How a Sheet Pan Can Truly Do the Most in Your Kitchen
Recipe developer Ali Slagle walks us through why everyone’s kitchen should be stocked with one.
A sheet pan is probably not the most exciting tool in your kitchen. It’s not as flashy as a new espresso machine with all the bells and whistles, not as cute as a donabe imprinted with leaves or flowers, and not as lauded as an Instant Pot or celebrated like an air fryer. It is, however, probably one of the most useful items in your kitchen arsenal.
“The sheet pan is a marketing term that someone who worked on the internet came up with, but a sheet pan really is just optimizing roasting or baking, which has been around since the start of time,” says Ali Slagle, recipe developer and proud home cook. Slagle’s cooking philosophy—which involves “low-effort, high-reward” recipes—is at the heart of her debut cookbook, I Dream of Dinner (so You Don’t Have To), and naturally, sheet pans are heavily involved.
What are the best (and worst) things to cook in a sheet pan?
Although using a sheet pan seems relatively straightforward, Slagle does have some tips for optimizing the experience. For starters, not every ingredient will cook at the same speed. To ensure even cooking, Slagle suggests cutting ingredients down that take longer to cook.
“Something I always think about is, ‘What is non-negotiable in terms of cook time?’ Usually that’s the protein,” Slagle explains. So if a chicken thigh takes around 35 minutes to bake, Slagle prepares root vegetables—like a sweet potato—cut into chunks that will take a similar amount of time. “The way you cut ingredients really affects things.” Some ingredients that are roasted for longer than intended, like a potato, may be surprisingly delicious. Others, however, like overcooked shrimp, can ruin the meal. Timing—and sizing—are everything.
Additionally, it’s important to consider what flavors will mesh well together in a single pan. “The worst sheet pan meals that do poorly are the ones where things don't really mix well together,” Slagle explains. Think of seasonality and natural flavor pairings when throwing together your sheet pan meal. Tomatoes and garlic are a classic combination, while squash, sweet potatoes, and carrots might make for a wonderful autumnal base for proteins.
Lastly, make sure you’re actually using a sheet pan, and not a pan made for baking swiss rolls. “The problem with those pans is the darkness of the metal makes things cook faster, so things burn before they're cooked through,” Slagle explains. “And also they’re not as big. So really you just need one sheet pan in your life and it can just be like the restaurant kitchen supply one that you can get online.”
What else can you use a sheet pan for?
Aside from being a vessel for easy oven cooking, the sheet pan also has other useful functions. Slagle, who’s been living on the road while recipe developing, always keeps a pan in her van.
“If I’m testing a recipe, I use it to organize my ingredients—like a storage platform,” she explains. In the same vein, the sheet pan can also be used as a serving platter which, sure, it might not be as beautiful as a decorated tray, but it’s humble and gets the job done.
Additionally, Slagle uses the pan as a cover. “A lot of skillets don’t have a cover so you can just put a sheet pan upside down on top and it covers things really well,” she explains.
Lastly, sheet pans don’t have to be used solely for savory dinners. There are sheet pan pancakes and other desserts that make preparing food for a crowd simpler.
Why you should buy a sheet pan
“One of my favorite things is its surface area—it actually gives you a lot of space to cook things as opposed to a skillet,” Slagle says. Because of the large surface area, vegetables can be roasted alongside potatoes and proteins, resulting in a fully fleshed-out meal that only requires a single sheet pan and an oven. The results are delicious, efficient, and require simple clean-up.
“If you mix things that do taste good together, you’re actually building flavor without really having to do anything yourself,” Slagle says. She likes to incorporate what she describes as “leaky” ingredients in her sheet pan recipes—cherry tomatoes, sausage with milky white fat granules, or chicken with schmaltz. “Letting those ingredients run into whatever’s around it, like a potato or carrot, just automatically flavors that vegetable.”
Slagle has two sheet pan recipes she’s, in her own words, “embarrassingly proud” of: a spicy sausage and squash dish and a rosemary garlic roasted chicken with dressed up shelf-stable gnocchi. Somehow, she figured out how to roast a squash in 45 minutes—chopping them into a manageable size—which then soften in the spicy rendered fat of the sausage. The gnocchi, similarly, is roasted in chicken fat and brightened with lemon. Thanks to the sheet pan, everything can be done in one go.
Her upcoming cookbook, out April 12, 2022, also features an exciting assortment of new dinner recipes, sheet pan ones included. “My recipes are for people who are just trying to feed themselves, which is everyone—even if you don’t consider yourself a home cook,” Slagle says. “I champion the home cook because knowing how to cook for yourself is such a powerful thing —it gives you so much autonomy.”
Lemon-Pepper Chicken & Potatoes Recipe
Yield: Serves 4
- Fennel seeds
- Bone-in, skin-on thighs
- Chicken stock
1. Heat the oven to 450°F. Zest 4 lemons into a medium bowl. Crush 2 teaspoons fennel seeds underneath a mug or skillet or in a spice grinder. Grind 1 whole tablespoon of pepper. Stir the fennel seeds and pepper into the lemon zest, along with 1 tablespoon olive oil and 1 teaspoon salt. Pat 2 pounds bone-in, skin-on chicken thighs dry, then transfer to the bowl and toss to coat.
2. On a sheet pan, combine ½ cup juice from the lemons, ½ cup chicken stock or water, ⅓ cup olive oil, and 1 tablespoon salt. Peel 3 pounds large Yukon Gold potatoes (about 6). Cut each potato into 8 pieces by halving crosswise, then quartering each half. Toss the potatoes in the liquid on the sheet pan, then spread into an even layer. Add the chicken skin side up on top of the potatoes, along with any seeds and oil in the bowl.
3. Roast until the chicken’s cooked through and the potatoes are golden and tender, 60-65 minutes. Season to taste with S&P.
*For an easier clean-up, line the sheet pan (including up the sides) with foil.
*Instead of or in addition to the chicken, you could warm slabs of feta or halloumi by adding in the last 15 minutes of the potatoes roasting. Or just make the potatoes (aka Greek lemon potatoes).
Reprinted from I Dream of Dinner. Copyright © 2022 by Alexandra Slagle. Photographs copyright © 2022 by Mark Weinberg. Published by Clarkson Potter, an imprint of Random House.