How to clean and care for your cooking sheet pans, and not worry about how they look

·6 min read

Other than maybe my spatulas, I can hardly think of a kitchen tool that gets more use than my sheet pans. And I think that goes for a lot of you as well, considering how many times we’ve been asked about the best ways to take care of them and keep them looking good.

Here’s the most important thing to remember: “They can’t really wear out. You can really do anything with them,” says Lisa McManus, executive editor of reviews at America’s Test Kitchen. “Anything you do to them, they seem to come back for more.”

That held true across almost all of the brands that ATK has tested in its review of this workhorse, focusing on those made exclusively or mostly with aluminum, ideal for heat conductivity and lightweight maneuverability. ATK has nearly 1,000 of its winning sheet pan, the Nordic Ware Baker’s Half Sheet, in house, where they’re used on a daily basis. If that isn’t an endorsement of durability, I don’t know what is.

Here are some tips for ensuring your cooking sheet pans are just as resilient and long-lasting.

There are not a lot of kitchen tools that get as much use other than the sheet pan.
There are not a lot of kitchen tools that get as much use other than the sheet pan.

Average sheet pan cleaning

Prevention can go a long way toward reducing maintenance. If you’re very concerned about appearance (more on that later) and know you’re about to cook something potentially messy, line your sheet pan with a silicone liner or parchment paper, says Jennifer Dalquist, executive vice president of Nordic Ware.

But of course you’re going to get food on your pan at some point. And when you do, wash it by hand. “If you are rinsing with warm, soapy water directly after use, it really should take care of everything, especially if your pan has a good nonstick coating on it,” Dalquist says. Use a dish rag or sponge, preferably one with a non-scratch pad if you’re looking to avoid marks.

Aluminum pans put through a dishwasher can come out looking etched and matte instead of shiny, thanks to oxidation. That won’t affect performance, though Nordic Ware still recommends hand-washing. Bar Keepers Friend can help bring back some of the shine if your pan has gone through the dishwasher. If you have a nonstick pan, check the manufacturer’s instructions. Some can’t go in the dishwasher and some can, though hand-washing may still be the preferred method.

Intense sheet pan cleaning

All right, stuff happens, we know. The other week I pooh-poohed a recipe’s instructions to put parchment under roasted meatballs - and ended up with charred black spots all over my sheet pan. So I tossed it in the sink, squirted it with dish soap and let it soak in warm water for a bit, which is McManus’s advice for stubborn messes. (Aluminum is reactive, so also keep in mind that the pan may darken, pit or corrode if it’s in extended contact with acidic ingredients.) Voila, easy to clean. That’s the most involved tactic I’ve ever taken on my Nordic Ware sheet pans, which are about a decade old and still look great enough to elicit questions on social media about how I keep them in such nice shape.

Soaking works particularly well when you need to loosen oil and sugars, Dalquist says. It’s especially helpful for nonstick pans, which can be damaged by tougher cleaners.

You can use an abrasive pad on natural aluminum pans to remove more stubborn stains, according to Dalquist, though they can leave scratches that will not affect performance. “We recommend scrubbing in a swirling motion rather than back and forth,” she says. “Only use as much pressure as necessary to remove the stains.” Another option she suggests is a paste of baking soda and hydrogen peroxide, which you can apply to the stains and let it sit for an hour or two before scrubbing off. That was the winning method when the Kitchn recently put different cleaning methods to the test, with that combination beating out baking soda and foil; baking soda and vinegar; cream of tartar and vinegar; and Easy Off oven cleaner and Brillo pads. McManus says Bar Keepers Friend will also remove brown spots.

Utensils

Dalquist recommends using nylon, wood or silicone utensils on sheet pans. That’s especially important with nonstick pans.

But it’s fine to cut directly on an uncoated sheet pan with a knife as long as you’re okay with any resulting scratches which, again, won’t affect performance on aluminum surfaces. Sometimes that’s the best, or only way, to portion out a large slab pie or pizza. I often do this myself, preferring a smaller serrated paring knife over my good chef’s knife.

Temperature

“Any time you get a big sheet of metal, it can warp,” McManus says. The biggest risk of warping is if you take a hot pan and immerse or rinse it in cold water. At least a little warping during cooking is natural, especially if you’re placing cool food on a preheated pan, ATK notes. In that case, “most pans spring back into place when the hot and cool spots across the pan equalize.” When placing cool food, particularly frozen items, on a sheet pan, McManus recommends evenly distributing it across the pan rather than just one on side so that there isn’t a dramatic differential that can encourage more warping.

That being said, aluminum sheet pans can tolerate a wide range of temperatures. I use them in the oven under the intense heat of the broiler or roasting at very high temperatures, even 500 degrees. McManus says that the test kitchen also uses them on the grill. (Nonstick pans often have a lower maximum safe temperature, so pay attention to the manufacturer instructions.) On the flip side, sheet pans can go into the freezer, which I often do when I’m chilling individual items - dumplings, balls of cookie dough - before packing them into containers for long-term storage.

Does it matter if your sheet pan looks dirty?

“If you cook a lot, it is hard to keep things looking perfect, and pans will show that use,” Dalquist says. They’ll look better longer if you clean them properly after use, because food or oils left on the pans will bake onto them even more the next time you use them. You may get more staining the more often you use oils with a lower smoke point, such as olive oil, at a higher temperature (400 degrees and above).

“Though unsightly, the stains are merely cosmetic in nature and will not affect the performance of your pan, the taste of your food, or the safety of the product. Baking sheets used in restaurant or bakery kitchens often have this appearance from repeated use,” Dalquist says.

In fact, McManus says, “The browner pans work better. They run a little hotter.” The dark patina will actually absorb and radiate more heat than lighter shiny pans, which is ideal for roasting. In a test ATK conducted, a darkened pan was 50 degrees hotter after 15 minutes in the oven than a lighter one.

When people buy something new, they want it to stay pristine, McManus says. But try not to stress too much about how shiny your sheet pans are. McManus encourages home cooks to think of your sheet pan as a tool and not a showpiece. “It’s not for display,” she says. “It’s for use.” Treat those stains like a badge of honor.

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