If you’re going to bake with forms — and there’s no saying you have to do that — there are basically six categories the average home baker needs: loaf pans, cake pans, tart pans, springform pans, pie pans and muffin pans. I keep several sizes of each, and I vastly prefer shiny finishes over dark nonstick, though sometimes you need a pan and can’t find anything else.
The most useful loaf pans are probably the standard 9.5″ x 5.25″ if you’re baking bread. For tea breads you want the little 3.5″ x 5.5″ inchers. The go-to round cake pan size is 9″ though 8″ and even 6″ are nice to have around. I didn’t show my 8″ square cake pan but that’s fairly essential if you make a lot of single-layer cakes, brownies or bars.
For tart pans a 9″ and 10″ are fairly essential, but I also like smaller sizes when I find them cheap (I’m a big one for throwing together an appetizer tart out of frozen dough scraps and I never know how much I’ll have). Get ’em bottomless. I recommend 8″, 9″ and 10″ springform pans, but don’t buy the expensive coated things.
Indeed I don’t recommend paying more than ten or fifteen bucks for any basic form. Buy them at restaurant supply stores, not kitchenware boutiques where you’ll get taken to the cleaners as it were. Value shop. Look for things used. Professional bakeries do that…why should’t you?
All that said if you find you’re getting heavily into some particular sort of baking, there’s nothing wrong with paying up for expensive gear that will deliver incremental improvements. If you’re really into tennis you probably have a great racket. Most of us, however, get all the enjoyment we need out of a $20 Target special. Knowadimean? But be sensible and don’t go broke over something you’ll use only a couple of times.