Round Cake Pans
How we tested
Why don’t your homemade layer cakes ever look as good as those from a bakery? Your cake pans could be at fault. A bad cake pan—flimsy, warped, worn out—makes lumpy, irregularly browned layers that stick, cling, and crack, no matter how much you grease it. A good cake pan is a baker’s best friend.
Since the manufacturer discontinued what used to be our favorite 9-inch round cake pan, we were starting from scratch, but not without a few ideas. To produce tall layers and to accommodate voluminous fruit upside-down cakes, the replacement needed to be at least 2 inches deep. We vetoed angled sides because straight sides make better layer cakes. Handles on our former Best Buy cake pan (also discontinued) helped us move the pan from counter to oven without mishaps, but we couldn’t find any suitable new pans with handles. Our old winner had a dark nonstick finish. Surveying the current field, we saw plenty of pans with light-colored nonstick finishes and a few without nonstick coating. To investigate all these alternatives, we bought seven different pans priced from $9.85 to $16.99 apiece (remember, you need two pans to make a layer cake).
Then we baked yellow cakes in pairs of each pan in the same oven, so we could observe how well each pan browned the cake and how it affected the shape of the layers. With layer cake, we want little to no doming. Domed cakes look unprofessional; moreover, domed layers indicate uneven heat transfer. As cake pans heat up, they often bake (and set) the batter that’s in contact with the sides first, giving the batter in the center of the pan time to rise higher.
As the layers cooled, one result was clear: The darker the pan the darker the cake. A dark-colored pan absorbs heat more efficiently than a light-colored pan. While browning does improve flavor, darker pans also produced cakes that were distinctly domed. Light-finish pans baked more evenly, producing taller, more level layers.
Two pans produced tall, airy layers with flat, even tops. Neither pan was dark; in fact, one wasn’t even nonstick. Clearly, the lack of coating didn’t matter with cake: We had prepared one set of pans with our usual regimen (grease, parchment, grease the parchment, and flour) and the other set with baking spray; every pan released the buttery cakes easily, nonstick-coated or not. So far, light-colored pans were in the lead.
But cake pans aren’t just for cakes. Some of our pizza recipes, for instance, also bake in a cake pan. This time, nonstick coating made all the difference. Despite thorough greasing, pizza fused to the pans without nonstick coating. And once again the darkest pan made the brownest pizza crust, a decided plus.
At this point, we had two styles of pans in the lead, one light and the other dark, depending on what we were baking. To try to break the tie, we went back into the kitchen to make pineapple upside-down cake and cinnamon buns. Predictably, the light pan browned less, though acceptably, on upside-down cake. But it failed to adequately color the cinnamon buns; ultimately, we had to alter the recipe to make the light pan work here
THE BOTTOM LINE: Light pans made lovelier cake layers, but on anything other than cake we preferred the browning we got from dark pans. Reasoning that we use these pans primarily for cakes, we ultimately gave our light-colored winner the nod. Our winner made tall layers with its 2½-inch straight sides (the others topped out at 2 inches). For deeper browning, to make recipes such as rolls, buns, and pizza, we also recommend our highest-ranking dark-finish choice.