Lighten Up (Your Cake Pans)

By Cook's Illustrated Published March 2016

Do you have to buy a set of light pans just for cakes? Not necessarily.

Dark-colored pans absorb heat more efficiently than light-colored pans, so the sides and bottoms of items baked in dark pans will cook and brown more quickly than those of the same items cooked in light pans.

This is an asset when baking cinnamon rolls and deep-dish pizza, where a brown crust is a source of valuable flavor, but it can be a problem with other recipes. Because the batter near the edges in a dark pan will reach its maximum temperature sooner than the batter near the edges in a light pan, a cake baked in a dark pan will have sides that are overly brown and set early, leading to stunted height, while the center continues to rise. This results in a domed cake, which is particularly problematic when making a layer cake. So what do you do if you own dark pans? Do you have to buy a set of light pans just for cakes?

Not necessarily. We baked three yellow cake layers: one in a dark pan, one in a light pan, and a third in a dark pan that had been wrapped in aluminum foil. The cake baked in the dark pan looked as expected: The edges were very brown and set long before the center, so the center of the cake was higher and domed. But the cake baked in the foil-wrapped dark pan looked the same as the one in the light-colored pan: level, with tender, lightly browned sides and bottom.

So if you only own dark baking pans, when making cakes we recommend wrapping the exteriors with foil as snugly as you can. (At the top of the pan, fold the edge of the foil back onto itself; do not fold the foil over onto the interior.) The shiny side can be in or out; we found that it made no noticeable difference.

When we baked cakes in dark pans and dark pans wrapped in foil and monitored the batter near the edges of the pans using temperature probes, the batter near the edge in the dark pan reached its maximum temperature, and so stopped rising (thus leading to doming), much earlier in the baking process than the edge of the cake in the foil-wrapped pan.