Size matters, and so does shape. This truism is never as true as when you are baking in tube pans. Each has a specific purpose and usage, and they aren't easily interchangeable. Does that mean that if you want to bake a Bundt and a chiffon cake or an angel food cake that you need different pans? The answer is a firm yes.
Tube pans share one distinction: the tube down the center. But some have sloped sides, some drop straight from top to bottom, and some are decoratively fluted. Some tube pans are composed of two pieces with a removable bottom. Most tube pans are made of metal, but their capacity, width, depth, color, material, density, and weight vary wildly.
That doesn't mean you have to toss Grandma's favorite pan, or rail against manufacturers for lack of consistency — you just have to pick the right pan for the cake you want to bake.
Bundt pans were invented by H. David Dalquist in 1950, owner of Minnesota's Nordic Ware Company, and trademarked. He designed the pan at the request of a Jewish women's organization, who wanted a tube pan with decorative cutouts for Kugelhopf. The Bundt remained an esoteric pan until the Tunnel of Fudge Cake that came in second in the 17th annual Pillsbury Bake-Off. Bundt cakes became a staple in American households.
Like all tube pans, Bundts vary in size. A nonstick finish is your best friend in these pans, although a good slathering of baker's spray can also reduce the sticking-into-the-crevice issue. Avoiding any dark pans or glass pans is your best bet for consistent, evenly baked cakes. You can even find flexible silicone bundt pans, but stability issues and lack of familiarity render them challenging.
Nordic Ware is still the leader in Bundt pan manufacturing. They make twisted turbans, wreaths, fleur de lis, the ill-named chiffon Bundt (which is not a chiffon pan at all), and even a squared Bundt. As long as they are not made of dark material, they all do the job.
Some pans come with very handy handles (I highly recommend these). A nonstick or anodized Bundt pan is a must in a well-stocked kitchen, but it is not for every tube cake.
Bundt pound-style or butter cakes can be made in any well-greased or nonstick tube-shaped pan, but sponge cakes, chiffon cakes, and angel food cakes cannot be successfully made in any greased or nonstick pan — or any Bundt pan at all.
Sponge Cake Pans
Sponge cakes are best baked in a straight-sided tube pan without a nonstick surface. Most recipes use egg yolks as well as the whites. Some recipes suggest buttering, buttering and flouring, or lining the bottom of the pan with parchment paper only. This allows the batter to puff and grow on the sides, and it also allows some ease in removing the cake from the pan. You can also do it without greasing the pan.
The volumes and sizes of these straight-sided tube pans vary widely. Many bakers suggest getting a removable bottom pan for sponge cakes for ease of removal. It's a great idea, as long as you bake it on a baking sheet to protect your oven from spillage.
Chiffon or Angel Food Cake Pans
These cake are baked in tube pans with straight sides that are not sloped, and have little feet or metal fingers poking up from the top of the pan. Both cakes require hanging the baked cake upside-down to cool. This maintains the cell structure and the airiness of the cake. I remember walking into my grandmother's kitchen for a Passover Seder and seeing a magical collection of sponge cakes and angel food cakes balanced upside-down on glass Coke bottles to cool. Plastic soda bottles don't work, so either you have to MacGyver something, or you use the feet and place the cake upside-down on a cooling rack. As long as the pan has feet and is on an elevated cooling rack, you have enough air circulating.
This is also why you should never use a nonstick pan for either angel food or sponge cakes. You can't turn a cake upside-down to cool if it's nonstick; it will slide down and out and flop, along with your cake-making dreams.
A chiffon cake must be made in a tall pan — four inches deep. An angel food cake can be a bit smaller pan — three to three-and-a-half inches deep. The best bet is to buy a four-inch-side pan with feet that works for both cakes.
(Image credits: Christine Han; Anjali Prasertong; Dana Velden; Faith Durand)