Has anyone else ever gone to buy bake ware, looked at the immense range of options and been utterly overwhelmed? Yeah, me too. There are so many different materials you can bake with (not to mention the variety of styles of cake pans, pie dishes, tart/quiche tins etc) at a range of prices and not all of them are necessarily good to use.
Aluminium has been linked (inconclusively) with neurotoxicity that can lead to Alzheimer’s disease and is known to compete with calcium for absorption; so given my family history of both Alzheimer’s and osteoporosis, this isn’t something I want to play with. In Australia, at least, I had never even come across aluminium cookware, unless it was the core of the base of a sauce pan or fry pan, surrounded by stainless steel. In the US, it’s quite common to get anodized aluminium cookware, such as cake tins and biscuit trays (cookie sheets for you Americans 🙂 ). The first time I saw an aluminium cake tin over here, I was a little shocked; I remembered quite clearly learning about the potential health risks associated with aluminium in my year 8 science class – complete with picture of the Mad Hatter – and couldn’t understand why something that is even remotely likely to cause such serious health issues is still used to bake. I know it’s a great heat conductor and lends itself to evenly baked cakes but shouldn’t health come first?
PFOA (perfluorooctanoic acid), a chemical used in the process of manufacturing the non-stick Teflon coating, has also been associated with health issues (though not conclusively), such as increased rates of certain cancers in lab animals and humans – though only one (polymer fume fever) has been directly linked. How many of us have heard that as soon as the lining has been scratched, we need to throw the pan/tin/whatever away so as not to ingest any of the chemicals? Over-heating the pans, which is surprisingly easy to do, can also cause noxious fumes to be released, and while these are not considered dangerous the long-term effects of regularly breathing in these fumes isn’t known. I’m not very comfortable with using something that is 1) that flimsy and needs regular replacement, 2) could have unseen scratches or patches of heat related decomposition that could flake little bits of the chemical into your food and 3) isn’t rated up to the highest oven temperatures I might bake bread at.
When we first moved to Seattle and stocked up our kitchen, I just bought the general supermarket cake tins (non-stick ones) – because we were both tired of spending so much money on home goods and because I hadn’t used anything else before. I baked with these tins for a couple of years and last year it came to me: we have always said how terrible non-stick fry pans are, so why am I using a non-stick cake tin? A cheap one, too, so the surface is probably even weaker.
I spent some time researching cookware and of course read what I already knew – aluminium is the best heat conductor and is recommended for baking. A cast iron cake pan would be amazing but very hard to come by and even more expensive… those things are heavy. You can also get glass bake ware but a cake pan is over $20 and I like my cook ware to be a little more versatile – I can’t freeze something in glass and send it straight into the oven, as I would before blind-baking pastry or a crumb base. I ended up choosing a stainless steel cake tin for both price and functional reasons but I was a little nervous about how it would perform.
The first time I used it, I made a double batch of my fructose friendly and gluten free banana cake and made the first half into muffins. Not wanting to overload the oven, I filled both the muffin pan and the stainless steel cake tin and cooked the muffins first, as they’d be done in 20 minutes. After baking the muffins I popped the full cake straight into the oven and what resulted was a dense little cake. I was disappointed. After thinking about it, though, I couldn’t blame the stainless steel tin – not yet. I had let it sit for 20 minutes while the muffins baked, so it would have lost some air from being beaten. I needed to find out how much of this was due to it sitting out before cooking and how much was due to the cake tin, so I decided to have a bake off. The results left me pleasantly surprised.
The Bake Off
One of the first things I learnt in my physiotherapy degree was KISS – Keep It Simple, Stupid. So that’s what I did.
Aim: To discover whether a stainless steel cake tin performs worse than, the same as, or better than a non-stick coated steel tin.
Method: Using the same cake recipe to keep things consistent, I made a double batch and transferred half into a greased and lined non-stick coated heavy steel tin and the other half into a greased and lined stainless steel tin. The oven was pre-heated to 180 C/350 F. I placed them both on the bottom rack, closed the door and set the timer for 50 minutes.
- The non-stick cake rose much faster than the stainless steel cake and I was becoming concerned, even at 40 minutes.
- After 50 minutes, neither cake was done – they were testing clean with a skewer but still felt a bit too soft.
- At 55 minutes, the non-stick cake was done and I removed it from the oven.
- At about 62 minutes the stainless steel cake was done and I removed it from the oven.
- Both cakes had risen to about the same level while baking but after sitting out for 15 minutes, when it was time to turn them onto a cooling rack, the non-stick cake had collapsed to being quite flat, whereas the stainless steel cake had retained its dome.
- Stainless Steel Cake – fluffy, very soft and moist. Taste was the same as always… delicious.
- Non-stick Cake – not quite as fluffy (but only just), soft but noticeably drier than the stainless steel cake. Taste was still delicious.
Discussion: Stainless steel is not the best conductor of heat or electricity available today (due to it being an alloy – impurities reduce conductivity – and based on iron, rather than a more conductive metal like copper or aluminium), however this does not mean it cannot reach the same temperatures as other metals – it just takes a bit longer. My neighbour also wondered if the highly polished surface of the stainless steel cake tin reflected heat away from the cake (as the story goes with tin foil), rather than absorbing it into the metal; this is a good point and one which I hadn’t even considered, as my mind was heading off down the path of thermal conductivity.
If a material is lower on the thermal conductivity table – see link above, non-stick coating over heavy steel = approx. 43 W/(m.K), stainless steel = 16 W/(m.K) – it can be assumed it is more of a thermal insulator. Now, stainless steel is by no means a true thermal insulator (think more like bricks, wool and sand – things with trapped air pockets) but it stands to reason that it might have a fraction more insulating properties than the non-stick steel cake tin. Perhaps this slightly reduced rate of heat increase and loss played a role in the increased height retention and moisture within the stainless steel cake – in the photo above you cannot see moisture but you can see that the photos of the cake slices are zoomed in equally from the same angle and the stainless steel slice has clearly retained its dome, where as the non-stick slice has collapsed a little in the middle.
A reader, Cari, brought to my attention another reason that the non-stick cake might have risen very quickly and collapsed as it cooled, while the stainless steel cake did not. The non-stick lining has a lower coefficient of friction than the stainless steel tin – this means that the cake batter in the non-stick tin had less friction (grip) impeding its rise upwards, so it rose much faster than the batter in the stainless steel tin, which had to overcome a greater amount of friction. This worked against the non-stick cake as it cooled, though, as there was nothing for the cake to grip on to to prevent collapse, whereas the stainless steel cake could hold on to the sides of its tin to help retain its height.
Conclusion: For the price – $8, so about double that of the generic non-stick pan – the stainless steel cake tin performed better, albeit with a slightly longer cooking time. I am going to buy another so that I have two and might eventually invest in their muffin tins (I’m not too worried about our non-stick muffin tins as I always use patty pans).
What materials do you like to cook with? I’d love some thoughts and recommendations.