How to Build a Sheet-Pan Dinner

Steak fajitas sheet-pan dinner, ready at the table on the sheet-tray with accompaniments and toppings in bowls on the side

[Photographs: Vicky Wasik]

Stop by my apartment most nights and you'll often find me cooking dinner on sheet pans in the oven. A typical meal might include chicken thighs crisping on one foil-lined quarter-sheet tray while chunks of kabocha squash roast on another. Or maybe you'll peek into the oven to find skin-on salmon fillets blistering under the broiler along with a batch of roast carrots. I love a good sheet-pan dinner, but I don't live the #sheetpanlife.

I'm not one of those sheet-pan-dinner enthusiasts who scans Instagram and Pinterest in search of increasingly convoluted ideas for how to jam an entire meal onto a baking sheet just to prove it can be done. As with most people, my reliance on sheet-pan dinners comes down to their convenience. I have a toddler to feed and limited time to cook each night, so tossing a bunch of stuff in the oven until it's done and calling it dinner is very appealing. The results are simple, but they're also tasty. And if I want anything more involved than that, I'm happy to get out a pot, a skillet, a sheet pan, whatever, to get the job done.

Recently, though, my colleagues tasked me with writing up a general guide for sheet-pan cooking, along with a handful of recipes to go with this guide. I was worried, at first, that I wouldn't have much wisdom to share on this subject. But then I spent some time pondering the cooking method and tinkering with recipe ideas, and now I have a bit more to say about sheet-pan dinners. Some of it builds on the attitude that I came into the project with—I still believe sheet-pan dinners are, more than anything else, about ease and convenience—but I have also opened my mind more to the fun and challenge of it.

That's because the act of orchestrating a more complex recipe on a single sheet pan requires a good deal of cooking intuition and technical skill. Different foods cook at different rates and often require different degrees of heat input, so the more you try to do, the harder it gets. At a certain point, it usually ends up being easier to cook the various components of a meal separately, even if it means you have a few more dishes to wash. Tying it all together on a single tray demands a much greater degree of coordination, space management, and understanding of how different ingredients cook. Just figuring out how to make it all work can be a cooking lesson unto itself.

So here's my advice on how to approach sheet-pan dinners and the key techniques and considerations to getting the best possible results.

The Rules of Sheet Pan Dinners

Rule 1: Ask Why You're Cooking it This Way

Putting marinated chicken on baking sheet under broiler

"Just because you can doesn't mean you should." "When all you have is a hammer, every problem looks like a nail." How many clichés can I throw at this thing? Look, the bottom line is that there's no need to cook a sheet-pan dinner for its own sake. Do it if it makes sense.

What determines if it makes sense? To me, the main answer is ease and convenience. I know how seductive sheet-pan dinners can look on social media, a single tray loaded with beautifully roasted vegetables and proteins, haphazardly strewn with fresh herbs and those oh-so-perfectly caramelized lemon halves to squeeze over the whole thing. It speaks to something we all want, a carefully crafted nonchalance where we pretend to casually toss food in the oven and a photo shoot–worthy meal comes out the other end. "Who me?" says the cook coyly as their aluminum-framed masterpiece is presented on a reclaimed-wood table, perfectly lit by a nearby window's late-afternoon glow. "Oh, this is just a simple thing I whipped up, hadn't given it a minute's thought."

But, of course, they did! Those lemon halves couldn't have browned so deeply and evenly, those carrots couldn't have reached that level of sweetness and tenderness, those chicken breasts couldn't have gotten so crispy-skinned and juicy-fleshed, if the process hadn't been timed with absolute precision. You can't just chuck a pile of food on a rimmed half-sheet and have it come out looking like that.

So why cook a sheet-pan dinner? I see two main reasons:

  • You want a largely hands-off cooking process: By moving the food to the oven, there's less for the cook to do. That's because the primary mode of cooking in the oven is convection, in which the energy transfers to the food via hot air. Compare that to the conductive heating of stovetop cooking in which the food cooks through direct contact with a hot vessel's surface. Conduction is more efficient than convection, but that also means you need to babysit it more, stirring the contents of the pot and tending to the roasting proteins in the skillet, to make sure everything cooks evenly and nothing burns. Put the food in the oven and, sure, you may need to stir it from time to time but not nearly as often as a stovetop method would require. (Want to learn more about the science of heat transfer? Read our article on it here.)
  • You want some relatively easy cleanup: Restricting all cooking to the oven also contains mess. A fat- and drip-spattered stovetop requires an immediate scrubbing, while an oven's interior only needs to be cleaned periodically. And a single sheet tray is easier to wash than multiple pots and pans; if you line that tray with foil first, while admittedly wasteful, you may get away with not having to wash the sheet tray at all.

If a sheet-pan recipe overly compromises either of these benefits, it stops making much sense. Exactly where to draw that line is harder to define, but generally speaking, if the recipe calls for a dishwasher's worth of mixing bowls, tools, and appliances outside of the sheet pan itself and forces you to stand guard by the oven door for every second of the cooking process, I'd start to question whether it should have been a sheet-pan dinner in the first place.

Rule 2: Just Because it's Been Cooked on a Sheet Pan Doesn't Make It a "Sheet-Pan Dinner"

Slow-roasted pork shoulder ready to be finished under high heat.

Cooking a single thing on a sheet tray, like this pork shoulder, is not enough to make it a "sheet-pan dinner."

Before going any further with the rules, let's first define what a sheet-pan dinner is. I hadn't realized this rule would even be necessary until I looked at a lot of sheet-pan dinner recipes online and saw how many BS their way into the category merely by virtue of being cooked on a sheet pan. But that can't possibly be all that defines a sheet-pan dinner.

To my mind, a sheet-pan dinner requires that more than one component be produced in the oven on a sheet-pan or similar vessel. If you mix up a meatloaf and cook it on a sheet pan instead of in a loaf pan, that is not a sheet-pan dinner, it's just a sheet-pan meatloaf. Same goes for sheet-pan gratins, sheet-pan mac-and-cheese (yes, this exists), and more. Those are all cop-outs that rely on an easy swap of cooking vessels to justify a "sheet-pan" recipe title and make it possible to write enticing internet headlines like, Our Favorite 5,767 Sheet-Pan Dinner Recipes, where 5,743 of them are just there to pad the number.

To make any of these true sheet-pan dinners, they need other components. The meatloaf needs to come with some kind of side, which can be as simple as baked potatoes.

Of course, I'm not saying you have to prepare extra food just to achieve this admittedly arbitrary designation; you should make whatever you want for dinner. One of my most frequent at-home meals is a protein cooked on a sheet pan in the oven and a salad to eat with it. But in my mind, that's not enough to make it a true sheet-pan dinner.

Rule 3: Think About Your Equipment

An eight-sheet pan with a roasted red bell pepper on it

A small eighth-sheet pan is one-quarter the size of a standard half-sheet pan. It, along with quarter-sheets and sizzle platters, are important tools in sheet-pan dinner success.

The term "sheet-pan" dinner obscures an important detail: You don't need to cook it all on one sheet pan. A rimmed* baking sheet, just so we're all on the same page, is more officially called a rimmed half-sheet pan (full sheet pans are too large to fit in home ovens but are common in commercial kitchens). But there are more sizes! There are quarter-sheet pans, two of which equal the area of a half-sheet pan, and there are eighth-sheet pans and sizzle platters, and, of course, there are oven-safe skillets in all shapes and sizes (is a one-skillet dinner all that different, conceptually, from a sheet-pan dinner? Only in that it may spend some time on the stovetop). And there is absolutely no reason not to consider all of these vessels to be at your disposal when embarking on a sheet-pan dinner.

*Those rims are important; if you use a rimless cookie sheet, juices are going to spill all over your oven floor.

No rules are violated by using two quarter-sheets to cook your food instead of a single half-sheet. It's the same surface area, the same amount of washing up after, just divided in two, kind of like those ninja weapons that can be wielded as a single staff or broken in two when it's time to go into full-on kick-ass mode.

The advantage of giving yourself the option of using multiple smaller trays instead of limiting yourself to a single larger one is it solves one of the bigger challenges of sheet-pan dinners: the use of space and timing. If you're roasting chicken thighs on one quarter-sheet while your vegetables cook on another, you can pull each from the oven when they are ready. Insist on putting them on the same baking sheet, and you now have to figure out how to get them both to their ideal levels of doneness while sharing space. That's harder.

Rule 4: Know Your Oven

An oven thermometer is essential for ensuring your oven runs true to temp

An oven-thermometer should be in every oven in the land. Otherwise, you have no way of knowing if your oven is true to temp or not.

This is a big one. One of the eye-opening things about working as a recipe developer with a company that has its own test kitchen is it gives me the opportunity to test my recipes in more than one oven. In the Serious Eats test kitchen alone, we have a double-wall oven as well as two free-standing ranges, all of them electric. At home, I have an oven that's gas-heated with a gas broiler. I also did some testing at my in-laws' place over the holidays, so I got to work their oven into the mix as well.

And you know what I've found over and over and over again? It's almost impossible for any recipe to account for the wide-ranging performance among ovens and broilers. It can be deeply frustrating, in fact. This is a challenge for all recipes, but sheet-pan dinners, with their extra-delicate balance of temperature, timing, and oven settings can really exacerbate the problem.

What to do? Well, first, make sure you keep an eye on your oven calibration. Ovens are notoriously uneven in their heating cycles, powering on and off in an attempt to maintain the selected temperature and often causing heat spikes and dips in the process. Beyond that, many ovens are plagued by temperature inaccuracies. At my in-laws, the oven ran more than 150°F below the target temperature, making it difficult to achieve consistent results. It doesn't matter if your oven is new or old, high-end or budget, chances are decent that it's not calibrated properly.

Skirt steaks on a rimmed sheet pan under an oven's hot broiler element; the oven rack is in its highest position

Broilers can vary significantly in performance. Know yours, and adjust accordingly.

Even if you know your oven runs true to temp, performance can still vary a ton. Broilers can run the gamut from infernally hot to completely impotent. I've had more than one recipe overcook while I waited for the broiler to, well, broil, while others burned in just a few unattended seconds. Not to mention that some ovens have the broiler element built into the main chamber of the oven itself while others have broilers that are separate pull-out drawers on the bottom of the unit, which changes how you use it and what you can put into it. No recipe can account for all of this.

Get familiar with your oven and learn to make whatever adjustments are necessary, so that the recipe will work in your home. No recipe can do that for you.

Rule 5: Establish Your Recipe Goals

Okay, so we've defined our terms, set our general objectives, and paid mind to our equipment. Now it's time to cook. This is where things get interesting, and tricky, and fun.

Let's say you're not following a recipe, but instead, want to improvise a dinner. The first thing you need to do is think about what you're cooking and what your goals are for it all. Is your salmon skin-on, and do you want to get that skin crispy? You're probably going to need to employ your broiler. Or are you working with a skinless fillet that you want to cook more gently? Maybe a lower oven temp is in order.

a collage showing salmon cooked at different oven temperatures, with and without the broiler

Decisions around oven temperature and whether or not to use the broiler will lead to significantly different results. The broiled salmon here has blistered and crispy skin, while the fillets cooked in a lower-temp oven have been more gently cooked; the skin may not be crispy, but the flesh will likely be more tender and delicate.

Ah, but what are you serving with the salmon? Does it need to brown and crisp, or is gentle cooking a better option? And do all of those objectives align—can you accomplish one goal without sacrificing the others? And if they are at odds, can you think of ways to pull it off anyway? That might mean starting with a lower oven temperature and then switching to broiler mode only at the end to quickly brown and crisp the surface of things. Or it may mean adding and removing some of the ingredients at different times, so that none are ruined by the needs of another. Or it may be some combination of those options.

A comparison of carrots cut to different sizes but cooked in the same oven at the same temperature. The smaller pieces are burnt while the larger ones have barely browned.

How you cut your ingredients will have a direct impact on how they cook. Take these carrots as an example: The ones on the tray on the left were cooked at a lower temperature, while the ones on the right were cooked in a hot oven. The lower-temp oven didn't do much beyond steam the carrots, regardless of size (except for a tiny bit around the edges), while the hot oven browned them deeply. The finely cut carrots, though, clearly burned all over while the larger pieces have a deep but delicious-looking level of browning. You need to factor this in when deciding on how to go about your sheet-pan cooking process.

There are no easy answers here. There are too many ingredients cut to too many sizes and too many oven temperatures and timing options in far too many combinations to offer any concrete guidance. So this is where you get to exercise your mental muscle as a cook, thinking through your goals and what you know about how heat interacts with different foods, and then come up with a plan that attempts to accomplish all of those goals as efficiently and effectively as possible. Give yourself the opportunity to think through a sheet-pan puzzle and the space to make some mistakes. You will come out the other end a much better cook.

Roasted cauliflower florets on a rimmed baking sheet

Cauliflower florets brown at high heat as long as they're not overcrowded.

Let's look at some specific examples. In my sheet-pan cauliflower and tofu recipe, I worked with a high oven temperature that would brown the cauliflower and the tofu quickly, developing deep-roasted flavor without turning the cauliflower to farty, sulfurous mush (a big risk when roasting brassicas at lower temps) or dehydrating the tofu to a crisp.

Crispy and browned tofu on the baking sheet

By cooking the tofu separately from the cauliflower, each had the time and space to brown properly.

But I also cooked them separately. This was to avoid crowding the sheet pan. Had I attempted to cook them all at once the high-moisture cauliflower and tofu would have been piled up on each other without enough space to properly roast and brown, leading to steamy and overcooked results. Separating them also added an efficiency to the recipe: You could prep one while the other was cooking, saving on overall cooking time.

Roasted cauliflower and tofu with ginger-yogurt in a shallow bowl

The cauliflower and tofu come together on the finished plate.

Compare that to my roasted chicken thighs with potato-fennel gratin. For this recipe, I wanted the chicken thighs to cook through fully and the skin to brown and crisp while the thinly sliced potatoes and fennel beneath them become soft and tender without excessive browning and crisping.

Potatoes and fennel are layered on a sheet pan, then chicken thighs go on top.

The raw chicken thighs go right on top of the potatoes and fennel, and they all roast together.

I ended up cooking it all together on the baking sheet from the beginning, arranging the thighs so that they shield the potatoes from the most intense heat (more on that below). Then I remove the chicken and finish the gratin under the broiler with a grating of cheese on top, just until melted and browned in spots.

Roast chicken thighs with potato and fennel gratin on the table, ready to eat

Every sheet-pan dinner is a dance, and the fun part is figuring out the steps.

Rule 6: Think About Architecture, Consider the Ring of Fire

Zucchini rounds spread evenly over a baking sheet: the ones on the perimeter are much more darkly browned than the ones in the center, showing how heat is not evenly distributed on a baking sheet.

How you use the space on your sheet pan is critically important. That's because the sheet pan doesn't heat evenly all over. Just look at the zucchini slices I roasted on a sheet pan in the above image as an example. The ones around the perimeter are much more darkly browned than the ones in the center, reflecting what I like to call the ring of fire.

This is something you need to be aware of. If you are, you can use it to your advantage. Going back to my sheet-pan chicken thigh recipe mentioned above, it was no accident that I arranged the thighs on top of the potato gratin around the perimeter of the sheet tray. On the sides, they absorbed the brunt of the oven heat for maximum crispy skin while protecting the potatoes and fennel around the perimeter below them, which would have otherwise burned. While the exposed potatoes and fennel in the center did brown, they didn't burn since they were in the lowest-heat area of the baking sheet.

Every sheet-pan recipe you cook should include a consideration of which ingredients you might want to arrange around the periphery and which you might want to keep in the center. In some cases, if you want even browning, you may need to grab a spatula and move the ingredients around, transferring the pieces in the center to the edges and the edges to the center, so that everything gets its turn in the hot zone.

A comparison of two ways of arranging chicken and vegetables on a sheet tray: at left, the vegetables are spread in an even layer and the chicken sits on top around the perimeter; at right, the chicken is again around the perimeter but the vegetables are piled up in the middle.

Two attempts at arranging chicken thighs and vegetables on a sheet tray. The arrangement at left ended up being far better, allowing moisture to escape more quickly from the thinner, more even layer of vegetables, and the chicken skin to brown and crisp fully.

That said, it's not always obvious how to best arrange the food on a sheet pan to exploit the ring of fire. I was initially confident, for instance, that if I piled up my potato and fennel gratin in the center of the sheet pan and left the perimeter bare for the chicken thighs, I would not only get the chicken skin crispy while protecting the gratin ingredients, but I'd also get some nice fond under the chicken that I could then deglaze for a simple sauce. But it didn't work out like that: The taller pile of vegetables trapped too much moisture and ended up flooding the sheet tray with vegetable juices that steamed the chicken and produced the worst-case sheet-pan scenario.

Outside of that particular example, there are dozens of ways to play with the architecture of your sheet-pan dinner. Here are a few:

  • Use More Than One Sheet Tray: This repeats one of the rules above, but it's worth including here, too. Using more than one sheet tray to separate ingredients is, in effect, a different architectural solution to the sheet-tray puzzle. Keep it in mind.
  • Create Dividers: If you want to work on a single sheet tray but maintain a more strict division between meal components, you can create dividers out of aluminum foil that will section off the sheet tray however you wish.
  • Create Steam Pouches: Why limit yourself to small walls of foil? If you want to steam something, you can wrap it up in a foil or parchment package on the sheet tray to trap moisture and create a steam compartment, while leaving room for other ingredients to cook in the dry oven heat.
  • Use Wire Racks: Sometimes it's better to elevate your food off the baking-sheet floor, so that the hot air can envelop it from all sides. Cooking on top of a wire rack is ideal for this, but don't limit yourself to racks sized to fit an entire half-sheet. If you also stock up on a couple of racks designed for quarter-sheet trays you can use them on a larger half-sheet tray to create a single area for elevated foods while other stuff cooks directly on the sheet tray. One thing to note: During my testing, I tried to use a rack to raise proteins above food that was cooking directly below it, but it didn't work since the wire-rack legs are too short to lift the food high enough above whatever is below.

Those are just a few examples of how to manipulate space on a baking sheet. What else can you dream up?

Rule 7: Hedge With High-Heat-Tolerant Proteins

Salmon cooked at different temperatures in the oven

Salmon tends to be an oilier fish that, even if cooked through more fully as in the bottom photo, will still be tasty. Not all fish and meats are so forgiving.

You can make a sheet-pan dinner using just about any type of meat or seafood, but some are far more forgiving than others. Chicken thighs are more forgiving than lean breasts; oily salmon has a wider margin of error than dryness-prone cod; and fattier cuts of beef and pork will give you more room for error than lean tenderloin.

Your best bets are relatively quick-cooking cuts (that is, ones that don't require a low-and-slow roast or braise to become tender) that still have enough fat on them to keep them tasty and juicy even if they stay in the oven for a little too long.

This is why most of the sheet-pan dinners I make at home center around chicken legs and thighs and richer fish like salmon, Tasmanian sea trout, and arctic char. Given that you're often trying to cook more than one ingredient at a time, a more forgiving protein will do you a lot of favors, especially if you're aiming for crispy skin through the convection heat of an oven and the radiant heat of a broiler alone.

Rule 8: Some Forms of Browning Are Possible, But Not All

Chicken fajitas showing browning from a baking steel below

These chicken thighs cooked on a baking sheet that had been set over a preheated baking steel. The extra heat, pumped up through the floor of the baking sheet from the baking steel, allowed for much more profound searing on the bottom of the chicken. A baking sheet alone, even if preheated, could not accomplish this.

More often than not, one of the main things you'll want to accomplish with a sheet-pan dinner is developing a good "sear" on your food, which can be difficult when you're not relying on the conduction of heat straight from a screaming hot pan into your food on the stovetop. An aluminum sheet-pan, because it's so thin, is often not up to the task—even if you preheat the sheet-tray before adding your ingredients, you frequently only get a marginal bump in browning power before the room-temp, water-rich food lowers the heat of the metal and cuts off its browning power. It's the exact opposite of something like a cast-iron skillet, which can retain heat much more effectively even after the food has gone into the pan.

What to do? You have a few options:

  • Preheat the Baking Sheet: Okay, I just wrote that this doesn't work that well, but that doesn't mean it's a useless step. Getting your sheet tray hot in the oven before putting your food on it can help with browning, depending on what you're cooking. Halved Brussels sprouts or cauliflower florets are small enough that, assuming you don't overcrowd the baking sheet, will likely brown better on a pre-heated sheet than a cold one. More massive and moist foods like beef or chicken are less likely to get much of a benefit since they'll cool the sheet pan down well before it heats their surfaces to browning levels. And for anyone who's curious, my tests revealed that doubling up by stacking baking sheets didn't help overcome this.
  • Use Your Broiler: If browning from contact with the baking sheet is sometimes unlikely, your broiler is often your next best bet (assuming it's powerful enough; see "Know Your Oven" above.) Switching on the broiler to get a final blast of intense heat or to cook a piece of fish from start to finish with the goal of crispy skin is often the way to go.
  • Break Out a Baking Steel or Stone: If you own a baking steel or pizza stone, you can lean on their ability to store and deliver heat that the baking sheet alone can't. I offered this as an option in my sheet-pan fajitas recipe since it's the most effective way to sear a piece of meat on a thin aluminum baking sheet in the oven.

Even with all of these options, you still need to be realistic. Can you get a sear on a piece of meat or roast vegetables until they're deliciously browned? Yes. Can you fry a potato pancake on a baking sheet until it's evenly golden all over? That's much, much less likely.

Rule 9: Get Creative

Photo collage of sauce process: Browning the remaining juices on the baking sheet, then deglazing with beer, and finally stirring in the mustard

While a little fussy, a sheet-pan sauce is just one example of how to get creative without adding much extra work or dishes.

There's plenty to consider with just the plain old nuts and bolts of a sheet-pan recipe: how to brown, how to manage space, etc. But there's also plenty of room for creativity.

In my chicken thigh and potato-and-fennel gratin recipe, I decided to deglaze the pan after cooking to make a quick pan sauce with beer and mustard. It was, admittedly, a somewhat fussy extra step, but it didn't require any extra cookware, and deglazing the baking sheet gets you that much closer to cleaning it anyway. Plus, I wanted to see if it could be done. The answer was yes, and it opens up a fun avenue for future sheet-pan exploration.

In another recipe, this time for baked salmon with a burst cherry tomato and eggplant compote, I used the sheet pan to make what is effectively a vegetable stew, not all that unlike a ratatouille. I'd generally consider something so stewy to be better suited to a saucepan or Dutch oven, but it turned out to be very easy to pull it off on a sheet pan.

Sliced garlic is added to the middle of the sheet tray after initially roasting the tomatoes.

The key was to start with the tomatoes first, giving them enough to begin to split in the oven's heat. Then I added the garlic, but, being attentive to the ring of fire and the need to not let the garlic scorch, I placed it in the center of the tomatoes, where it could sizzle more gently.

Adding eggplant to the sheet tray alongside the crushed tomato mixture.

Eventually, the eggplant goes onto the sheet tray to roast before mixing it all together with some gochujang (Korean chili paste) for flavor and water to loosen it just enough. One of the cool benefits of the method is that the ample surface area of the sheet tray leads to more surface browning, so the vegetables take on a depth of flavor more quickly than they would have in a pot on the stovetop. The result is a sweeter, richer vegetable "stew" in no time.

Sheet-pan salmon with tomato-eggplant compote on serving plates

Beyond that, fresh herbs are always a welcome garnish for sheet-pan recipes, showered over top after cooking (I know I took a pot shot at them before in my griping about sheet-pan images on social media, but that doesn't mean using fresh herbs isn't a good idea). A wide range of readily available condiments is also a power move for adding tons of flavor with little to no in-the-moment effort. The gochujang that I stirred into my tomato and eggplant compote is one example, but it goes way beyond that. Try spooning some homemade or store-bought XO sauce, chili crisp, romesco sauce, pesto, mayonnaise, aioli, and more onto your sheet-pan dinner after it comes out of the oven, or offer it table-side for everyone to add to their own servings.

Rule 10: Ditch the Recipes!

As a professional recipe developer, I'll be the first to argue for the value of a recipe. It can be instructive, and it can inspire. Recipes help us come up with dinner menu ideas we might not have thought of on our own and show us various ways to accomplish them. But, going back to rule number one in this sheet-pan manifesto, a big part of what makes a sheet-pan dinner so appealing is the ease and convenience. Oftentimes, the simple act of following a recipe is cumbersome—you have to plan it out, first picking the recipe, then going shopping for the ingredients, and finally following along, step-by-step, until you eventually have dinner on the table.

Sure, I've written some recipes to illustrate many of the main points I've outlined above, and I believe they're worth using either as inspiration or as something you follow closely. But sheet-pan dinners, at their heart, are most appropriate when you don't feel like doing all that planning. I mean, isn't that the point? To make dinner easy? So use recipes and learn from them, but then cut yourself free! Your best sheet-pan dinners may be the ones you invent yourself.