Sizing up silicone
GADGETS | Chefs and home cooks weigh pros, cons of synthetic cookware
January 16, 2008
BY LEAH A. ZELDES
Stretchy, jiggly and vividly colored ... it sounds more akin to condoms than cookware.
Can silicone, the rubbery stuff of breast implants and bathtub caulking, really bake a cake as well as a solid metal pan?
Chefs love it
"I prefer natural ... but as far as cooking, silicone is great," quips chef Sean Pharr of Uptown's Fat Cat. "These tools allow for easy removal of product, consistency in heating, they don't get corroded and because they are flexible and lightweight you can store them easily."
"It's very, very convenient," says chef Jean-Marc Loustaunau of Cafe Pyrenees in Libertyville, extolling the nonstick and freezer-to-oven-and-back qualities of silicone bakeware.
By now, many home cooks have discovered silicone-rubber spatulas, which don't melt or harden; silicone pastry brushes, which don't shed hairs; and flexible nonstick baking mats.
Other silicone cookware is slowly becoming accepted for its lightness, even cooking and crushable storability the pros value.
"It's kind of foolproof," Pharr says. "We would make 150 to 200 mini banana breads, and they would all come out the same."
"You can literally roll it up and toss it in the corner," says chef Rick Gresh of David Burke's Primehouse in River North. "It's a little more even in cooking. It doesn't have the hot spots of metal cookware.
"It's definitely the wave of the future."
Why it works
U.S. consumers first began to see silicone bakeware about five years ago. Now, it seems, the brightly hued, squashable pans are everywhere, and every cookware maker has a line of them.
Silicone rubber is a synthetic material made from silica, the main component of sand and quartz.
Unlike natural rubber, made from tree sap, it remains flexible at a wide range of temperatures without cracking or melting. It's also completely inert and won't transfer to foods.
But all silicone cookware isn't made alike, warns Michael Karyo, chief operating officer of SiliconeZone, one of the first U.S. companies to market silicone to home cooks.
Select pans with glossy surfaces -- the most nonstick -- he advises. Twist or fold the pan to look for telltale white showing through the color, a sign of cheap fillers that can impair the silicone's performance.
"Some of the cheaper stuff doesn't bake out as well," agrees Nancy Siler, vice-president of consumer affairs for Wilton Enterprises in Woodridge. Siler says good silicone pans bake much like metal pans.
Bakers especially recommend silicone for anything you'd put in a waterbath and unmold, such as cheesecake -- no more wrapping springform pans in foil. Karyo claims that meatloaf baked in silicone stays moister.
Home cooks are hooked
Streeterville resident Daniele Dulong Roberts used silicone pans for the first time this Christmas to make friands, teacakes from her native France, with great success.
"It was perfect," she says, "wonderful to unmold, very easy to clean. Eventually, I'm going to convert."
The pop-art colors and multiple shapes of silicone appeal to Catherine Lambrecht of Highland Park, who can't wait to bake cupcakes for her 4-year-old niece in Wilton Silly-Feet! baking cups.
"That is such imaginative, cool stuff," Lambrecht says.
Some chefs, including Primehouse's Gresh, make their own molds from food-grade silicone. (You can get 6-ounce trial kits from www.culinart.net for $12 plus shipping.)
Gresh says silicone allows for finer detail than metal.
When he competed in the Bocuse d'Or cooking competition at the National Restaurant Association show, Gresh made a mousseline in a fish-shaped silicone mold.
"It looked like a real fish, with every shimmering scale," he says.
The one drawback of silicone, Gresh says: "It kind of takes the fun out of the little kids banging the pots and pans."
Leah A. Zeldes is a local freelance writer.
Putting silicone to the test
January 16, 2008We tested a variety of silicone products against traditional cookware. Here's our take on whether we'd be willing to give up our old kitchenware in favor of the newfangled rubbery versions.
BAKING PANS AND MOLDS: YES/MAYBE
Cakes: Silicone was a clear winner with much more even baking, although the cake didn't rise quite as high.
Cornbread: Little difference between silicone and nonstick metal pans, though silicone batch took a bit longer to reach optimal browning. Well-seasoned cast iron still turned out the crustiest version.
Muffins: The adorable Wilton Silly-Feet! baking cups ($10 for four) release easily -- a wobble of the wrist as we took a panful out of the oven sent one bounding off the cookie sheet, spilling its muffin. Also, the bottoms don't brown as well as the sides.
Jell-O molds: Unmolding them is just as difficult as with metal molds.
Silicone adds nothing except color.
OVEN MITTS: NO.
They don't stain or catch on fire, but heat transferred uncomfortably when we moved a hot oven rack and the mitts made our hands sweat.
FOOD TIES: NO.
More awkward and less neat than kitchen string; the thick ties made unsightly dents in our roast. Tough to clean.
STRAINERS AND FUNNELS: YES.
They do everything you need them to do and store flat.
ROASTING RACKS AND SLING: MAYBE.
The racks function like nonstick metal racks. The sling -- like a bathmat with handles -- goes in the pan under food before cooking. Handles roasts up to 18 pounds, a size we don't have trouble lifting. Could be more useful for delicate items such as whole poached fish.
MEASURING CUPS: NO.
Silicone adds nothing except color and expense; with metal handles, you can't even put them in the microwave.
HERB BALL: NO.
The pressure-fit silicone bottom comes off too easily.
PAN/BOWL COVERS: MAYBE.
Interchangeable lids were fine for covering hot pots. For storage, the SiliconeZone Easy Lids ($7-$25) wouldn't hold a seal. Metal-reinforced Kuhn Rikon Magic Covers ($16-$22) work well but are heavy and bulky. For fridge and microwave use, we'd rather have the lighter, less-expensive Keepeez ($3.50-$13), although they can't be used on the stove or in the oven.
Leah A. Zeldes
Using silicone cookware
- Wash well in soapy water before first use.
- Most pans benefit from a spritz of cooking spray or a light brush with oil.
- Use a jellyroll pan or cookie sheet under a silicone pan for stability.
- Cakes don't rise quite as high in silicone pans. For most recipes, fill pans 1/2 to 3/4 full; for cupcakes and muffins, fill almost to the top.
- Baking times may need adjusting. Small cookies or muffins may take less time, larger cakes and breads likely need extra time.
- Don't put silicone on stovetop burners or under the broiler.
- Pans get just as hot as metal -- use hot pads!
- Don't use metal utensils that can damage the silicone.
- Cover with foil or plastic wrap when storing in the freezer.
- Turn pans inside out for easier washing.
- Don't use abrasive cleaners.
- Most products are dishwasher-safe, but position so they don't come into contact with sharp objects. Gritty detergents can damage shiny nonstick surfaces; liquids are recommended.
Leah A. Zeldes