The Perfect Loaf is a column from software engineer turned bread expert (and Food52's Resident Bread Baker), Maurizio Leo. Maurizio is here to show us all things naturally leavened, enriched, yeast-risen, you name it — basically, every vehicle to slather a lot of butter on. Today, he's discussing sandwich loaves, and whether the best bread comes from Pullman pans or traditional loaf pans.
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My pantry is stocked to the brim with baking pans of all shapes, sizes, and materials. I have long rectangular pans with straight sides, medium pans with tapered sides, and even smaller pans the size of two sticks of butter. Materials range from my hefty cast-iron Staub loaf pan to light aluminum or aluminized steel (cast iron makes the crust nice and crispy, while aluminum goes in the thinner direction). With so many baking pan choices, it can be challenging to determine which pan to use. So let's look at a few different choices and what they bring to your baking arsenal — and even take a look at my all-time favorite pan for just about everything: the Pullman pan.
What is a Pullman pan?
First, let's look at what is probably the most-used pan in my baking collection: the Pullman pan. This pan is named after the company — Pullman — that invented them for use in railway cars of the past. The defining features are the straight sides and lid that slides on to seal the dough inside during baking, which allowed more loaves to be baked in the confined space of their railway cars.
Photo by Maurizio Leo
I have several Pullman pans: my workhorse, a 9 x 4 x 4-inch and a larger 13 x 4 x 4-inch, both made by USA Pan and lined with a silicone nonstick coating that makes removing dough a breeze (though I still typically grease the pan, just in case). You can use a Pullman pan with or without its lid, which slides on and snaps closed. When using the lid to make a classic Pullman pan loaf, or a French-style pain de mie, the bread will have a pale, thin crust, and each slice will be perfectly square.
These Pullman pans also yield fantastic bread without the lid. Compared to a standard loaf pan, which has sides that taper outward, the straight sides of the Pullman pan force the dough to move upward more than letting it spread outward, resulting in a taller rise and tidier slices.
I use my Pullman pans for baking everything from crusty sourdough pan loaves to delicate brioche to quick bread like banana bread. Over the years, I've found myself baking more and more with a Pullman pan, choosing it over every other pan in my collection. The pan makes for conveniently shaped slices (perfect for kids' lunches!) and ekes out a taller rise in the loaf overall — and what baker doesn't take a little self-congratulation from a tall loaf?
What if I don't have a Pullman pan?
If you don't have a Pullman pan, you can usually go with a standard loaf pan (see below) in its place. While the capacity of the pans is not precisely the same — the Pullman can hold more — depending on the dough, the standard loaf pan will result in a loaf with a domed top and your typical curled edges, thanks to the dough rising a little higher and slightly bowing outward during baking. As always with a standard loaf pan, though, be sure to fill it only around two-thirds of the way full to ensure it doesn't spill over the edges.
What is a standard loaf pan?
Traditionally, a standard loaf pan is 8 1/2 x 4 1/2 x 2 1/2 inches, but can also come in other sizes such as 9 x 5 x 2 1/2 inches. These pans almost always have slightly tapered sides that bow outward as you go from the base to the top rim. Sometimes the taper is subtle; other times, it's more pronounced, but the taper and the dimensions of these pans — which are a bit squat — result in loaves with less height and gentle domes across the tops running from side to side. The tapered sides help the baked loaf remove a little easier, and a few hard taps on the bottom usually lead to a quick release.
These standard loaf pans are the classic pans of your childhood, the pans your family likely used to make zucchini bread or pound cake, but they also work well for yeasted and long-rise sourdough loaves as well.
Pullman vs. standard loaf: Which pan is best?
Unfortunately, there's no single answer to this often-asked question. The answer depends on your recipe at hand, but it also depends on your preference and how you want the final loaf to look on the cutting board.
Benefits of a Pullman:
- It has a lid that slides on for baking
- You can use it without the lid for a darker top crust
- Thin, delicate crust (especially with the lid on)
- The resulting bread has straight sides
- Natural silicone liner is typical, making for easy bread removal
Benefits of a standard loaf pan:
- Ubiquitous, as many recipes call for one (no Pullman pan conversion necessary)
- Bread will have a deeply colored, domed top crust
- "Wedge" shape can make removing bread easier
Over the years, I've found that more of my bakes seem to end up in one of my (many) Pullman pans. The pan gives me small and tidy slices, a higher rise in my bread overall, easy removal thanks to the nonstick liner, and the option to slide on a lid should the mood fit. But, for me, there's just something orderly, clean, and precise about my bread when I use these lovely rectangular pans.
Do I even need a pan?
I often get asked whether a pan loaf recipe can be baked without the pan altogether: Can the dough simply be formed like a round boule or oblong batard and baked on a baking surface? In many cases: sure! Keep in mind that the pan provides structure to the dough and results in a thinner crust due to reduced direct heat exposure from the oven at the bottom and sides. Baking dough free-form makes for a more substantial crust due to this increase in exposure — which isn't a bad thing, it just depends on your end goal.
With many of my pan loaf recipes, I rely on the pan's structure to push the dough's hydration higher, making for a more tender loaf, or I increase the percentage of inclusions, knowing the pan will provide extra structure and support to the dough. Before switching a recipe from pan to no pan, give the ingredients a once-over for a gut check: Is the dough heavily reliant on the pan for support due to a high hydration? If necessary, reduce the hydration or inclusions to bring additional stability to the dough. Either way, ready the PB&J: It's sandwich bread time.