Do you need a tube pan? We’ve posed and tested this question numerous times throughout the years, and each time we come back to the same answer: For the best angel food cake, yes, a tube pan is essential. While most other cakes get their lift from baking powder and/or baking soda, egg-foam cakes rely on whipped eggs folded into the batter for lift. Because the cake is so delicate, it will collapse into a sticky mess if it’s not baked and cooled properly.
Tube pans—tall, round pans with a conical tube in the center—are designed to help egg-foam cakes in three ways. First, the tall sides provide a surface for the batter to cling to as it bakes, so it can rise high (unlike other cake pans, tube pans are typically not greased so that the cake can cling to the pan as it rises). Second, the conical center provides more heat to the middle of the cake, so the center rises and sets at the same rate as the outside. Third, a hole in the middle of the pan allows you to invert the pan onto a bottle for cooling; the pull of gravity prevents the cake from collapsing into the pan. Many tube pans have additional features to aid in cake release or inversion; we surveyed the market and found pans with handles, feet, and removable bottoms. Do these features really make for a better cake?
We tested five tube pans, priced from $15.05 to $28.49. Our lineup included a mix of nonstick and uncoated pans with a variety of features: Three had removable bottoms, two had feet, and one had handles. We used them to make Angel Food Cake (a classic application) and Cold-Oven Pound Cake, a denser, more traditional cake that we sometimes make in a tube pan.
All five pans produced angel food and pound cakes of roughly the same height, shape, and interior texture; none of the cakes tasted or looked unacceptable. Despite differences in the color of the pans, most also browned the cakes sufficiently; only one pan made from a very light aluminum turned out cakes that were a tad pale. While this wasn’t a deal breaker, we preferred pans that browned more deeply, which added a crunchier crust and more caramelized flavor.
We also preferred pans with feet—little pieces of metal that stick out from the top of the pan to support it when it’s upside down. These feet allowed us to invert the pan onto a flat surface rather than try to balance it on a potentially tippy bottle for cooling. (However, the bottle trick works pretty well if you happen to have a pan without feet.) Finally, we liked the maneuverability of pans with handles, but we didn’t think handles were essential—all the pans were easy to hold, rotate, and flip.
Angel food cake is baked in an ungreased pan so that it can cling to the pan as it rises and won’t slump during baking; the ungreased interior also helps prevent the cake from slipping out of the pan when it’s cooling upside down. However, the lack of greasing makes it a challenge to cleanly remove the cake from the pan. For this reason, we liked tube pans with nonstick coatings, which made the process easier. Only one model in our lineup was uncoated, and while it was a bit more scratch-resistant than the others, we had trouble removing cakes.
A removable bottom was also essential. It allowed us to pull the entire cake out of the pan and then lift it off the base with no fuss. For fixed-bottom pans, we had to use a knife and significant shaking to coax out the cakes. While none of the cakes was ruined by our extra efforts, the exteriors of angel food cakes made in fixed-bottom pans looked splotchy and ragged compared with the crisp, picture-perfect cakes made in pans with removable bottoms.
This design comes with a drawback, though: the potential for leaks. We didn’t experience any leakage when we made angel food cake, likely because the batter is very airy and light. But pound cake, with its wet, dense batter, was a different story. All but one of the removable-bottom pans leaked when we made pound cake in them. These pans also took longer to clean because pound cake batter pooled on the undersides of the pans. Fortunately, our favorite tube pan with a removable bottom didn’t leak at all—its bottom fit snugly against the pan’s walls, minimizing the gap and preventing batter from escaping.
Ultimately, we ranked pans with removable bottoms higher because angel food cake is the quintessential purpose for these pans and its success relies on their unique design. Pound cake, on the other hand, can be made successfully in a loaf, Bundt, or cake pan. If you choose to make a pound cake in a tube pan with a removable bottom, we recommend either wrapping the exterior of the pan with aluminum foil or placing the pan on a baking sheet to prevent messes.
Our winner was once again the Chicago Metallic 2-Piece Angel Food Cake Pan with Feet ($17.99). Its removable bottom made releasing cakes fast and easy, and the snug fit of its base against the pan’s walls prevented leaking, even with denser pound cake batter. Cakes made in this pan were nicely browned and perfectly tall, and the pan’s feet made for sturdy cooling.