This year, I went from zero to sixty as soon as Thanksgiving hit. My son turned one over the holiday weekend, so in addition to my cooking contributions to Thanksgiving, I took it upon myself to cook for another 20 people just a few days later. Within the span of three days, I used that one kitchen tool to make bread crumbs for the stuffing, bake a funfetti sheet cake, roast vegetables for my son’s lunches, and make pizza for dinner. The only way I managed was with the help of my trusty sheet pan, an inexpensive but reliable kitchen essential.
A sheet pan is a lifesaver when it comes to quick, big-batch meals. I’m also hosting my first Christmas this year—overnight guests and all. Thanks to my sheet pan, I’m not stressed about taking on the role of Santa for the first time, entertaining a one-year-old, and making a hot breakfast for eight all in one morning. When I worked at Real Simple, food director Dawn Perry developed a recipe for Sheet Pan Egg Sandwiches that are truly fantastic. Voila—breakfast for 12 in less than 15 minutes, no cast iron pan or electric griddle to clean.
How to choose the right sheet pan
Not all sheet pans are created equal. There are many on the market, but the only sheet pans worth investing in are double thick (or "commercial") with rolled edges. These thick sheet pans have a thicker layer of aluminum that prevents warping that can happen with constant heating and cooling. The rolled edges keep food contained and prevent spill-over from melted cheese or rendered fat in things like pizza, nachos, and wings.
My favorite sheet pan hits all of these marks: the Nordic Ware Baker’s Half Sheet ($20 for 2), which happens to be our top-rated cookie and baking sheet. Though it's commercial grade, the American-made tray is lightweight—a must when I’m carrying large trays of food from counter to oven—and distributes heat well for even cooking.
I use this 12x17-inch half sheet for most everything, but the quarter sheet pan, at 12x9 inches, is my go-to for cakes. With this size tray, you can serve 12 generous squares of cake or create a gorgeous 6-inch three layered cake.
However, like most things in life, sheet pans aren't perfect: their size makes them a hassle to clean. The larger half sheet pan doesn’t come close to fitting in my kitchen sink, so as I clean, water often sloshes off the pan and into my chest. Sometimes it dribbles down the cabinets to the floor. Most times, it sits on the stovetop for days after use until someone gets tired of looking at it and cleans it. Storage is another issue for me—they don't fit in the drawer under my oven, so some of them have found a permanent home inside the oven.
Still, I wouldn’t give up my sheet pans for anything. In fact, I’ve even been known to travel with them when renting homes or visiting family. I bought a few new ones this year (I needed more!), but my oldest sheet pans have been part of my family for more than 10 years. They’re dark brown and look nothing like the product images at this point, but they still work just as well as they did the day I got them.