Regular reader and commenter Linda writes in with this very interesting question:
I checked your archives and did not see anything about equipment, particularly types of baking sheets and pans and which are better. I made your mother’s banana bread over the holiday break and it was absolutely wonderful! However, I used some new loaf pans and while the top was browned to perfection, I thought the sides and bottom were much too crispy and overdone. The same thing happened to a Tuscan Coffee Cake I’ve made every Christmas for the past several years when I baked it in my new cake pans. I’ve noticed that whenever I use my “new and improved” non-stick, heavy duty pans from reputable outfits such as Calphalon, they seem to overcook on the sides and/or bottom. When I use my ancient, inherited from mom and grandmother thin aluminum pans that I’ve used for decades, everything comes out perfectly.
There’s good reason for that, Linda. Most of the older pans were better, not because they were a superior alloy, but because they were a superior color. For reasons that escape me, a lot of bakeware produced today is grey, black, or some other dark color. Most people understand intuitively that if we wear dark colors on a hot day we’ll be hotter because our clothes will absorb more heat. Though it doesn’t make intuitive sense — because let’s face it, ovens are dark on the inside — dark-colored baking vessels absorb more heat in the oven. That’s why your breads are burning.
Calphalon’s entire brand is based on those dark, anodized aluminum colors. So it’s no surprise that their bread pans are dark-colored also. However those colors present a problem in the oven for reasons that are all-too obvious at this point. You can mitigate the problem to some extent by baking on a lower shelf or at a lower temperature, but ultimately your reflective tin pans will do a better job with your breads.
This is why old-school forms are generally better across the board, with the possible exception of old-school tin pie plates. The problem with those is not so much the material, but the shallow sides which promote over-baking at the edges. In general when it comes to baking you want light-colored everything. Crockery is fine, though try to avoid the deep blue, brown and crimson finishes…go for the white, yellow and gold instead. However reflective metal is to be preferred. This is not to say that thickness or the type of alloy is irrelevant. It’s simply a secondary consideration. I’d say a somewhat thick-layered, pale or shiny aluminum alloy of some kind is ideal — for sheet pans, bread pans, cake pans, tart pans, springform pans, the works. This stuff is light, strong, stackable and bakes perfectly.
The other stuff looks cooler, but it sure doesn’t bake that way. Sorry to be the bearer of bad news, Linda! Those Calphalon pans are pricey. As a general rule, bakers should spend money on good ovens, not good bakeware. High-tech alloys can be of value in cookware to avoid cold spots on the surfaces of pans. In the baking game cold spots aren’t a problem in the pans, but in the ovens. Which raises another good point — try calibrating your oven as well, and measure the temperature in several different spots. You may have a “hot spot” that you haven’t been aware of before now.