Food & Drink

February 11, 2014

Every kitchen needs the surprising, versatile sheet pan

Of all the fancy kitchen equipment in my prodigious collection – the copper gratin dishes, the pressurized siphon, the immersion blender – it’s the humble sheet pans I reach for most often.

Of all the fancy kitchen equipment in my prodigious collection – the copper gratin dishes, the pressurized siphon, the immersion blender – it’s the humble sheet pans I reach for most often.

You know which pan I mean: the wide, flat staple of the restaurant kitchen.

But it’s more than a staple. It’s a workhorse. And for home cooks, it offers one of the most low-tech, convenient, inexpensive solutions to that age-old kitchen conundrum: What’s the quickest and easiest way to get a fresh, entirely homemade dinner on the table? If you have sheet pans, then you can make a supremely tasty supper for your family (protein, starch, green vegetable) in the oven all at once, with a minimum of prep and very little cleanup.

Please tell me you have at least one of these professional-grade, heavy-duty pans. Or, to be accurate, that you have a half-sheet pan, which, measuring 18 by 13 inches, is the best option for home ovens. (Full sheets, for commercial ovens, are too unwieldy for home use.)

If you don’t have one, go buy a couple immediately. You can get a good one for less than $20. If you have one, get another. If you like to feed a crowd, consider three.

I’m the proud owner of four, and I use them constantly, for everything from spring asparagus to summer eggplant, to starchy fall and winter root vegetables, not to mention every kind of fish, meat and fowl. You can vary the ingredients and seasonings, ensuring that you and your family will never get bored.

I discovered sheet pans while I was working in a professional kitchen, which had what seemed like hundreds of them, in various states of abuse ranging from gently scratched to nearly black. They were used for nearly everything: roasting meats, dehydrating apple slices, baking shortcakes, even carting ramekins of spiced custard from one side of the prep kitchen to the other.

At home I had a jelly roll pan, which is shaped like a half-sheet pan but is much smaller and flimsier. I had flat cookie sheets, which don’t have rims so hot air circulates easily around the flat disks of dough. But cookie sheets are not good for roasting small objects, which fall off when you give them a stir. I had a roasting pan, with taller sides, which inhibit browning for small things.

I had no pan as convenient and useful as a half-sheet.

I had to go to a restaurant supply store to find my first half-sheet pan; now they are widely available at kitchen stores and online. I recently acquired quarter-sheet pans, ideal for roasting small things (say, a halved dumpling squash).

Dinner in the pan

The trick to making a whole sheet-pan supper at once is in the timing. Start with the slowest cooking ingredient: a thick pair of bone-in pork chops, for example, or whole baking potatoes. Then add items to the oven in a progression, ending with whatever cooks the most quickly.

In winter, I often begin with dense root vegetables: potatoes, celeriac, rutabagas, turnips, parsnips or even radishes. I cut them up and spread them on a sheet pan tossed with olive oil and herbs, spices or both. Give the pieces plenty of room so they’ll brown better. Put the pan into the oven and roast until they are golden brown.

The exact oven temperature doesn’t matter, but my default is 425 degrees. A little higher gets things browner, but you have to watch more carefully. A little lower gives you more wiggle room.

While the roots are roasting, I move on to the oiling and seasoning of the protein: chicken parts, lamb chops, sausages, shrimp, salmon steaks, pork tenderloin, firm tofu – you get the drift. The protein can go onto another pan or on the same pan as your root vegetables. Put it into the oven when the vegetables are about halfway done, more or less. (Tofu and fish cook more quickly, so add those to the oven later.)

Finally, I cut up, oil and season a green vegetable (broccoli, kale, green beans, bok choy, Brussels sprouts, chunks of cabbage and the like). Spread everything out to roast on yet another pan and add that to the oven 10 to 20 minutes before your protein and roots are done.

Everything comes out of the oven at the same time. At the end, you'll be left with minimal cleanup. There will be no stovetop splatter and hardly any prep bowls (you can season everything in the pans). You just have the sheet pans to wash. Even better: They can go straight into the dishwasher, unlike many skillets.

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