Growing up, I’d begin our Thanksgiving ritual with a trip down to the furnace room to retrieve my mother’s roasting pan: dark-blue speckled enamel, deep, and wide enough for a large turkey, but light enough to lift with one hand. I’m the one cooking the turkey now, and while I often see those blue pans at tag sales, I’m not tempted to get one, despite the tug of nostalgia they produce.
I love the idea that you can cook well with an inexpensive piece of equipment, but I think in the case of a roasting pan, heavy-duty construction is key. Unfortunately, heavy-duty doesn’t come at tag-sale prices. But you shouldn’t pay a lot for a pan that will stay in the basement for most of the year. Investing in a well-designed, beautifully crafted pan can make roasting the Thanksgiving turkey easier, and can also allow you to:
- roast meats, poultry, and even fish
- make great gravy or pan sauces
- braise meats, poultry, and vegetables
- roast potatoes and other vegetables
- bake big batches of lasagne, enchiladas, shepherd’s pie, or cobbler
- use the pan as a water bath for baking custards or soufflés.
Before you decide on a pan, you’ll need to think about how you cook so you’ll know which specific features can make a difference to you. I thought about what I really wanted from a pan, and I also talked to several of our contributors to find out what they value in a roasting pan.
The heavier the better, as long as you can lift it The first feature that everyone mentioned was heft. Not heavy for heavy’s sake, mind you, since in many cases you’ll be lifting the pan along with a multi-pound roasted something. You want good heft for two reasons: you don’t want a hot and heavily loaded pan to warp, twist, or flex; and you do want even heat distribution so your precious drippings don’t burn during roasting and saucemaking.
These criteria point to a couple of metal choices: heavy-weight stainless or copper. Enamel-coated cast iron is hefty, but too much so; the pan would just weigh too much to be practical. Regular aluminum has the potential to react with acidic ingredients, and it seems to warp more, even in heavy form. Anodized aluminum can be good, but the dark interior wouldn’t be my first choice, as I discuss below.
Nonstick is not an advantage. My preference in cookware is not nonstick (except my omelet pan). This is partly out of habit and partly out of performance concerns: if you want to deglaze (and for most roasts, you will), you need a surface that encourages the juices to adhere and develop deep flavors. Nonstick does precisely the opposite.
And most nonstick is pretty dark (as is anodized aluminum). A light surface helps you to judge the character of any juices (are they getting too dark? is the chicken juice running clear yet?). I suppose if you’re using the pan to bake a mega batch of potato-and-cheese gratin, you may have a few more scrubbing issues, but none of the cooks I talked to was a nonstick booster, for the same reasons I gave.
The biggest is not the best. I want the pan big enough to accommodate the largest item I’m going to roast, and by accommodate I mean allow the food (most likely a 14-pound turkey) to fit in the pan without touching the sides and with enough space for air to circulate and brown the undersides. I also want the pan large enough to work as a water bath for eight ramekins. But I don’t want it so big that when I roast a chicken or a pork loin there’s so much exposed pan surface that the juices will burn. (If I’m roasting something very small, I’ll just use a heavy skillet.) I fill any empty space in a larger pan by tossing in a few vegetables and hardy herbs. A more moderate size will also make the pan more appropriate to use for a shepherd’s pie or a cobbler. I’d go with something about 16 x 13 inches. Before you decide on size, measure your oven: some wall ovens are surprisingly small.
Side height is critical, too: too low and you risk sloshing your hot liquid when braising or using the pan as a water bath; too high and the hot air can’t get to the lower areas of your food during roasting. Three-inch sides seem a good compromise.
Think about shape. I’d choose a rectangular shape with rounded corners (so a whisk can reach in easily). Oval roasters are pretty and they work well with oval roasts, but they’re usually not capacious enough for roasting two chickens side by side or six Cornish hens, or for fitting in a whole batch of crème caramel.
The last big design feature you need to make a choice on is the handles. Given that in many cases I’ll be lifting this roasting pan, loaded with a multi-pound cargo, out of a 500°F oven, my choice would be for a pan with thick, riveted, fixed handles rather than the sliding “bale” style. The fixed handles take more depth for storage, however. I’d also look for a model with a bit of flare to the rim so that I could crimp foil over the top when braising or cooking casseroles.
Racks are controversial
A related question that always comes up around roasting pans is “Do you need a rack, too?”
Molly Stevens (Fine Cooking contributing editor): “I was converted to using a rack for poultry after I read Lucia Watson and Beth Dooley’s article “Roast Chicken Made Better, Start to Finish”. The rack not only keeps the underside of the skin from getting flabby, but somehow the drippings stay clearer, and the fat is much easier to skim off…it’s kind of weird, but it’s true.”
Mark Bittman (author of How to Cook Everything, Macmillan): “The real issue in roasting pans for me is the rack — you want air circulating under whatever you’re roasting or you’re not really roasting it. And you want those drippings to drip.”
Jim Peterson (Fine Cooking contributing editor and author of Vegetables, William Morrow): “I don’t use a rack because I find that it often sticks to the food. Also, without the mass of the food to absorb heat, the roasting pan itself gets very hot and the early juices can evaporate too much and burn. I give my roasts a little bit of loft by setting them on a few quartered onions or carrots. But I did notice a cool thing in a cookware store recently: a flat rack-type thing with handles that you lay under the turkey, not to lift it off the pan during roasting, but to use to lift it out of the pan when it’s done.”