The (Surprising) Rise of the Sheet Pan

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Martha Stewart was placing two apple crisps on a sheet pan to catch the juices that bubble out during baking when she said, “If you saw how many sheet pans I owned, you would be quite horrified. I have a lot of sheet pans.”

And she’s accumulated them over a long time: Ms. Stewart was first introduced to commercial sheet pans — the thick, uncoated aluminum baking sheets with 1-inch-high rims and rolled edges — by Fred Bridge in the 1970s. She had a catering business in Connecticut, and he owned Bridge Co., a professional kitchenware store on 52nd Street in Manhattan.

“That’s where I really started learning about high-quality, restaurant-quality, long-lived equipment,” Ms. Stewart said. “I bought my best things from Mr. Bridge.”

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On her first TV show, two decades later, she used sheet pans on set, showing them to home viewers repeatedly — though not intentionally. Like most professional chefs in America, and bakers in particular, Ms. Stewart relied on those pans even if she didn’t showcase them.

No one did until recently, because sheet pans have neither the vintage-car shine of copper pots nor the allure of carbon-steel knives. Sheet pans are essential to professional kitchens, but with far more function than form, they don’t scream for attention. The best ones cost less than $20.

And yet this utilitarian piece of equipment has become a star. That can be attributed in part to a surge of sheet-pan recipes from food publications, cookbooks and bloggers, a new genre of weeknight cooking that provide an entire meal on the pan. Cousins of one-pot meals, sheet-pan suppers combine vegetables, protein and starch in a single piece of cookware, but offer a larger canvas to compose a range of shapes and colors. The actual cooking requires nothing more than passive waiting.

Less shocking is its social media popularity: The nonreflective aluminum surface serves as a built-in backdrop for a tumble of caramelized carrots, burnished roast chicken, a cheese-smothered mess of anything. As of this writing, there are 42,000 posts tagged #sheetpandinner on Instagram.

Their usefulness has been a revelation to home cooks — and even to some restaurant chefs. When Kawi in New York City temporarily closed because of the pandemic, Eunjo Park, the executive chef, made a sheet-pan meal in her apartment kitchen for the first time. “The last thing I want to do at home is use all these pans and pots,” she said.

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It may feel like sheet-pan meals overran food media in the last few months, but their rise in home kitchens was actually slow, more poundcake than soufflé. According to Google trends, the term “sheet pan” has steadily ascended in interest since 2009, reaching the highest peaks over the weeks of Thanksgiving and Christmas in 2020.

But popularity is fleeting. Sheet pans are not. Available in four sizes, they are the bedrock of many American restaurants, bakeries and food-service kitchens.

Full-sheet pans are designed to fit commercial ovens; half-sheet pans are half the length at 17- by-12 inches; and so on down to eighths. While home cooks toss around the term “sheet pan,” chefs shorthand their names by size: “Bring me that half sheet of almonds. Prep that foie on a quarter sheet.” (Most sheet-pan recipes for home cooks are developed for half sheets.)

Half sheets are astoundingly versatile, partly because they’re the perfect size. Chefs grab them to move ingredients to walk-ins, dirty tools to dishwashing and clean pots to the stove. They use them as trays to organize mise en place. They throw half sheets in ovens to toast bread crumbs, roast bones or dry tomatoes.

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Pastry chefs fill them with cake batter and pastries designed for those dimensions. “Baklava goes a long way in those half sheets,” said Reem Assil, the chef and owner of Reem’s California, with locations in Oakland and San Francisco.

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In the 1990s, the pans began to be seen more outside professional kitchens, albeit in the background of food-magazine photos and on chef-driven TV shows. They were newly visible in restaurants’ and bakeries’ open kitchens, too. Food lovers who wanted to cook like professionals noticed them and trekked to restaurant supply stores or specialty cookware shops to buy them.

“There wasn’t a conscious choice to bring them to home cooks,” said Sarah Carey, who has worked for the Martha Stewart brand for 21 years and is currently the editorial director of food at Martha Stewart Living.

The cookware company Nordic Ware began selling the pans to home cooks in 2001. “It wasn’t a success out of the box,” said Jennifer Dalquist, executive vice president of sales and marketing. “It took years to get on its feet because it’s not a glamorous-looking product.”

Ms. Dalquist declined to share exact numbers, but said that for more than a decade, the company has experienced double-digit growth in sheet-pan sales year over year. Their pan, which is universally praised in cookware reviews, comes with a lifetime guarantee. “Unless you run it over with a car, it’s going to last you forever,” she said.

When seeking out half-sheet pans, pure aluminum is best, as it conducts heat more evenly than aluminized steel. Avoid coatings of any sort: Pans with nonstick finishes can’t withstand especially high oven heats, get scuffed and need to be replaced every 3 to 5 years. For sturdier options, look for thicker pans according to the metal’s gauge (12- to 18-gauge works well); the lower the number, the thicker the aluminum. Once you’ve used true half-sheet pans, you can’t go back to flimsy tins.

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As important are the rolled steel rims of sheet pans, which prevent the flat bottoms from buckling and twisting in hot ovens as pans with pressed rims do. Those steel rims are wrapped into the edge of the aluminum and crimped to enclose. (Ms. Dalquist suggests shaking a sheet pan to test its quality. If you hear rattling, that comes from the steel rim clattering against the encasement, which indicates a messy crimp likely made with lighter-gauge aluminum that may dent or warp over time.)

It’s tempting to keep buying sheet pans — at least two feel necessary and a dozen is a dream — because they fulfill so many purposes, and also because they nest so neatly for storage. Purchase decent ones, and they will last for decades. “Anathema to me are those stupid aluminum pans in the grocery store,” said Ms. Stewart. “That is such waste. In three years, you need to replace them.”

Some people complain that sheet pans are difficult to wash by hand. (Using the dishwasher discolors them, but doesn’t affect performance.) Ms. Stewart said that washing is simple as long as soiled pans are crisscrossed, not stacked inside each other. If they’re washed in hot soapy water right away, everything “comes right off,” she said, and they look just as they did before.

“These sheet pans from my catering days, all the way from the early ’70s — they’re still perfect,” she said.

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