While pizza stones are pretty popular, they have their drawbacks: they're bulky, heavy, and a little pricey. How does a cheaper, thinner, lighter aluminum pizza pan compare?
The pizza pan I used for this test was 14 inches in diameter and had a bit of raised edge, but otherwise was nothing special. It's made from medium gauge aluminum (about the thickness of a standard cookie sheet), and can be found online or in restaurant supply stores for just a few bucks.
I had never cooked pizza on this pan before this test—I'd only used it for serving pies, so I didn't know what to expect before I started.
With a pan this thin, there's really no point in preheating it in the oven like you would a stone. I let the empty oven preheat at 550°F for an hour before I slid the pan—and pizza—into the oven.
Because a pizza cooked on an aluminum pan doesn't get the thermal boost that a pre-heated stone offers, I expected right off the bat that it would take longer to bake. Still I checked the pie after eight minutes (that's how long an identical pizza took to bake on a stone). The top of the pizza was obviously undercooked, cheese just beginning to melt in the center. The underside of the pizza was pale. It was pretty obviously underdone, so I snapped a few photos and popped it back into the oven.
Two minutes later, a quick peek showed that it was still underdone. Finally, at around 14 minutes, it had achieved a similar level of browning that the stone had achieved in just 8. But how did the flavor compare?
The outer portions of the pizza crust weren't bad—crisp and flavorful. But beyond that, it was a little disappointing. It wasn't undercooked, but it had a texture that my husband described as "doughy." I've enjoyed pizzas with crusts ranging from cracker-crisp to thick and fluffy, but this had more in common with an English muffin pizza that anything else I can compare it to. On the plus side, the bottom was crisper than I expected—not at all soggy—but that wasn't enough to make the crust a complete success.
I'm gonna let Kenji explain a little bit about why the crust might have come out thicker:
"It's odd, because you'd actually expect the opposite. A pizza baked on a heated stone should experience more oven spring—the initial rapid inflation of bubbles in the dough from the heat of the oven—as a pie baked on a stone with more thermal mass. When you place a pizza on a stone, the gluten in the flour is still relaxed and raw, making it much easier to stretch. Air bubbles and steam pockets inside the dough expand rapidly, causing the bubbles to balloon outwards. Eventually, the gluten cooks, and gets fixed into that shape. On an aluminum pan, however, the heating is more gradual. By the time the air pockets start to expand significantly, the gluten has already begun to set, making it much harder to get it to rise properly. The result is a doughier, under-risen crust.
"As for why your crust ended up thicker than the stone-baked pizza? I'd guess that it probably has more to do with the amount of time it sat in contact with the sauce before it was completely baked. Because it took so much longer to cook through, a lot of the sauce could have soaked into the dough, making it thicker, and soggier. Of course, this is just a conjecture for now—more testing is in order!"
I can see why pizza pans might have gained some popularity in terms of ease of use. Since you build the pizza in the pan that you bake on, the new baker doesn't have to worry about dealing with a pizza peel and transferring the unbaked pie to a stone. Cleanup is easy, too—no peel to dust off, no cornmeal on the pizza stone, and unless your pizza is seriously messy, all drips are contained in the pan.
Despite the ease of use, the crust wasn't as good as it was when the same recipe was baked on a pizza stone. However, this pan might be more successful for other types of pizzas or different baking techniques. I'd also be interested in trying out a combination—constructing the pie on the aluminum pan, then transferring the entire pan to a pre-heated pizza stone. Perhaps we can get the best of both worlds?
Similar pans sell for $10-$15.