Stand outside on a sunny day wearing nothing but black, and chances are you’ll be breaking a sweat before you know it. It’s a basic enough principle: Dark colors absorb more heat.
Well, same goes for your bakeware. Though the process behind it may be a bit different (after all, when it comes to baking, you’re applying direct heat, rather than just sunlight), a darker baking pan will generally get hotter and stay hotter due to absorption, according to Sarah Coates, of the baking blog The Sugar Hit. That speeds up cooking time and likely gives whatever you’re making a more deeply golden brown exterior.
But how fast the pan gets isn’t all about the color—there are plenty of other factors at play, too.
“Cooking always has a million variables,” says Coates, “so the depth of the pan, the height of the pan, the thickness of the material it’s made from, even the ambient room temperature on any given day [will have an effect].”
For example, a cast iron pan will stay hotter for longer, but on a cold day it’ll also take longer to heat up.
“The good news is, none of these elements are likely to be a deal-breaker,” says Coates. “They’re just little things you can learn and work around as you go.”
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So when do you use a darker pan vs. a lighter pan? Think about the desired effect you’re going for. If you’re making a cornbread, a darker pan (or better yet, a cast iron skillet) will help you get those dark crispy edges you're likely after. But if you’re making something like a sponge or layer cake, you’ll likely want it to be fluffy, soft, and moist with pale edges—so in that case, a lighter pan is your best bet.
And if you’ve only got one type of pan at home? Not to worry—Andrea E. Thompson, of the food science department at UC Davis, suggests keeping a closer eye on things as they bake, and improvising if need be. “I’d recommend that they play with the temperature a bit, probably lowering it by 25 degrees to see if that helps improve the color,” she says.
“Like a lot of things in cooking,” adds Coates, “you just learn as you go, and try to harness that effect to your own benefit.”