When contemplating how to roast your first Thanksgiving turkey—or fifth, or 20th—it’s easy to get mired in insecurity. Do you remember what you did wrong a year ago? Can you keep track of the bird while candying yams, mashing potatoes, and setting the table? How much will your reputation suffer if the white meat is dead dry?
And comparing turkey-roasting recipes often exacerbates the performance anxiety: to brine or not to brine, to truss or not to truss, to stuff or not to stuff? Experienced roasters are, however, united in their disapproval of the disposable aluminum pans that amateurs pick up at the supermarket the night before their guests show.
A flimsy disposable pan is a danger to you, your oven, and your main course. You need something sturdy enough to go from oven to stovetop, so you can make gravies and sauces, but there’s no reason, beyond conspicuous consumption, to invest $450 on French copper. In the interest of offering you one sure piece of advice for your Thanksgiving meal, I tested six roasting pans, priced from $9.99 to $274.95.
All are designed with the Thanksgiving roaster in mind. Five feature a poultry rack, the theory being that, during a three- to four-hour cooking time, the rack allows juices to drip to the bottom and heat to circulate around the entire carcass rather than only over the top. Bear in mind that your roasting pan itself will not have much effect on the taste of your turkey (how you prepare the bird will determine that), but your roaster can significantly affect the cosmetic appearance of the finished product, and some are much easier to use and clean up than others.
I selected a turkey-roasting method that would best test racks as well as pans. Largely based on the recipe advanced by the OCD folks at America’s Test Kitchen, I cooked an unbrined turkey, breast-side down, on the rack for the first hour, then flipped the bird breast-side up, lowering the heat for the remaining one to two hours. (Click here to read more about my recipe.)
Those investing in a roasting pan should remember it’s useful for more than turkeys. I also cooked a pork roast based on roasting doyenne Barbara Kafka’s method to test how the pan fared in a 500-degree oven and how the meat cooked when in direct contact with the pan. (Read the blow-by-blow account here.)
I evaluated each roaster in the following three categories:
The Pan. Is it sturdily constructed? Are the handles easy to grip in and out of the oven and while wearing mitts? How did the pork roast and vegetables brown? When I put the pan on the stove, how did it conduct heat?
The Rack.Is the rack well-designed? How snugly does a turkey fit? Did the rack scar the bird? How easy was it to flip the carcass?
The Cleanup.The manufacturers of most of these pans recommend that you not stick their wares in your dishwasher, which is lucky, because I don’t have one. To replicate the experience of letting the roasting pan sit for 24 hours while the cook drinks too much wine, watches too much television, and decides at 11 p.m. that he is too disgusted with the kitchen to clean it before bedtime, I drank too much wine … Seriously, though, after making gravy, I returned the empty pan to the oven for 20 minutes, letting any leftover gunk bake on. Only then did I scrub, measuring effort, time, and any soaking required.
From worst to best, here’s how the pans racked up:
Granite Ware USA Roaster With Lid Price: $21.95 With high, black-speckled enamel sides and a domed lid, the oval Granite Ware roaster is the roasting pan of your grandmother’s Thanksgiving. I had a Norman Rockwell moment looking at it, so I overcame my concerns over its lack of rack, thin steel walls, and shallow indentations in the bottom of the pan, presumably for funneling juice away from the bird. Because the recipe I used called for me to flip the bird mid-roast, I courted disaster by doing the same with this rackless pan. Sure enough, when I turned the bird breast-side up, the skin on the breast pulled away in a huge patch, and I had to conduct a skin graft using a piece of tinfoil.
The domed-lid pan does have one advantage: It cooks the turkey more quickly because it effectively steams and roasts the meat at the same time. While the turkey took less time to cook than the others, almost a quart of juices and butter pooled in the bottom instead of evaporating and concentrating. The end product: moist but boiled-tasting meat, rubbery skin, pallid and weak-tasting gravy. And, when I tried to make gravy, the flour got stuck in the indentations on the bottom and burned. Cleanup proved odious.
Pick or Pan: This pan would make a wonderfully nostalgic planter. Please do not use it to cook your Thanksgiving meal.
KitchenAid Gourmet Essentials Price: $24.48 Friends who saw my roaster collection immediately gravitated to the KitchenAid, attracted to its “warm berry” exterior, white enamel interior, and shiny steel rim (it also comes in mustard, terra cotta, and satin black). The pan is substantial but not bulky. Instead of handles, the outside rim flares out, and it’s relatively easy to hold with towel-covered hands.
Nonetheless, it failed both the turkey and the pork test. When placed breast-side down on the flat rack, the turkey fell to one side, and when I flipped over the bird after the first hour, the half of the breast that had lain against the rack came off dark brown and deeply lined; the skin torn in parts. However, the pan yielded nice gravy, and the remaining schmutz cleaned up easily.
Given the KitchenAid’s good looks, had I never cooked the pork, I may have retained fond feelings toward it. After 40 minutes in a 500-degree oven, though, it was riddled with black spots, and the corners were stained sepia with baked-on, splattered grease, which no amount of scrubbing and soaking could remove.
Pick or Pan: A beauty that’s only suitable for low-heat jobs. If you do purchase this pan, pick up a can of scouring powder to go with it.
WearEver Price: $14.99 (Note: I purchased mine at Wal-Mart for $9.99.) There’s something worrisome about a product whose label advertises “scratch-resistant nonstick interior” and then warns, “Do not use steel wool or coarse scouring pads when cleaning.” Yet this pan is more solid than you’d expect of a $10 buy, and it possesses a slick texture that repels goo no matter how hard you try to bake it on.
That surface made up for numerous other design flaws. The handles flip up and down, resting against the sides of the pan, making it impossible to grab them with mitt-covered hands. The pan also warped in the oven at 500 degrees (one warning the label didn’t include), but meat juices caramelized nicely on its bottom without scorching, and the shape righted itself as soon as it cooled.
I turned against the WearEver, though, when I cooked the turkey. At 15 inches, the bird barely fit, and the flat wire rack tore up the skin when the bird was cooking upside down. Sitting half an inch above the bottom of the pan, the rack didn’t allow any air to circulate underneath, either, rendering skin that was soggy and pale.
Pick or Pan: Given how easily this pan cleans up, I’m keeping it around for roasting vegetables. Would I ever use it to cook meat? No.
Circulon Accessories Price: $44.99 The Circulon roaster is one of a whole suite of mid-priced, anodized-aluminum roasters made by Meyer Corp. (manufacturers of the Circulon, Anolon, and KitchenAid brands). This model is clearly designed to look and perform like the Calphalon. And compared with the more expensive pans I tested, it is lighter yet solidly constructed, and it cleans up lickety-split. When I roasted the pork, the pan conducted heat across its surface admirably, so the meat browned on the bottom without burning, and the wine bubbled away evenly on the stovetop. Given the Circulon’s price and ease of use, I’d be tempted to make it my No. 1 recommendation.
But buy a different rack.
Circulon’s U-shaped rack is too small for the pan, so when I snuggled in a raw 15-pound bird, breast-side down, the rack slipped around like a 2-year-old in a bathtub, and I had to hold on to both pan and contents at all times. Thanks to its size, the rack also wouldn’t hold a breast-up, wings-down 15-pounder upright. After I flipped my turkey, I struggled first to maneuver the bird into the least tilted position and then to maneuver the pan back into the oven without tipping out the 350-degree rack and its contents. The turkey turned out beautifully, but I spent the next 24 hours dabbing ointment onto the little burns I had accrued on my fingers. Ouch.
Pick or Pan: If you’re not planning on roasting poultry, or if your turkey recipe doesn’t call for a rack, this inexpensive, sturdy pan is a solid choice. That may be one too many caveats, though.
Cookware Price: $274.95 Viking, which made a name for itself among yuppie, aspiring home cooks who could afford restaurant-grade ovens, has branched out into prestige-grade cookware that rivals All-Clad’s. At 10-plus pounds, this roasting pan is the heaviest of the lot. Bringing your turkey to the table in this is the equivalent of squiring your date to the prom in a Ferrari.
The benefits of luxury were evident: When I set the pan on top of the stove, the liquid inside boiled away so evenly I could barely see a difference between the spot directly over the burner and the far edges of the pan. The vegetables I roasted along with the pork emerged from the oven with golden, even crusts. Viking’s rack, too, turned out to be the best-designed of the lot: Not only did it fit inside the pan snugly, it left the lightest impressions in the breast meat.
That said, it took two to four times longer to clean, especially after the high-heat pork roast. More critically, the “stay-cool” handles (my fingers would dispute this particular claim) curved toward the interior of the pan, which made it difficult to remove from the oven when there was a turkey inside or when my grip was compromised by potholders. When buying a Ferrari, I expect perfection.
Pick or Pan: If you’re the kind of person who can buy a Viking oven, you’d probably be content with this pan. I, however, have another favorite.
Calphalon One Infused Anodized Nonstick Price: $149.99 The dark-gray Calphalon One line is appealing in its sleek functionality. Though sturdy, the pan isn’t too heavy to work with, and the bolted-on handles are the best designed of the lot, flaring out perfectly so that I never butted my knuckles up against the pan’s contents. The inside surface, which feels like sandpaper, is apparently “four-layer interlocking nonstick coating” involving “advanced release polymers.” Food washes away from the surface with a few wipes, yet it’s tacky enough to keep the pan’s U-shaped, nonstick roasting rack from slipping around. Circulon, take note!
Both pork and turkey juices crystallized on the bottom of the pan without blackening, becoming darker and more flavorful, in fact, than in the ultra-thick Viking model. When I brought the Calphalon to the stovetop, it took but a few seconds of pushing the browned bits around to incorporate them. My only complaint: the rack. Though the skin of the turkey remained intact when it roasted breast-side down, when I turned the beast breast-side up, thick lines were embedded in it. That said, the marks weren’t much worse than those produced by others; the problem seems endemic to the roast-flip-roast method of cooking heavy chunks of flesh. Overall, the turkey emerged from the oven a gorgeous, even brown, with juicy white meat.
Pick or Pan: My vote goes to the Calphalon One for good design, great results, and ease of cleanup. Though I’m now turkeyed out this year (my family has agreed to try guinea fowl on the big day), I’ve already found myself plotting meals around the pan. Isn’t that what good cookware is for?