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Roasting pans: Stick with these

Times Staff Writer

When we say shallow, strong and able to take the heat, we're not describing the guy at the head of your Thanksgiving table. We're talking about roasting pans — and every serious cook needs a good one. That means a pan that conducts heat well, one that can hold that big-breasted turkey (or anything else you want to roast) comfortably but without a lot of extra space, a pan heavy-gauge enough to carry whatever joint of meat you might send its way.

When we went looking for roasting pans to test, we found that most of them have a nonstick coating. These are fine for some people, but not for anyone who knows the value of deglazing a pan to make a sauce. If it's nonstick, after all, you don't get that layer of browned bits and caramelized drippings on the bottom of the pan, so there's nothing to deglaze. Yet we've found that when roasting for hours in a nonstick pan, some bits of stuff get so burned onto the surface that it's difficult to clean; scrubbing may damage the surface. We tested five roasting pans without nonstick coating: one anodized aluminum, one untreated aluminum and three stainless steel. For the test, we roasted a 4-pound chicken at 400 degrees for 1 hour and 15 minutes. When it was done, we removed the chicken and the rack and deglazed the pan with one-half cup of white wine.

Because all the chickens cooked evenly, we considered the design of the pan, how the handles were attached and whether they were comfortable to handle, along with whether it came with a rack, and if so, how sturdy it was.

But mostly, we paid close attention to how well the pan performed when we deglazed it. Pans that don't conduct heat evenly can get hot spots and warp when placed directly over a flame or electric burner.

We found the materials to be important. Shiny stainless steel looks great but does not conduct or hold heat as well as anodized or even heavy-gauge aluminum.

Aluminum is a soft metal that breaks down over time, but it is an excellent conductor of heat. Some worry about unanodized aluminum reacting with the food, so we went to food science author Harold McGee to get the lowdown. "If you cook a wine- or tomato-based sauce for a prolonged period in an aluminum pan," he told us, "you will get metallic notes in your sauce. But it's fine for deglazing."

The clear winner was the Calphalon pan, which we loved for its solidity, conductivity and versatility — it worked well in the oven and on the stovetop, and it could stand up to a good scouring at day's end.

Of the three stainless pans we tested, the expensive All-Clad, with its solid core of aluminum, performed best. The smaller Bauen-Pagoda Lasagna Pan, at one-fourth the price, is designed primarily for baking said pasta, but it held its own with a roast and on the stovetop. The Anolon pan was our least favorite: When deglazing, its raised center forced liquid around the lower edges, leaving the center of the pan dry and prone to buckling and burning. Finally, the inexpensive aluminum pan is an excellent alternative for those considering a disposable one.

One heavy-gauge aluminum pan that had caught our attention: the Mauviel Roasting Pan made for Williams-Sonoma. But a paper insert glued to the bottom of the pan proved to be unremovable, so we didn't include it in the test.

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Boasting pan The Calphalon Classic Hard Anodized 16" Roaster is a 16- by 13-inch pan made of heavy-gauge anodized aluminum. It comes with a nonstick roasting rack, silicone bulb baster and two stainless-steel turkey lifters.

What's the difference: This is the heaviest and most solidly constructed pan. It has by far the best rack — sturdy and practically designed in the shape of a cradle with handles.

What we thought: The pan holds heat beautifully, yielding a chicken that was done to perfection. Easy-to-grip handles made moving this loaded pan in and out of the oven simple. A great pan for deglazing: no hot spots, warping or discoloration. Easy to clean with a sponge and warm soap and water.

How much: $70 at Crate & Barrel

Pricey beauty All-Clad Roti Open Rectangular Roasting Pan, 16 by 13 inches. This heavy, solidly constructed pan sandwiches a core of aluminum between an 18/10 stainless steel cooking surface and a stainless steel exterior.

What's the difference: This pans wins the beauty contest, not too shiny, not too dull. It comes with a flat rack (no handles) and poultry lifters. It is the easiest to clean.

What we thought: As substantial as it should be, given its price tag. The handle-less rack makes it awkward to unload the chicken. Also, the handles on the pan get quite hot. When we deglazed there were hot spots, some discoloration and slight warping, although the pan flattened back out again when it cooled, and the discoloration disappeared with cleaning.

How much: $200 at Williams-Sonoma

Split personality The Bauen-Pagoda Home Restaurant Lasagna Pan (15 by 11 inches) is 18/10 stainless steel.

What's the difference: It's smaller than the others and isn't marketed as a roasting pan. Sure, you can bake lasagna in it, but it looks and handles like a roaster. Because it comes with a stainless steel rack (with collapsible handles), it seems to function as one.

What we thought: This pan has a brilliant finish and sturdy upright handles; it's pretty enough to bring to the table and it performed as well as other stainless roasters at twice the price. We roasted a chicken at 400 degrees for an hour with no warping. Because it's stainless, we weren't expecting much deglazing with this pan. We were pleasantly surprised. This pan isn't large enough to handle a bird larger than 16 pounds.

How much: $50 at Sur La Table

Discard-me-not The 12- by 18-inch Aluminum Roast Pan from Surfas is an inexpensive aluminum pan, one step up from disposable, but a big step nonetheless.

What's the difference: It has no rack, but racks are easy to come by; nor will it shine up the way stainless steel does. It won't be the pride of your cupboard, but it will take a beating.

What we thought: This pan is very light, easy to lift into the oven. If you're roasting your first turkey and considering a disposable aluminum pan, get this instead. It's close in price but much more substantial. The metal is heavy enough for successful deglazing, though it warped slightly. Unfortunately, the handles are small and close to the pan; grip carefully when hot. It cleaned up easily with a scrubber sponge, soap and water.

How much: $11 at Surfas

All sparkle The Anolon Roasting Pan Michael Chiarello Collection (16 by 12 inches) is 18/10 stainless steel with an aluminum core. It is relatively light and attractively styled.

What's the difference: So shiny you can see your reflection in the bottom of the pan, which, unfortunately is also the scene of a major design flaw. A raised center causes major deglazing problems (see below).

What we thought: The handles of the rack are positioned at the same end as the handles of the pan, making it difficult to lift the finished bird out. The roasting went fine, but this is not a pan for deglazing, due to the uneven surface. Liquid naturally runs to the gutters, which will burn both your sauce and the raised part of the pan. Hot spots, warping and discoloration. Tough to clean. It requires hard scrubbing with water and a scrubber sponge.

How much: $100 at Robinsons-May

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