Most of us don’t think too much about a turkey roasting pan until we realize it’s our turn to host Thanksgiving dinner and we panic, thinking “What the heck am I supposed to cook the turkey in?” Unless you’re one of the lucky ones who long ago realized the everyday value of a good-quality, go-to roasting pan, you might have one that never sees the light of day until Thanksgiving, or you dash out to purchase the one-time use aluminum pans.
Once you own a roasting pan, you’ll see what an essential tool it is in your cooking arsenal. The clearest advantage is its size: It can easily hold a 16-pound turkey. While it’s typically associated with cooking a turkey at Thanksgiving, it’s also ideal for roasting poultry, ham and beef all year round.
There’s more to purchasing a roasting pan than meets the eye, though. You have several things to consider before you choose just the right one. Luckily, we’ve done the research for you so you can make an informed decision.
With roasting pans, size does matter, so let’s begin there. Even the greatest roasting pan becomes worthless if it won’t fit in your oven. So, the first thing to do is measure how big your oven is: width and depth. Take this into account as you do your shopping and don’t forget to include the handles of the roasting pan in your measurement.
Whatever you’re roasting should fit in the pan without touching its sides. This allows for good air circulation and ensures that all sides cook and brown evenly
Bigger is not necessarily better, however. A pan that’s too big will allow the juices to collect on the bottom, where they can evaporate quickly and burn. You want less surface space so the juices collect in a deeper pool. One way to work with a pan that is a bit too big is to fill the space with vegetables, which helps prevent the juices from evaporating and burning.
When in doubt, remember: A big pan can cook small things, but not vice versa.
The depth of a roasting pan is important for a couple of reasons. First, you want the sides high enough to avoid the hot liquid splashing out onto the floor of your oven, causing lots of smoke, or onto you as you are basting, causing burns. Second, you want the pan to be able to hold additional items, such as potatoes and vegetables.
On the other hand, a pan that is too high means the air will rise more quickly and the food will not be cooked thoroughly. A pan with sides of 3 to 4 inches is ideal.
Rectangular versus oval? These two shapes each have advantages. Oval roasting pans work well with oval-shaped roasts; the lack of corners makes whisking a gravy or sauce easy as pie, too. They have limits when cooking multiple items, though, because of the loss of surface area.
The right angles of rectangular roasting pans provide a little extra room. This makes them better for cooking multiple items, but less convenient for whisking.
A rectangular roasting pan with rounded corners? That’s the best of both worlds.
Is a heavier or lighter pan the best choice? Turns out it’s somewhere in the middle. You want a pan that is heavy enough to feel sturdy when lifting it and won’t twist or turn on you, risking burns. Then again, you don’t want it to be so heavy that it is difficult to lift.
Pans on the slightly heavier side also guarantee more even heat distribution and less chance of burned drippings.
Roasting pan materials
Let’s break it down what you need to consider in choosing the type of pan:
Pros: Excellent heat conductivity and distribution
Cons: Expensive; difficult to keep looking good; reactive to acidic foods
Pros: Durable; maintains flavor of food; good heat distribution; appearance
Cons: Can be expensive; poor heat conductivity unless it has a bonded aluminum
or copper base, which adds to the price
Pros: Lightweight; affordable
Cons: Soft metal warps and dents easily; reacts with acidic ingredients; stains easily
Pros: Durable; inexpensive; naturally non-stick if seasoned correctly; good heat distribution
Cons: Very heavy; somewhat reactive to acidic foods; takes longer to heat up; more difficult to maintain appearance
These aren’t recommended at all. Not only are non-stick materials difficult to maintain, they scratch, peel and chip easily. Their coating can be destroyed if placed in an oven hotter than 400F. Some non-stick coatings have even been the subject of health concerns. Last in this cons-only list: When roasting, you need a “sticky” pan so you can deglaze all the delicious drippings.
Rack or no rack?
This one comes down to personal preference. A rack raises the meat off the bottom of the pan, allowing air to circulate freely. When the meat sits on the bottom, it can become soggy and lacks the crispy, brown skin we love. A rack also allows the drippings to collect on the bottom of the pan so you can use them in a delicious gravy.
On the flip side, racks can be heavy and awkward to handle. They also tend to collect some of the drippings, which can get stuck and are then difficult to remove. Without the bulk of the food sitting on the pan to absorb the heat, the juice can evaporate too quickly.
Types of roasting pans
Typically made of anodized aluminum or enameled steel, these come with lids to keep the food covered as it cooks. Food cooked in a covered roasting pan tends to be juicy inside and crispy outside. (For crispiest skin, take the cover off for the last 30 minutes of cooking time.) A word of caution: If your lid does not have a steam vent, be careful when taking the lid off to check the food’s progress. Steam can shoot out and cause burns.
For some cooks, going lidless is the only way to roast a turkey, because it tends to result in crispier skin than using a covered pan. The downside is that it also can produce a slightly drier bird.
This option’s convenient because it’s so portable, and it’s perfect for slow cooking. It excels at retaining heat and keeping food warmer longer. In general, the cooking time and temperature settings are the same as for a conventional oven.
These are the single-use aluminum pans you see everywhere as Thanksgiving approaches. When choosing an aluminum pan, always go for the heavier, better- quality choice; it ensures a safer cooking experience. Disposable roasters tend to be extremely flimsy, so place a metal baking sheet under it so your turkey doesn’t flop onto the kitchen floor when you’re lifting it from the oven. Take care when using knives; they can pierce and cut through the aluminum easily.
Roasting pan alternatives
If you know you won’t use a roasting pan more than once or twice a year, then purchasing a new one may not be your best option. In this case, you might be able to use something you already have to prepare a Thanksgiving turkey.
You’ll need an oven-safe dish with sides that are at least tall enough to collect the drippings: a cast-iron or stainless-steel skillet, large casserole dish, broiler pan, or other similar, large special-purpose pan. Don’t have a rack? Just set the bird on top of a pile of potatoes and vegetables.
One final option: Borrow a roasting pan. There’s a decent chance a friend, neighbor or family member has one that’s not being used.