We spent more than 30 hours researching and testing cake pans in three essential shapes–round, rectangular/square, and loaf–to come up with the best of each (also see our guides to bundt pans and springform pans). And in each test, pans from USA Pan came out on top, easily outclassing the competition in the nonstick department. Highly recommended by experts, bakeware from USA Pan features a combination of a corrugated texture with slight ridges and a nonstick coating.
For simple single-layer cakes like a pineapple upside-down, or a beautiful, towering classic layer cake, we think the USA Pan Aluminized Steel 9×2 Inch Round Layer Cake Pan is the best choice for any baker. After working through two rounds of baking using eight different pans, we are giving the highest praise to the USA Pan for its truly nonstick corrugated bottom, even heat distribution, and durability. In our tests, even sticky sugar from cinnamon buns didn’t stick to the pan. And at a little under $13, it won’t break the bank, even if you buy two or three.
A square or rectangular pan is one of the most basic essentials for a home baker. It’s indispensable for the simplest brownies, bar cookies, and single-layer sheet cakes. We tested three different square pans (after eliminating many others), and again, USA Pan offered up the best: the Aluminized Steel 13 x 9 x 2.25 Inch Rectangular Cake Pan and the Aluminized Steel 8 x 2.25 Inch Square Cake Pan. Unlike darker pans we tested, these heavy-duty quality pans gave cake an even, golden color. Though the corrugated sides help release the cake easily, they don’t mar the edges of the cake too much.
Loaf pans are great for easy, quick bread recipes (like banana bread), pound cakes, and yeasted sandwich bread. After testing five different loaf pans, the USA Pan once again produced the winner: the Aluminized Steel 9 x 5-Inch Loaf Pan. Breads baked taller in this pan than others we tested, and the pan was recommended by two of our expert resources, Rose Levy Beranbaum and Tish Boyle.
Before turning to writing, I worked for several years as a professional baker in Brooklyn, at Pies ’N’ Thighs and the Greene Grape Annex, so I’m familiar with all the ins and outs of making everything from bundt cakes to cupcakes. Now that I don’t bake for a living, I still love doing it in my spare time, and will use any excuse to bake a fancy layer cake.
When starting research on this review, I read through guides and recommendations from Cook’s Illustrated, Real Simple, Good Housekeeping, Fine Cooking, and The Kitchn (though not all of them cover every pan reviewed here). I also looked at threads on forums like Chowhound, Food52, and Cake Central.
I also interviewed three well-respected experts in the realm of cake baking, all of whom have extensive experience with home baking. Award-winning cookbook author Rose Levy Beranbaum wrote The Cake Bible, which is considered one of the essential resources for cake bakers. Nick Malgieri is a former pastry chef and the current director of the baking program at New York’s Institute of Culinary Education, as well as a James Beard Award-winning author of 12 cookbooks, including Perfect Cakes. Tish Boyle is the editor of Dessert Professional magazine and the author of multiple cookbooks, including The Cake Book.
Whether you’re an avid home baker or just an occasional one, a good set of cake pans—in a few shapes and sizes—will help you turn out better, moister, and more beautiful baked goods every time. Even if you’re a from-the-box type of baker, a high-quality pan can help keep your brownies fudgy and your yellow cake layers intact. If you already own a few cake pans but find yourself frustrated by overcooked edges or uneven cakes, it might be time to upgrade to a better pan. We started this guide with the basic shapes (round, square/rectangular, and loaf) because they’re the most versatile and can work with both sweet and savory recipes. For example, square or round is also the way to go if you want to bake a pan of closely packed cinnamon rolls or dinner rolls, or even a pan pizza.
Certain qualities are unique to a particular type of pan, and we saved those for the individual sections on each below. But there are a few things to look for in any pan. A good cake pan, no matter what the shape, should be sturdy and resistant to denting or warping, otherwise you risk ending up with a misshapen bundt or a leaning layer cake. The large majority of cake pans are made of metal—either aluminum or coated steel—and we think it’s best to stick to those that are. Metal is more durable than ceramic or glass, and it’s what most recipes are designed for. Ceramic and glass conduct heat less efficiently, baking your cake more slowly, and potentially throwing off baking times. Thin, flimsy metal pans or pans with a dark-colored nonstick coating (pan coatings come in many shades of gray; “dark” means anything closer to black than silver) should also be avoided because both conduct heat too quickly. They’ll completely bake the outside of your cake well before the middle is done, so that by the time the middle is done, the crust will be dark and dry, if not burned.
We chose not to test silicone bakeware because all of the experts agreed that doing so would only lead to frustration. For one thing, silicone pans are floppy, and very difficult to maneuver in and out of the oven when full of batter. And as Rose Levy Beranbaum and Tish Boyle both pointed out, cakes baked in silicone tend not to brown at all on the outside. The best cake pan will bake the outside of a cake to an even golden brown, which gives it some sturdiness and a little caramelized flavor, and also just looks better than a pallid, crustless cake.
The shape of the corners on non-round pans can vary—some are rounded, some are sharp—but we didn’t rule out either. Sharp corners look more professional, but it can be hard to clean crumbs from their crevices. Round corners are easier to clean and to butter, but they can be shallower than the rest of the pan, leaving you with a dry piece of cake or a burnt brownie.
A good pan should release a cake effortlessly, and clean up easily. Many cake pans these days come with a nonstick coating, though a few widely used varieties don’t. We chose to test both, because each has its pros and cons. Both Boyle and Beranbaum told me they like nonstick pans best, because they release cakes like a charm and can be quickly wiped clean with a sponge. As Boyle explained, “You really want any little bit extra that’s going to ensure that the pan is not going to stick.”
That being said, nonstick pans can be easy to scratch—you’re not supposed to use metal utensils on them, and most are not dishwasher-safe—and the coating can wear off over time. For that reason, you’ll never see them in professional kitchens, and Nick Malgieri told me he “would never trust them.” He prefers uncoated pans, which may be prone to sticking, but will work just fine if lined with parchment.
Some people are also reluctant to use nonstick cookware because they think the Teflon on it can transfer carcinogens into their food, but this is not true.1 And, for that matter, most nonstick bakeware doesn’t use Teflon. In fact, as Nordic Ware explains on its website, “An entirely different formulation is necessary to release sugars (associated with baking) than proteins (associated with meats and dairy).” Most nonstick coatings on bakeware are instead silicone-based and are generally considered to be safe.
For round pans, we limited our testing to pans 9 inches in diameter and 2 inches tall. All of the experts we spoke to agreed that this is the most common size a recipe will call for, and the best choice if you’re going to buy only one size.
The most common square and rectangular cake pan sizes are 8 by 8 inches and 13 by 9 inches, and these are the ones we chose to include.
For loaf pans, we chose to test 9- by 5-inch pans, since they’re better for handling voluminous yeast breads as well as quick breads. They’re also what both Tish Boyle and Malgieri recommend as the “most common.”
To test the round pans, we first baked a simple yellow cake, using this recipe from Smitten Kitchen, with a buttered and floured pan (Fine Cooking has a good video demonstration of how to do that). We baked cakes one at a time to ensure even baking in the center of the oven, and baked each for the same amount of time.
We then baked a batch of cinnamon rolls—using the canned Pillsbury kind for ease and speed—in each buttered pan to see how much sugar stuck to the bottom, and how difficult it was to clean.
To test square pans (to save time, we tested only 8-inch pans, and assumed that their 13- by 9-inch counterparts were of the same quality), we baked the same yellow cake recipe from Smitten Kitchen that we used to test the round pans, after first buttering and flouring each pan. Again, we baked cakes one at a time to ensure even cooking.
To test loaf pans, we baked two recipes. First was a basic banana bread recipe from Cook’s Illustrated (also available without a subscription from Leite’s Culinaria). We looked for a crust that was chestnut brown, not nearly black, and had a fully cooked center. We also looked for bread that rose into a nice dome and came out looking like a loaf, not like a brick. Then we baked a simple white sandwich bread in each pan, using this recipe from King Arthur Flour. Ideally, a loaf of yeast bread should balloon above the edge of the pan and bake quickly enough that the crust sets while it’s still tall and puffy. That will yield the most attractive loaf, with slices taller than they are wide and mushroom-like in shape. The crust should be an even golden brown, and the loaf should pop out easily from a buttered pan.
For all pans, we ran both a butter knife and a paring knife over the surface of each, to see how easily it would scratch. Though all of the manufacturers of nonstick pans say you shouldn’t use metal utensils on them, we know that this is sometimes hard to avoid, so during our testing we wanted to find out how durable each pan really was. And when washing each pan, we inspected the corners to see if any crumbs had gotten jammed in there.
After several hours of research and two rounds of baking in eight different cake pans, we think the USA Pan Aluminized Steel 9×2 Inch Round Layer Cake Pan is the best choice for any baker. It releases cakes effortlessly, and it turns out layers of yellow cake that are evenly browned to just the right golden hue. It’s sturdy, and though its nonstick coating isn’t impenetrable (none are), it holds up well even under a paring knife. And at a little under $13, it won’t break the bank, even if you buy two or three.
The cake made in the USA Pan Bakeware Aluminized Steel 9×2 Inch Round Cake Pan baked up almost flat on top, popped out effortlessly, and was a beautiful golden brown. Though the four other nonstick pans we tested also released their cakes effortlessly, not all baked such a beautiful cake. Worst was Cuisinart’s Easy Grip Bakeware pan, which produced a dark crust thanks to an exterior coating that is almost black. That pan was also only 1½ inch deep, which could be a problem with recipes slightly larger than the one we tested. On the other end of the height spectrum was Nordic Ware’s Natural Aluminum Nonstick Commercial pan. It baked an evenly golden cake, but it was half an inch taller than any other pan, tall enough to bake the top of the cake darker than any other.
Of the three uncoated pans we tested, some performed better than others, though none as well as the USA pan, or even some of the other nonstick pans. Both the Parrish Magic Line pan and Williams-Sonoma’s Traditional touch pan released the cake in one piece (though a thin layer of cake got left behind in both), but both cakes came out very pale and with a nearly underdone, slightly sunken center. It seems that the uncoated aluminum of both reflects much more heat away from the cake, baking it more slowly. The anodized aluminum Fat Daddio’s pan did a better job of browning the cake, but the cake stuck terribly, leaving a big chunk behind.
The cinnamon roll test was where the USA pan really proved its nonstick power. The rolls left a swirl of sugar residue in all but the USA pan, and though that sugar cleaned off easily from the other nonstick competitors, that still put USA a notch above. The difference, according to the manufacturers, is the pan’s slightly corrugated bottom. Tish Boyle, who uses USA pans regularly, agreed, “The ribbed surface makes a difference.” USA also claims the texture makes the pan more sturdy, but we’ll only know that after long-term testing.
In the scratch test, USA, Williams-Sonoma’s Goldtouch, and Chicago Metallic were the most difficult to damage, though not impenetrable. The Goldtouch, which is ceramic-based and claims to be “more resistant to abrasion than normal nonstick surfaces,” actually felt a little harder than the other two. But scratches were still not deep on the USA pan (which uses a silicone-based coating), and its ridges kept the knife off of half the surface. The uncoated pans weren’t scratch-resistant either, but it shouldn’t affect the lifespan of the pan or cause cakes to stick more.
Overall, USA, Williams-Sonoma Goldtouch, and Chicago Metallic were close in performance, but USA wins out for a few reasons. First, we think the corrugation does give it a slight edge in the nonstick department, as demonstrated by the cinnamon roll test. Second, it also comes in an 8-inch or a 10-inch size, whereas the others have only an 8-inch alternative. It’s good to have options, and if you’re a frequent baker you may want more than one size. Finally, it’s affordable. So is the Chicago Metallic pan, but the Williams-Sonoma is not: At nearly $25, it’s a good $10 more expensive (plus shipping) than either of the others. And as it turns out, Williams-Sonoma’s pans are actually made by USA Pan (as Cook’s Illustrated notes), so why splurge when you can get nearly the same thing for significantly less?
One unfortunate inevitability of pans with perfectly straight sides is that they don’t nest inside each other. This can make them a pain to store, because they take up a lot of room, but it’s worth clearing space if you really want to make beautiful layer cakes. If you have a shelf big enough, try storing them on their sides, like books.
And, as with all nonstick pans, you do have to be careful. USA recommends you use only non-metal utensils on it, and never clean it with an abrasive sponge. It’s also not recommended for the dishwasher, but few of these pans are. Still, it’s sturdy enough that it should, with proper treatment, last a long time.
The USA pan is made in America, and comes with a limited lifetime warranty. Rose Levy Beranbaum says it’s her “favorite pan,” and Tish Boyle is also a fan. It’s highly rated on Amazon, with 4.8 out of 5 stars over 136 reviews, and it was recommended by Cook’s Illustrated (subscription required).
A budget alternative
If the USA Pan sells out, the sturdy Chicago Metallic Commercial II Nonstick 9-Inch Round Cake Pan is a good alternative. It baked yellow cake just a hair darker, but not enough to be a dealbreaker. Cakes came out cleanly and the nonstick coating felt durable, but unlike our main pick, it did retain rings of sugar from the cinnamon rolls. It was also recommended to me by Beranbaum. It also comes in an 8-inch size as well as an uncoated version.
If you want lots of size options
If you’re an ambitious baker, you may want to tackle tiered cakes, and you’ll need a wider variety of sizes than just 8, 9, and 10 inches (the 1-inch difference won’t make for very pronounced tiers). Or maybe you dream of making enormous cakes, or tiny, 4-inch cakes for two. For that kind of variety, I’d recommend Parrish Magic Line, which makes pans in every size (the diameter increases by 1-inch increments) between 3 inches and 16 inches, at prices low enough that you can afford to expand your options. We saw Magic Line pans recommended many times in forums like Cake Central, and the 9-inch pan is well-reviewed on Amazon with 4.8 stars out of 147 reviews. Though we found they baked cakes paler than other pans, this can be remedied by an extra few minutes in the oven. Magic Line pans aren’t completely nonstick, but they do release cakes better than Fat Daddio’s, the only other brand to come in so many sizes. It’s safest to line the pan with parchment, but it’s good to know that im a pinch it should work just fine without.
The Cuisinart Easy Grip Bakeware 9-Inch Round Cake Pan was recommended by Tish Boyle and is the only pan with handles, but it wasn’t a full 2 inches deep and baked cakes too dark.
Cook’s Illustrated’s favorite, the Nordic Ware Natural Aluminum NonStick Commercial Round Layer Cake Pan, on the other hand, was too deep and over-browned the top of the cake.
The uncoated Fat Daddio’s Round Cake Pan stuck worse than any other pan.
We tested three different square pans (after eliminating many others), and again, USA Pan made the best: the Aluminized Steel 13 x 9 x 2.25 Inch Rectangular Cake Pan and the Aluminized Steel 8 x 2.25 Inch Square Cake Pan. Like the round USA Pan, a yellow cake baked to an even golden brown and popped out effortlessly when it was done. The pan is sturdy, and the nonstick coating feels durable, and the edges and corners of the cake were clean and sharp.
In our yellow cake test, the cake slid right out of the sturdy 8-inch pan and was an even golden color all the way around. The surface scratched, but not too easily, and we liked the sharp square corners. And both pans are a great price for such heavy-duty quality.
The cake baked in the USA pan came out with the best color of any of them. Both Wilton’s Perfect Results 8-Inch Square pan and Cuisinart’s Easy Grip Square pan made cakes several shades darker than the golden-hued beauty baked in a USA pan. Even the heavy-duty Calphalon pan, which is nearly identical in shape and weight to the USA, turned out a cake that was just a hair too dark, thanks to a darker nonstick coating.
Some may be concerned that the corrugated texture of the USA pan makes for a weird-shaped cake, but those ridges are shallower than they look. It’s true that they leave faint line marks on the bottom and sides, but they’re barely noticeable unless you’re looking for them, and it probably won’t ruin the look of most things you want to bake in this pan.
Like all of USA’s pans, they were highly recommended to me by both Rose Levy Beranbaum and Tish Boyle. Cook’s Illustrated also recommends them, though some of its testers preferred the un-corrugated texture of the more expensive Williams-Sonoma Goldtouch pan. They come with a limited lifetime warranty.
A good option, just more expensive
*At the time of publishing, the price was $21.
If the USA pan sells out, or if you’re really averse to the corrugated texture, go for the Calphalon Nonstick Bakeware, Rectangular Cake Pan, 9-inch by 13-inch (and the corresponding square pan). It is about the same price as the USA pan and has almost exactly the same shape and weight. It will bake cakes with straight sides and perfect corners, and it will release cakes cleanly. Its biggest flaw is that it bakes cakes a little darker than the USA pans, but if you know that, you can aim to pull your cake from the oven a few minutes sooner.
For making layer cakes in many sizes
The sides of the USA pan are slightly flared out, and if you want to make a really perfect square layer cake, it’s better to have a pan with perfectly straight sides. For that, Parrish Magic Line is one of the few brands that makes 8-inch square pans and 9- by 13-inch pans with sides and corners all at sharp right angles. It also makes square and rectangular pans in numerous other sizes, which are great for playing around with tiered cakes. Plus the wide lip jutting out from the rim of these pans makes them easy to pick up and flip over. Just keep in mind that Magic Line pans are uncoated, and it’s best to line them with parchment. The reflective aluminum sides will deflect heat, meaning your cakes may need a few extra minutes in the oven.
Based on their performance in the round cake pan test, we skipped a few pans we would have otherwise tested: Williams-Sonoma’s Goldtouch Nonstick Square and Rectangular are made by USA, and they were the top choice of Cook’s Illustrated, but were too expensive at almost twice the price of the USA pans.
Williams-Sonoma’s Traditionaltouch uncoated pans are less expensive, but they bake a paler cake and don’t come with the ease of nonstick.
Fat Daddio’s makes pans with perfectly straight sides in many, many sizes, but a big chunk of cake got stuck to the round pan we tested.
And the Cuisinart Easy Grip 9-Inch Square Baking Pan, recommended by Tish Boyle, has the same dark sides that over-browned a round cake, and also doesn’t come in an 8-inch size.
Wilton’s Perfect Results square and oblong cake pans could have been a nice option because they were the only pans with handles, plus they’re super affordable at $7 and $9 respectively. But unfortunately that low price translates to a pan made of much thinner metal than the USA or any of the other pans. It was thin enough to overbake the outside of the cake, and to be at risk of denting.
After doing several hours of research and ruling out some loaf pans based on the performance of their round counterparts, we tested five different loaf pans, and USA Pan, the maker of our favorite round and square pans, once again produced the winner: the Aluminized Steel 9 x 5-Inch Loaf Pan. Like the other pans in the USA line, this is a heavy-duty item designed to last. Breads baked evenly, came out easily, and baked up tall and handsome, not squat.
It’s especially important that these pans bake slowly and evenly, because loaf cakes are much thicker than a layer cake, take longer to bake, and are prone to burning. The USA loaf pan turned out the best-shaped of both the banana bread and the sandwich bread. The banana bread had a tall dome with an attractive crack running down the center; when turned out of the pan, the sides of this loaf came up higher than those of the ones baked in Farberware’s Nonstick Bakeware 9 by 5-inch loaf pan, Wilton’s Recipe Right Medium Loaf Pan, or Chicago Metallic’s Commercial II Uncoated 1½ Pound Loaf Pan.
The sandwich bread, meanwhile, came out a beautiful golden brown and had an ideal mushroom shape. Bread baked in the other pans was also a nice golden color, but never achieved that shape. In most, it didn’t crest over the rim to form that mushroom shape—the pan was too wide. And in the Pyrex Basics 1.5-Quart Loaf Dish, which was closer to 8.5 by 4.5 inches than the 9 by 5 inches advertised, it ballooned wildly up and over the sides into a bizarrely top-heavy loaf.
Like USA’s other varieties of pan, the loaf pan has no handles, which could be considered a flaw. We did like the silicone-padded handles on the Farberware pan, but we found the handles on the Pyrex pan and the Wilton pan less useful. Both were stubby and hard to get a grip on while using oven mitts. The Wilton pan is also thinner and flimsier than the USA pan and bakes a darker loaf, while the Farberware pan is one of the widest we tested, making less attractive loaves. It’s not so hard to grip a loaf pan by its sides, and we wouldn’t sacrifice the quality of a loaf for the ease of handles.
Like all USA pans, this one has a lightly corrugated texture, which is supposed to strengthen the pan and help it release things, but which may leave faint lines on your loaves. This is far from a dealbreaker in our opinion, especially since the corrugation really did resist even sticky sugar better than any other pan when we baked cinnamon rolls in our test of round pans. We also don’t mind the appearance of those lines (only visible up close) but if you do, you may want to go with another pan.
Overall, the 9-by-5 loaf pan (and, I’m confident, its smaller 8.5- by 4.5-inch counterpart) is another winner from USA Pan. It comes with that same limited lifetime warranty as all USA pans, and it’s highly recommended by both Boyle and Beranbaum. It also has an excellent 4.8 star rating across 250 reviews on Amazon.
A good option, just more expensive
If the USA loaf pan sells out, or if you really don’t like the corrugation, the Williams-Sonoma Goldtouch Nonstick Loaf Pan is another great option. At $25 plus shipping for the 9- by 5-inch pan, it unfortunately costs $10 more than the USA pan, which is why it’s not our number one choice. But the Williams-Sonoma Goldtouch Nonstick Loaf Pan is actually made by USA Pan, so we know the shape and weight are identical. Williams-Sonoma claims that the Goldtouch coating is more durable, but we don’t think it’s worth the extra money. The coating on the USA pans is also quite strong, and the corrugation helps them resist deep scratches. If you want to avoid nonstick coatings altogether, Williams-Sonoma also sells an uncoated loaf pan, the Traditionaltouch Loaf Pan, again made in the same shape by USA Pan. That one’s somewhat more affordable, but its reflective sides may deflect heat and thus bake paler cakes. The Goldtouch is also a favorite of Cook’s Illustrated; Fine Cooking likes both the Goldtouch and the Traditionaltouch.
The Wilton Recipe Right Medium Loaf Pan is a great price at about $6, but it’s not particularly sturdy and the handles aren’t quite long enough to be a major plus.
The Pyrex Basics 1.5-Quart Loaf Pan is an affordable, time-tested standard and comes recommended by Rose Levy Beranbaum, Fine Cooking, and Cook’s Illustrated. But the handles are too stubby to get a grip on, and it was smaller than a true 9 by 5 inches, plus the glass didn’t bake sandwich bread quite as evenly as any metal pan.
The Chicago Metallic Commercial II Traditional Uncoated 1½ Pound Loaf Pan is a good, sturdy pan, but crumbs stick in the corners and it measures 10 by 5 inches, an inch longer than its competitors, yielding brick-shaped quick breads.
Farberware’s Nonstick Bakeware 9-inch by 5-Inch Loaf Pan is also sturdy, and it has handles that actually work, but its sides flare out wide, again yielding squat loaves.
USA Pan’s Round Layer Cake Pan, Square Cake Pan, and Loaf Pan remain our top picks for their respective use cases after several months of semi-regular activity. We bake something with one of these three shapes at least once a month, and we haven’t encountered any issues so far. We’re confident that these USA Pans are still the best for most people.
(Photos by Michael Hession.)
Originally published: April 11, 2016