearly all baking needs.
Steel, an alloy of iron, steel not only heats quickly, but also can withstand high heat. In the oven, steel cooks foods quickly. Blued steel is created through a high-heat process that causes a thin layer on the surface to become oxidized. Since steel is a reactive metal, it is sometimes lined with tin for baking. Tin is a soft, nonreactive metal that enables the steel to heat up quickly. When combined with steel, it improves the transfer of heat to food. Additionally, some manufacturers combine other metals to create an even better piece of bakeware that takes advantage of the best properties of each metal used. For instance, bonding aluminum to steel creates bakeware with superior durability and even heat distribution. It can withstand high heat, is dishwasher safe, and will not corrode or rust. The bonding of layers of aluminum with stainless steel provides an even baking temperature across the bakeware’s surface.
Copper as a great heat conductor provides even, rapid heat distribution. Copper’s biggest disadvantages are its cost and tendency to tarnish. Copper mixing bowls are the recommended choice for beating eggs.
Cast iron bakeware holds heat extremely well. For this reason, cast iron is not the choice for delicate baked goods, though it is great for popovers that require steam to reach the batter to create a light, feathery interior. Additionally, cast iron is also the best choice for cooking cornbread because you want the bread to be crisp on the edges.
Silicone bakeware comprises a small, but growing segment of the bakeware industry. It functions well in the oven, microwave, and freezer. Plus, silicone bakeware molds withstand large heat fluctuations, won’t retain odors or flavors, and offer even heat distribution. Their flexibility allows for easy removal of baked goods.
Nothing is more frustrating than encountering difficulties when trying to remove a baked concoction that is stuck to the pan. Bakeware can either be uncoated or coated with a nonstick surface. Choosing one over the other is really the baker’s choice. A nonstick coating on bakeware offers the added convenience of easy release. The finish should be medium gray in color with a slight sheen as a nonstick surface that is too dark will absorb heat and may burn foods.
Many bakers who choose not to bake in nonstick bakeware do so because they believe that the nonstick coating’s darker color may affect the ability of the baking piece to provide even heat distribution.
Other easy-release systems are available, including one with a pebble-like surface on the bakeware that raises the cookies ever so slightly above the baking sheet’s surface, which promotes even browning and easy removal.
A proprietary nonstick coating called vapor deposition is also available. This nonstick application is molecularly bonded with the bakeware’s surface.
Air-insulated bakeware is recommended for baking products that need to dry out evenly and completely, such as biscotti. Cookies take longer to bake on insulated sheets and will typically be drier and harder than when cooked on conventional sheets. Cake pans with air-insulated sides have been proven to successfully bake cakes.