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Round Cake Pans

By Cook's Illustrated Published October 2013

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.

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The Results

Winner
Recommended

Design Trifecta 360 Knife Block

Admittedly expensive, this handsome block certainly seemed to live up to its billing as “the last knife block you ever have to buy.” The heaviest model in our testing, this block was ultrastable, and its durable bamboo exterior was a breeze to clean. Well-placed medium-strength magnets made it easy to attach all our knives, and a rotating base gave us quick access to them. One tiny quibble: The blade of our 12-inch slicing knife stuck out a little.

$248.64*
Recommended

Schmidt Brothers Downtown Block

This roomy block completely sheathed our entire winning knife set using just one of its two sides—and quite securely, thanks to long, medium-strength magnet bars. Heavy, with a grippy base, this block was very stable. An acrylic guard made this model extra-safe but also made it a little trickier to insert knives and to clean; the wood block itself showed some minor cosmetic scratching during use.

$141.90*
Best Buy
Recommended

Schmidt Brothers Midtown Block

This smaller version of the Downtown Block secured all our knives nicely, though the blade of the slicing knife stuck out a bit. With a base lined with grippy material, this block was very stable. An acrylic guard afforded extra protection against contact with blades but made it a little harder to insert knives and to clean; the wood itself got a little scratched during use.

$67.99*
Recommended with Reservations

Swissmar Bamboo Magnetic Knife Block

This small, scratch-resistant model had a stable, rubber-lined base and could hold all our knives, though the blade of the 12-inch slicing knife stuck out a bit. But inch-long gaps between its small magnets made coverage uneven and forced us to find the magnetic hot spots in order to secure the knives. Its acrylic guard made it safer to use but harder to insert knives and to clean.

$49.93*
Not Recommended

Messermeister Walnut Magnet Block

This handsome block was done in by its shape—a tippy, top-heavy quarter-circle that wasn’t tall or broad enough to keep the blades of three knives from poking out. It lacked a nonslip base, and its extra-strong magnets made it unnerving to attach or remove our heavy cleaver. Finally, it got a bit scratched after extensive use.

$129.95*

Epicurean Standing Knife Rack 12"

This magnetic block sheathed all our knives completely, though with a bit of crowding. But it was hard to insert each knife without hitting the block’s decorative slats on way down, and because the block was light and narrow, it wobbled when bumped. Worse, we couldn’t take it apart, so splatters that hit the interior were there to stay. Additionally, the outside stained easily, and when we wiped it down, the unit smelled like wet dog.

$99.95*

Kapoosh Rondelle Knife Block

This model stabilized knives with a mass of stiff, spaghetti-like bristles that shed and nicked easily after extensive use, covering our knives with plastic debris. While all our knives fit securely, several of the blades stuck out, making this unit feel less safe overall. Finally, though the bristles could be removed and cleaned in the dishwasher, their nooks and crannies made this block hard to wash by hand.

$24.99*

Kuhn Rikon Vision Knife Block, Clear

This plastic block required us to aim each knife into the folds of an accordion-pleated insert that was removable for easy cleaning but got nicked easily with repeated use. Because we could only insert the knives vertically, longer knife blades stuck out; a cleaver was too wide to fit. The lightest model in our lineup, this block was dangerously top-heavy when loaded with knives.

$35.88*