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Dark-Colored vs. Light-Colored Pans: When to Use Them

Yes, there is a difference between dark-colored and light-colored pans, and knowing it can make or break your baked goods.

The general rule of thumb is that dark-colored pans yield a darker, harder crust than light-colored pans do.

Dark-colored pans absorb and distribute heat faster and better than their light-colored counterparts, baker and food writer PJ Hamel explains in the Holiday 2016 issue of King Arthur bakery’s Sift magazine.

Basically, this tells you that the sides and bottoms of your baked goods will brown faster in a dark-colored pan than they would in a light-colored pan. But dark-colored pans also make your food crusty—and are quicker to burn it.

Why does that happen, I hear some of you asking?

Because, as they taught us in high-school physics a good 1,000 years ago, dark colors absorb more heat. For the same reasons, if you put on black clothes on hot summer’s day, you’d feel much hotter than if you had put on white.

Contrary to what some of us think, it’s not so much about the material as it is about the color.

(Though it’s good to keep in mind that aluminum and stainless steel pans heat faster than glass or ceramic bakeware, which is why lasagna is best cooked in a ceramic casserole to avoid burning the bottom and sides.)

Sometimes, that dark, hard crust is sought after. Othertimes, not.

For example, you’re looking for that brown, caramelized, exceptionally crispy crust when making Chicago-style or Detroit-style pizza.

That’s not quite the case when you’re baking a cake, and you want it to cook evenly on the inside without coming out overly crusty on the outside.

When to Use Dark- vs. Light-Colored Pans

Dark-Colored PansLight-Colored Pans
CharacteristicsAbsorbs heat faster and distributes it more harshly.Absorbs heat slower and distributes it more gently.
ResultsYields a crispy, dark brown, highly flavorful, crust on baked goods.Bakes your food more evenly, allowing it to cook at the center.
Use forCornbread, pizza pies, and rustic loaves of bread.Cakes, cookies, lasagna, and puff pastry.
SubstitutionTo substitute for a light-colored pan, reduce the temperature by 25°F and the baking time by 5-10 minutes.To substitute for a dark-colored pan, increase the temperature by 25°F and the baking time by 5-10 minutes.

Clearly, the best thing to do is to match your choice of bakeware to the demands of the recipe.

When you want to draw out the moisture from your baked goods and have them form a crispy, flavorful crust, go for a dark-colored pan. In the case that you want your baked goods to stay tender and moist, reach for a light-colored pan.

Use lighter-colored pans for baking cakes, cookies, and lasagna, where you want to keep the bottom and sides from burning. Use darker-colored pans for rustic loaves of bread, pizza pies, and cornbread, where you want to get a browned, flavorsome crust.

Do This If You Don’t Have a Light-Colored Pan

Suppose you only owned dark-colored pans.

Should you run to the local department store to buy a lighter-colored pan or two, or is there some sort of workaround that you can use?

When making a recipe intended for a light-colored pan in a dark-color pan, to lower the temperature of your oven by 25°F and reduce the baking time by 5-10 minutes.

Alternatively, Cook’s Illustrated recommends, you can wrap the exterior of a dark baking pan with aluminum foil, hampering its ability to absorb more heat without needing to tweak your recipe’s time or temperature.

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Written by

Jim is the former editor of Home Cook World. He is a career food writer who's been cooking and baking at home ever since he could see over the counter and put a chair by the stove.