Make this brown sugar and chili-rubbed salmon sheet-pan recipe for an easy weeknight supper. (Photo by Tom McCorkle for The Washington Post; food styling by Lisa Cherkasky for The Washington Post)

Make this brown sugar and chili-rubbed salmon sheet-pan recipe for an easy weeknight supper. (Photo by Tom McCorkle for The Washington Post; food styling by Lisa Cherkasky for The Washington Post)

Sheet pans are the easy way to get dinner on the table fast

Cookbook author Molly Gilbert shares some tips so you, too, can master the sheet-pan supper.

  • Wednesday, May 15, 2019 1:30am
  • Life

By Becky Krystal / The Washington Post

Sheet-pan suppers. You’ve seen the cookbooks, the blogs, the artfully arranged Instagram snapshots. It can be easy to roll your eyes at the ubiquity of the concept, but there’s a reason — quite a few actually — why these all-in-one dinners are so popular.

Cookbook author Molly Gilbert found the concept so appealing she wrote one of those cookbooks dedicated to the topic. In “Sheet Pan Suppers: 120 Recipes for Simple, Surprising, Hands-Off Meals Straight from the Oven,” she covers such well-known territory as fajitas and roasted whole fish along with creative takes that include “lasagna’d” Hasselback potatoes and Thai green curry eggplant boats. I recently talked to Gilbert for some tips on how you, too, can master or widen your sheet pan repertoire.

Why a sheet pan? More like, why not? “Sheet pans make a lot of food at once,” and often enough for leftovers, Gilbert said. That real estate also means your dinner can all fit on a single piece of cookware and you’ll have fewer dishes to wash. Popping a sheet pan in the oven is a relatively fuss-free, hands-off strategy, too. Sheet-pan suppers tend to cook quickly, making them an ideal option for busy people, even on a weeknight.

Part of the reason sheet-pan suppers don’t usually need a ton of time in the oven is that a lot of recipes call for smaller cuts of meat and vegetables. The pan’s low sides allow hot air to freely circulate around all sides of the food, which, when combined with the size of the ingredients, speeds up the cook time.

The right sheet the right way. Go for something that is aluminum or stainless steel so it’s sturdy and easy to clean. An 18-by-13-inch pan, or half sheet (not a jellyroll pan), is big enough to accommodate a wide variety of meals and give you enough room between your ingredients (more on that below). If you’re worried about sticking or discoloration on your sheet pan — I call this “character” — line it with parchment or foil. Gilbert suggests using olive oil spray in conjunction with foil since she finds that roasted meat and vegetables can still stick to it.

Picking the best foods. Gilbert says most foods do well on a sheet pan, especially if what you’re after is something roasted and sporting an appealing crust. At the top of her list: Vegetables, which she said “particularly do awesome” on sheet pans. You’ll develop flavors you might not get from raw vegetables, and they’ll come out crispy on the outside but tender on the inside. Meat is another obvious candidate, from meatballs and thin-sliced fajitas all the way up to a whole chicken and leg of lamb. “I feel like a lot of meats are a little intimidating in general,” Gilbert said, but there’s something approachable about cooking them on a sheet pan. Especially with a trusty instant-read thermometer in hand, you can be confident in properly cooked meat.

What doesn’t work? Gilbert struggles to think of an answer, but volunteers that pasta and rice can be tricky, although she likes to deploy frozen rice in her recipes since it is precooked and will thaw on the sheet pan without burning. Keep an eye on anything particularly sugary, as it can burn quickly. As with all cooking, vigilance is key with sheet-pan suppers. “It’s so easy that you can forget something’s in the oven,” Gilbert said.

Give your food room to breathe. Some sheet-pan suppers, such as Gilbert’s ratatouille of tightly packed sliced vegetables on a bed of tomato sauce, rely on moist heat to cook through. But if you’re going with the more obvious roasting or broiling, she says it’s important not to pack your ingredients too close together. If you do, your food might steam rather than brown, and browning equals flavor. Air circulation is important if you’re cooking something that might render a lot of fat, such as burgers, in which case you’ll want to place the food on a wire rack set inside the pan. Even if you’re not worried about food steaming in fat, you can still pull out that wire rack so that you can cook two foods at once, as Gilbert does in her broiled steak with asparagus recipe.

Think about size and timing. Don’t just throw your ingredients onto a sheet pan and hope for the best. “The essence of a sheet-pan meal is that it is, indeed, a meal, and the key to making the meal great is that everything you put on the pan has to cook in the same amount of time as its neighbors,” cookbook author Dorie Greenspan wrote in The Washington Post in 2015 about her sheet-pan chicken. “It’s a bit of a juggling act to find foods that go together and have the same cooking times, but you can usually make the dish work by paying attention to how you cut things. Chunks cook faster than wholes; chicken and fish cook faster than beef, depending on how you slice, dice and chop; and seafood cooks super fast.”

You can also account for foods that cook at different rates by adding them to the sheet pan in stages. That’s what The Washington Post’s Bonnie Benwick does with her Brown Sugar and Chili-Rubbed Salmon Sheet Pan Dinner. She first cooks Yukon Gold potatoes for about 10 minutes and then adds the quicker-cooking scallions and salmon. The result: Everything is finished at the same time.

Have fun with it and create your own riffs. The sheet-pan supper “lends itself to so many different flavor combinations,” Gilbert says. “In general, I’m sort of like a toss-pinch kind of cook,” and sheet-pan suppers are ideal for improvising with whatever you have on hand. No matter what you want to make, “You can usually find a way on a sheet pan.”

Brown sugar and chili-rubbed salmon sheet-pan dinner

Here are the three top reasons to love this sheet-pan supper: minimal prep and cleanup; the sweet and spicy rub for the fish; the potatoes become crisped on the outside and stay tender on the inside.

Sometimes, a center-cut piece of salmon will have about 2 inches of thin belly on one side; for even cooking, we like to tuck that bit under the fillet.

1 pound small Yukon Gold potatoes

3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil

Kosher salt

12 ounces young/thin spring onions or fat scallions

1 lime

4 (6 ounces each) skin-on salmon fillets, center-cut (see headnote)

2 tablespoons light brown sugar

1 tablespoon chili powder

Preheat the oven to 425 degrees. Line a rimmed baking sheet with parchment paper.

Rinse the potatoes; if they are 2 inches or more across, cut them in half. Place them on the baking sheet; drizzle with 1 tablespoon of the oil and season lightly with salt. Toss to coat, then spread out evenly, with cut sides facing down. Roast (upper rack) for 10 minutes; they will not be cooked through.

Meanwhile, trim and discard the root ends of the spring onions or scallions, then peel and discard any thin outer layers. Drizzle with another tablespoon of the oil and toss lightly to coat. Zest the lime, then cut it in half.

Take the baking sheet out of the oven. Push the potatoes to one side to clear room for the salmon. Add the spring onions or scallions to the pan, either around the edges or in a separate cleared space. Season them lightly with salt. Sprinkle them with the lime zest.

Use a fork to stir together the brown sugar, chili powder and 1/2 teaspoon salt in a small bowl. Brush the tops of each salmon fillet with the remaining tablespoon of oil, then rub the brown sugar mixture evenly over each one.

Return the pan to the oven; roast (upper rack) for about 12 minutes; there will still be some slightly translucent flesh at the center of the fish), or you can keep roasting the salmon until it is done to your liking. The onions or scallions and potatoes should be cooked through.

Squeeze the lime’s juice over everything in the pan. Serve hot.

Makes 4 servings. Nutrition per serving: 570 calories, 38 grams protein, 30 grams carbohydrates, 33 grams fat, 7 grams saturated fat, 95 milligrams cholesterol, 420 milligrams sodium, 6 grams dietary fiber, 8 grams sugar.

— Adapted from “Oven to Table: Over 100 One-Pot and One-Pan Recipes for Your Sheet Pan, Skillet, Dutch Oven and More,” by Jan Scott (Penguin/Random House, 2019).

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