Loaf pans! So many styles, so many sizes. So many choices, and all you want to do is make a batch of banana bread. I hear ya!
The good news is you can get along perfectly fine with just one inexpensive loaf pan. Or you can be like me and have so many, you need to store them in a plastic bin in the basement. Either way, this guide will walk you through.
WHAT RECIPES USE A LOAF PAN?
Besides the aforementioned banana bread, loaf pans are handy for baking meatloaf, pound cake, yeasted breads, and weird little casseroles you throw together with leftovers.
Though you can make all sorts of things in any given loaf pan, you might want to consider the type of recipes you make most often when you select a pan’s size and material.
8 1/2-INCH PANS VS 9-INCH PANS
In America, what recipes call a “standard loaf pan” is 8-1/2 x 4-1/2 x 2-1/2 inches. If a store sells only one size of loaf pan, this is probably it. If you own one loaf pan, it should probably be this size.
But larger loaf pans are not uncommon, either in stores or for recipes. Another common size is a loaf pan measuring 9 x 5 x 2-1/2 inches.
The difference between an 8 1/2-inch pan and a 9-inch pan doesn’t seem that big, right? But it is.
You can see this in the photo above. The 9-inch pan is on the left and the 8 1/2-inch pan is on the right. The same recipe was made in both pans, and you can see how the loaf made in the 9-inch pan is flat, while the loaf made in the 8-inch pan rose beautifully.
If you do the math, you’ll find there’s a 15 percent difference in capacity. Here’s what that difference means:
- If a recipe’s yield under-fills a pan, it’s not too big a deal. It’ll probably bake faster and not rise up as high, but the recipe will work.
- If the recipe’s yield over-fills the pan, the batter can spill over and burn, or a risen dough can have droopy, unattractive mushroom-cloud blobs.
As a rule of thumb, if the batter fills the pan 2/3 full, the loaf pan is at its limit. If you still have extra batter, don’t over-fill the pan. Instead, bake the excess batter a muffin pan, filling the empty tins with a few tablespoons of water to keep the pan from warping. Disaster averted!
WHAT IF THE RECIPE DOESN’T SPECIFY PAN SIZE?
If you’re online, try and ask the person who wrote the recipe. If you’re working from a cookbook, check the introduction to see if the author specifies the pan there.
If in doubt, use a standard 8 1/2-inch pan and follow the “2/3 full” rule mentioned above.
Older recipes often don’t specify dimensions when they call for loaf pans. Sixty years ago, a “standard loaf pan” was 9 x 5 x 2-1/2 inches. (Why the change? I have no idea.) If you are making Aunt Margie’s cranberry bread from a yellowed recipe card, and your pan seems over-filled, just take out some of the batter, using the 2/3 rule.
One more thing: Some recipes might call for pans of specific capacity rather than dimensions, e.g. “a 1-quart loaf pan.” How do you know how much your loaf pan holds? Easy! Measure out a quart of water, and if it all fits in there without overflowing, your loaf pan is a 1-quart pan.
WHAT MATERIAL PAN SHOULD YOU BUY?
Now that we’ve tackled sizes, let’s talk materials. Your choice is typically between aluminum, glass, silicone, ceramic, cast iron, or stainless steel. Each kind of pan has its pluses and minuses. Let’s take a look at each one.
ALUMINUM LOAF PANS
Aluminum pans (like the one pictured above) are lightweight, affordable, sturdy, and conduct heat decently. Cakes and breads brown well in them. They are a classic loaf pan choice. If you are new to baking or don’t bake often, we say go with one of these! You can find a-okay, inexpensive ones very easily, often right at your grocery store.
Within aluminum pans, you can get unfinished or nonstick finishes. Nonstick bakeware has become so ubiquitous, it can be tricky to even find metal baking pans without the finish. What’s the advantage of one over the other?
Nonstick pans are easier to clean, and breads often do release from them with zero to little effort. Most nonstick finishes will gradually break down in the dishwasher, so it’s best to hand-wash nonstick pans. Also, don’t cut into a baked loaf in a nonstick pan, because you can damage the finish.
If you grease unfinished metal loaf pans correctly, they also provide you with easy release and easy cleanup. Naked aluminum will turn a streaky, pitted dull gray if you put it in the dishwasher. So be sure to hand-wash those, too.
GLASS LOAF PANS
Glass is an insulator. It takes longer to heat than metal, which is a conductor. Because of this, loaves baked in glass pans may have different baking times than what a recipe calls for.
An old rule (introduced by Pyrex itself) says to reduce the temperature 25 degrees lower than the recipe calls for if you’re baking in glassware. We’ve found this is not necessary. Just check for the doneness early, and rely on sensory cues (smells, firmness, the good old toothpick-inserted-in-center-of-loaf-comes-out-clean test) to gage doneness rather than time. Which is a good habit no matter what your pan is made of.
A few other things to note when cooking in glass pans:
- Baked goods don’t release from glassware as easily as other materials. Be sure to grease them well.
- Glass pans are dishwasher-safe, but still can be harder to keep sparkling clean because residue will nestle in the tiny wrinkles that can remain when the molten gob of glass was pressed in its manufacture. Also, you can’t use abrasive cleaners on glass. If your glass pans develop a few spots of brown, baked-on grease, I say just live with it.
- A plus with glass pans is how evenly things brown in them. You can see through the pan and tell how done the bottom and sides are.
- A minus is their heft compared to metal. Glass pans weigh a little more and are slightly bulkier than metal ones. Unmolding cakes and loaves from them can be a little trickier because of that.
- Glass pans can shatter when they go through temperature extremes. Don’t plunge a hot pan in a sink of cold water, or pop a pan straight from the freezer to the oven. Does this shattering thing sound unpleasantly dramatic? I’ve seen it, and yes, it is.