These days, recipes call for baking or roasting on parchment paper as if it were the default thing. Like wearing a seat belt. I gladly buckle up in the car, but this rampant use of parchment perplexes me.
Baking parchment, the treated paper used for lining pans before baking or roasting, used to be hard for a home cook to find. Cake decorating stores sold it, as well as well-heeled cooking shops. Otherwise, if you were shoving food in the oven your options were plain cookie sheets, greased cookie sheets, or, if you were feeling fancy, greased foil. This was back in the 1990s. Balsamic vinegar seemed new and trendy. I got my first CD player. And I did my home baking without parchment.
Then another thing, exotic and new, came into the lives of home cooks: silicone baking mats. Unlike parchment, they can be reused many times. It was the late 1990s. I had not one, but two CD players, and to further bolster my material riches, I received a set of two Silpats (they are made in France and are the industry’s top-tier brand). I’m still using the same ones; they’ve outlasted both CD players. To me, there are Silpats and Silpats only.
But why even bother with parchment or silicone mats? There are times when a naked pan does the job best, whether the task is baking cookies or roasting vegetables. So I decided to compare the three and see. Here’s a quick overview of the basics:
PROS: Disposable. Looks really great in Instagram photos.
CONS: Disposable. Can hamper browning when you want roasted items to get nice and dark and crispy.
PROS: Reusable. Sturdy. Very durable.
CONS: Can’t be used over 480 degrees F. You can’t cut on them (I learned this the hard way). Acquire a slight greasy film on their surface over time. This film does not compromise their performance, but it creeps some people out. Also, I really hate washing Silpats because they are big and floppy.
Naked Aluminum sheet pans/baking pans/cookie sheets
PROS: They’re already naked and ready to go.
CONS: Baked-on food bits can get on the pans, requiring more elbow grease when you wash them. They tend to be made out of aluminum, which some people feel nervous about using in the kitchen.*
Since context is important, I made a few things using a naked pan, parchment-lined pan, and Silpat-lined pan for each. Results below!
Chocolate chip cookies
PARCHMENT: Cookies spread a little better. For very large cutout cookies, parchment can help them release a little better.
SILPAT: Cookies that need to spread out and get flat and lacy don’t do that so well on Silpats. With basic drop cookies—the kind you form into a ball of dough and plop down on the sheet—Silpats help keep the sheets clean if you’re going to bake successive batches. Otherwise, there’s not much of an advantage using a Silpat over a naked sheet if you have good baking sheets to begin with and the recipe calls for baking the cookies on ungreased sheets.
NAKED SHEET: You can get away with a lot if you do it right. Starting with chilled dough usually makes the cookies release more easily, in my opinion, as does letting the cookies rest on the sheets a few minutes before removing them with a spatula.
I would be remiss to mention that with some kinds of cookies—like macaroons (coconut) and macarons (the fancypants French kind)—naked sheet is a bad idea. The Silpat kicks ass on those.
TIP!: You can re-use parchment paper a few times if it’s not all gunked up.
PARCHMENT: The potatoes did fine, especially once I switched the oven from to convection from the bake settings. But they were not the crispy-on-the-edges roasted potatoes I love.
NAKED SHEET: The winner! If you love crispy brown edges on potatoes and vegetables, this is the way to go. The only reason I can think where there’s an advantage to using a lined pan for this is if you are not first tossing the food in oil or fat. They’d be apt to stick, in that case.
TIP!: When roasting potatoes or vegetables on a naked sheet pan, if you’re supposed to toss them around midway through the cooking time they sometimes do cling to the pan. Just let the pan rest outside of the oven for a minute or two. When you go back, more of the food is likely to release. Same goes for when you are ready to serve the food. A lot of cooking “secrets” just translate to being patient.
Well, there you go…or there you don’t. The sad, ultimate truth for fans of oversimplified cooking articles is that there’s never one true magic bullet. But that’s why cooking is great! Every time you step in your kitchen, it’s your own little Choose Your Own Adventure time. You’re your own boss!
And that I even have the space in my brain and options in my kitchen available to a) consider, and b) execute this experiment means my life is full of amazing magic. Someday I’ll be cooking up toxic foraged tubers in a hubcap over an open fire, wishing I had a few grains of salt to season them with, and I’ll recall the days when my choices for baking sheets were so vast, and I’ll laugh wistfully. By the way, those chrome hubcaps are a lot harder to find, buy they’re worth seeking out. The plastic ones melt.
*Ahh, aluminum. When it comes to third rails of the internet, aluminum cookware falls below abortion and vaccines, but it’s nearly in league with fluoride. I’m even a little afraid to bring it up. There are two reasons people have concerns about using aluminum cookware: flavor and health. On the flavor front, cooking with acidic liquid in an aluminum vessel can impart and unpleasant metallic taste. On the health front, there are many types of aluminum cookware and many ways of using it, so it’s not reasonable to make a blanket statement that all aluminum cookware is evil and will eventually make you have Alzheimer’s. However, the idea that aluminum pans coming into contact with food that’s going into your body is disconcerting to many cooks. If that’s how you feel, I suggest you not eat out, because like 99% of all restaurants use aluminum cookware. At home, I generally eschew pots with exposed aluminum interiors. But I do I use, and love, the kind of aluminum rimmed baking sheets you’ll see in commercial kitchens. The size that’s handiest for home cooks is called a half sheet.
Sara Bir is Paste’s contributing food editor. She is currently working on two cookbooks, and using parchment, Silpats, and naked sheet pans to extensive degrees