When to Use a Light-Colored Pan, and When to Use a Dark One

published May 27, 2015
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(Image credit: Janice Lawandi)

Most of us have more than one baking sheet, and probably almost none of them match because we tend to build up our arsenal of bakeware over the course of several years. They come in varying shades of silver, gray, and even black, which can be confusing when you want to bake a sheet cake or roast a pan of Brussels sprouts. When should you opt for a lighter or a darker pan, and why?

It’s a Matter of Absorption and Radiation

If you are wondering about the difference between light and dark pans, think about this: When you go out into the hot summer sun, what happens when you are wearing a darker T-shirt versus a light pastel or white T-shirt? Your shirt heats up more and a lot faster if it’s made of a dark material. The same goes for bakeware placed in the oven. Darker materials and black pans typically absorb and also radiate more heat.

When you are debating between using a light- or dark-colored pan to bake with in your oven, consider what you wish to achieve: Do you want the pan to get really hot and radiate lots of heat onto your food or do you want a gentler, lighter heat?

When to Use Dark or Light Pans

If you want foods to brown on the bottom, reach for a darker metal sheet pan because dark pans will absorb more heat and therefore more heat will radiate off the surface. I like to use dark pans when I’m baking pizza or crispy-edged potato wedges and roasted veggies that I want to brown. Recently, I’ve even started baking pies in dark metal pie plates instead of glass so the bottom of the pie crust heats up more and browns.

When you want foods to bake more evenly all over and you don’t want to promote too much browning on the bottom, you should opt for a lighter metal pan that will absorb less heat. Use lighter pans for cakes and cookies. Purchase lighter cake pans to ensure your cakes won’t brown too quickly on the edges before they’re baked through.

Tips for Working with the Pans You Already Have

If you think you have the wrong pans for the job, don’t despair! Instead of buying new pans or giving up on the recipe altogether, consider modifying the baking temperature:

  • If you are using darker pans, you may have to drop the temperature on your oven by 25ºF so you can be sure that your baked goods won’t heat up and brown too quickly, especially on the bottom. This is very important if you are baking sheet cakes and American-style cookies (as opposed to French sablés, for example). Consider using a silicone baking mat, which will help minimize browning of baked goods baked on darker baking sheets.
  • If you only have light-colored pans and your recipe calls for a dark sheet pan, set the oven 25ºF higher than the recommended baking temperature in the recipe. This will help your recipe bake in the same amount of time and also help your baked goods and your roasted veggies brown more.

A Little Note About Dark Splashes & Burnt Spots on Baking Sheets

To be honest, I am very guilty of not giving my bakeware, specifically my big lighter-colored metal sheet pans, a really proper scrubbing, and sometimes I miss spots or splashes on my baking sheets. Trouble is, those splashes can darken considerably with each trip to the oven and end up a deep brown or black. While I love the “aged look” these splashes give to my baking sheets, they can also lead to “hot spots” on bakeware because they absorb more heat in patches, and that can also lead to uneven baking. Do as I say, not as I do — try and keep those lighter pans as clean as possible to avoid promoting uneven baking.

Read more: How Can I Clean Tough Stains From My Baking Sheets?

Are there recipes where you opt for a darker or lighter pan to bake with? Do you have preferences for one over the other?