Occasionally, product reviewers at major outlets get so caught up in the fun part of testing—comparing specs, teasing apart the tiny advantages in performance that one product offers over another—that they lose track of what's important: how people actually use these tools at home. Roasting pans are a prime example. There's huge variation in the style of build and the price of roasting pans, ranging from disposable aluminum trays to inexpensive, thin-walled aluminum models, and all the way to triple-clad, stainless steel and copper beasts that cost several hundred dollars. Most published recommendations I've found fall in the higher end of this range. But which pans offer the best value, and, more importantly, which one do you really need?
The latter question is an easy one to answer: You don't need any of them. The vast majority of roasting tasks you'd typically perform in them—roasting turkeys, prime ribs, legs of lamb, and other large cuts or whole beasts—can be performed on a simple roasting rack or wire rack set in a rimmed baking sheet. The combination costs about $40 all-in and, in most cases, actually works better than an expensive roasting pan, as it allows for more even air circulation and transfer of heat energy to the bottom of the roast, resulting in more evenly cooked meat and crisper skin on your poultry.
Let me make that clearer. Here's the problem with roasting a turkey in a roasting pan:
And here's why roasting on a rimmed baking sheet is superior:
Even when you're roasting vegetables, an aluminum baking sheet will give you a faster cooking time, offer more space than a standard roasting pan, trap less steam, and be easier to handle. In my guide to roasting fall vegetables, nearly every single vegetable is roasted on an aluminum baking sheet (and none are roasted in a roasting pan). It's what I do almost all of my roasting on.
So why would you need a roasting pan at all? There are a few rare occasions when a roasting pan offers some clear advantages. If you plan on roasting potatoes or other vegetables in the drippings underneath your meat, you might want that extra volume. For these tasks, even the most inexpensive disposable aluminum pan does a perfectly fine job—no need for that pricey model here.
The one place where it really comes in handy, though, is on the stovetop. A good roasting pan can be placed over two burners, allowing you to brown large amounts of meat if, say, you're braising short ribs for a crowd or you want to put a brown sear on a whole pork loin. It'll also let you simultaneously construct a sauce while roasting your meat, as in my Prime Rib With Red Wine Jus technique. For these tasks, those disposable pans won't work. You'll need a real roasting pan, with sturdy construction and handles. But is triple-clad construction necessary? Not really.
Clad construction—typically two layers of stainless steel sandwiching a core of aluminum or copper—is most useful for sauté pans and skillets, whose primary functions are sautéing and searing. The outer stainless steel layers have a high volumetric heat capacity, meaning that they can hold on to a large amount of energy, delivering it to your food as you add it. Aluminum is a great heat conductor, which means that your pan will heat more evenly, without developing hot and cool spots.
A stovetop has built-in hot spots due to the shape of the burners or heating elements. An oven, on the other hand, doesn't have this problem. This means that when you're using your roasting pan for roasting—you know, its primary function?—clad construction is completely superfluous. It's like buying my grandfather a smartphone even though all he uses it for is to make calls—a task that his old Nokia brick did just fine.
If you really plan on searing lots of meat on the direct flames of your stovetop, you can pony up for a triple-clad model. For the rest of us, frankly, during the short periods of stovetop use your roasting pan is gonna see, occasionally moving it around to even out those hot spots is easy enough. Some folks say that a roasting pan is essential for deglazing drippings from a roast to turn into a sauce or a gravy. The tall sides certainly help a bit with this endeavor, but I've been deglazing and constructing sauces in rimmed aluminum baking sheets for decades (including at every restaurant I've ever worked for).
So where does that leave us? If you, like most folks, are only going to roast a few times a year, get yourself that wire rack or roasting rack and rimmed baking sheet combo, and buy a disposable aluminum pan when you really need it. I don't recommend those thin-walled, semi-disposable pans with the brown-or-gray-specked-with-white paint job. They don't perform any better than a disposable aluminum pan and take up lots of kitchen cabinet real estate when not in use (which, let's be honest, is pretty much all the time).
If you roast a little more frequently, a well-constructed, heavy-duty, single-clad stainless steel pan with riveted handles is all you need for a lifetime of good roasting. A number of pans fit the bill, but the Cuisinart Chef's Classic 16-Inch Rectangular Roaster is the most inexpensive one I've found. It's not as heavy as a triple-clad roaster, and hey, it even achieved the admirable rating of "not recommended" in a Cook's Illustrated ranking, but in my book, it does everything a good roaster should do, no more, no less.
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