THERE ARE ROUND cake pans and square ones, false-bottomed cake pans, cake pans in the shape of Santa Claus -- and even, should you be seized by the desire to turn out a cake that looks exactly like a saddle of venison, cake pans for that.
How to tell the junk from the good stuff? Fairly easily: by the feel. A good-quality cake pan feels heavy and solid in the hand because it is made from heavy-gauge metal.
The difference gauge makes in your cakes is this: In lighter gauges the bottom of the cake burns before the middle is done. The lighter gauges don't hold up very well either. They dent and warp and buckle and eventually produce lopsided cakes.
Better pans are usually reinforced around the top with a rolled rim that not only strengthens the pan but also makes it easier to lift from a hot oven rack. Look at the seams in loaf and decorative pans like the kugelhopf. They should be tightly sealed so there will be no seepage.
How well the metal conducts heat is another major factor. Most bakers like heavy-gauge aluminum or tinned steel. Both conduct heat well, meaning that oven heat spreads evenly throughout the pan with no hot spots to burn and stick.
Commercial-weight tinned steel and aluminum have been available to home bakers for several years and according to retailers are hard to keep in stock. They are more expensive than the lightweight stuff, but still not prohibitive. An 8-by-2-inch steel pan costs between $5 and $7. Prices of heavy-gauge aluminum are comparable.
Good-quality tinned steel pans come in all shapes and sizes, including a few that are particularly applicable to holiday baking. Kugelhopf molds, good for heavier fruitcake or pound cake batters as well as for kugelhopf, are available for around $10. There is also an intriguing set of four small loaf pans, each holding two cups, that are all securely attached to one another with steel rods. The rods prevent the pans from tipping and spilling and make moving them easier. The smaller size is nice for baking holiday giveaways. The four connected pans cost about $9. Then there is the rehrucken pan -- in the shape of a saddle of venison. Devised originally to soothe the spirits of empty-handed Viennese hunters, it will turn out a creditable log-like bu che de noel.
Good-quality aluminum bakeware, other than the standard layer-cake pans, is harder to come by. Much of it is too light to be serviceable.
For heavier holiday cake batters, consider black steel. The dark color absorbs heat, producing a browner, heavier crust. While you don't want a dark crust on your genoise or your devil's food, you might on pound cake or fruitcake. Among other things, heavier crusts allow the cakes to release more easily from their pans. Black steel pans are available in round, square, loaf and bundt shapes at relatively reaonable prices (about $12 for a 10 1/2-inch-by-5 1/2-inch loaf pan that should last a lifetime).
Which brings us to nonstick finishes. Teflon has just about disappeared from the market, having been replaced by its offspring T-Fal, and now Silverstone. There are some good heavy pans available with Silverstone finish, but they are very expensive, and are gradually being replaced by lighter weights. As with all nonstick coatings, they lose their quick-release qualities eventually. Making a paper lining for the bottom of a pan is not difficult and is a sure way to prevent sticking. Cookbook author Maida Heatter recommends buttering pans for tender cakes, then sprinkling them with very fine dry breadcrumbs.
A word about the care of cake pans. They should be allowed to cool gradually, never plunged into cold water, as extreme changes in temperature cause warping. Many bakers don't wash their pans at all, preferring to wipe or brush them clean. Steel pans, especially, need to be protected from water, as they can rust around the edges despite their tin coating. If you do wash them, dry right away and then finish drying in a warm oven.