SLIPPERY SLOPE: From bundt cake pans to muffin "tins," just about every pan needed for baking can be found made from silicone.
SLIPPERY SLOPE: From bundt cake pans to muffin "tins," just about every pan needed for baking can be found made from silicone. (Bea Ahbeck - Staff)
IF IT WAS a beauty contest, silicone bakeware would win the prize in any kitchen. It's soft and cute, floppy and fun and downright pretty when you stack it all together.

Pink bundt pans, baby blue loaf pans, dark blue and red muffin pans and spatulas in every color of the rainbow turn the whole idea of baking into a party. They make me want to chuck my boring old bakeware out the kitchen window. Who needs it anyway?

But before I chuck, I have questions. How do you use this newfangled floppyware? What is it made out of? Isn't it going to melt in my oven? Do I use the same oven temperature? How do I get it into the oven without spilling it?

Before I could dive into the silicone zone, I needed answers, so I called Berkeley baker Carolyn Weil, who, it turns out, is not a big fan of silicone bakeware.

Silicone bakeware, she says, is entirely safe to use, since the molecules in silicone are entirely stable and do not impart anything to the food that you cook in it. She also confirmed that the stuff won't melt so long as you don't put it in an ovenhotter than 500 degrees.

But she still doesn't like it.

"I don't use silicone a lot," she says. "I like silicone spatulas and mats, but not the other things I've tried," she says. "I find that it makes more of a crust on a cake than I want. It also tends to make my cake darker and more dense."

She says she once washed her silicone pan with soap and that soap flavor was imparted to the next thing she baked in it. That said, Weil admits that she does love some things about silicone. Its release factor has been greatly exaggerated, but is nonetheless real.

"You have to butter it and flour it, but if you do that, you don't have a problem. When you're making something delicate that is hard to get out of the pan, silicone is better."

To the test

Forwarned, I ducked into the kitchen for my very first silicone encounter using recipes for ultra-simple, no-fail brownies and snack muffins that I have made way too many times to count.

First up were the muffins, a streusel-topped oatmeal muffin that is admittedly a slightly sticky selection.

Before filling an assortment of muffin and mini-muffin pans provided by Kitchen Aid, Le Creuset and Silicone Zone, I decided to experiment a little. I sprayed half of the cups with non-stick spray and left the other half alone.

Cups filled, oven ready, I pondered the best way to get them from counter to oven. For the larger trays of cups, I decided on a flat cookie tray — which worked fine except I couldn't get the silicone to slide off the metal, so I just left the pan underneath.

-Tip No. 1: Be sure to have enough trays to go under all of your silicone ware.

The smaller, thicker tray from Silicone Zone looked thick enough to move, so I popped it directly onto the oven rack. The tray seemed stable, but 10 minutes into the baking time, the edges started to bend, spilling batter to the bottom of the oven.

-Tip No. 2: It doesn't matter how thick it seems, silicone ware needs a metal tray underneath.

As my muffins cooked, I filled a round and a square pan with a batch of tri-level brownies that I have made at least 50 times and tucked those into the oven as well. I was hopeful, yet I have to admit that I didn't like the funny smell of warm silicone coming from the oven.

I also didn't like that I couldn't turn my pans the way I wanted to for even browning.

DENSE IS GOOD: It took a couple of tries to achieve success with a batch of Tri-Level Brownies. Silicon bakeware tends to make foods more dense, which is
DENSE IS GOOD: It took a couple of tries to achieve success with a batch of Tri-Level Brownies. Silicon bakeware tends to make foods more dense, which is perfect for brownies. (BEA AHBECK -- Staff)
I could turn the tray around, but if I tried to move the pan, the silicone mushed against the contents, compromising its shape.

About 15 minutes before the timer went off, the silicone bakeware I was using failed me.

Way too early on in the baking, the crust of the brownies became overcooked and the edges started to look burned. Not good.

-Tip No. 3: Food cooks much faster in silicone bakeware. Reduce your oven temperature slightly and start checking your food about two thirds of the way through the cooking time.

Disappointed, I pulled the brownies out of the oven and sulked until it was time to remove the muffins as well. Later, when I tried to remove my muffins from their pans, I was again frustrated. 

The 100 percent silicone pan from Le Creuset popped the muffins out with ease. But the Kitchen Aid and the Silicone Zone pans did not. I had sprayed only half of these cups, but well more than half of these muffins were so stuck that I had to pry them out with a butter knife, which is a huge no-no in the silicone world. Knives and metal tools should never be used on silicone, the labels say.

Is sili just silly?

Annoyed, yet determined to figure this new bakeware out, I turned to Kingsley Shannon, senior product manager at Calphalon, for a pep talk.

Their company has just a few silicone items, all baby pink, shiny and made of thick, 100 percent silicone.

"Some people think that this bakeware will replace their old pans," she says, "but it won't. It just won't. Aluminum is a lot more durable and versatile."

She says that the key to enjoying silicone bakeware is to select only those silicone items that add something to your bakeware selection; those that perform better than their traditional counterparts.

"We see a lot of people buying the 12-cup muffin pans because they pop the muffins out so easily and they are so easy to clean up," she says.

"The trick is that you do have to grease the cups. People think that silicone is non-stick, but it really isn't."

Another consideration, she says, is to make sure that the silicone bakeware you do add to your kitchen is 100 percent silicone, which makes food less likely to stick and much more likely to cook evenly.

"You can tell if it is 100 percent silicone if you bend it in half. Look at the fold. If you can see white, then the bakeware contains fillers which are less predictable in baking."

For baking, thicker silicone ware is better, she says, as is light-colored silicone ware.

"Dark colors tend to absorb heat differently than light colors.

Also, consider the surface of the silicone. Shiny, slick surfaces will give you more of those non-stick properties."

Round two

Encouraged, I pulled out a pair of recipes for another silicone bake test. I chose a peanut butter bread so I could test a loaf pan and a white cake to bake in a gorgeous pink bundt-style pan.

I had already learned that things bake faster in silicone so I backed up the kitchen timer to make sure these would turn out.

Within the hour, I knew two more things about silicone ware: The bundt-shaped pan is OK as long as you don't mind a cake that's less airy than usual. The loaf pan is a total bust — it bows out in the middle as the bread cooks and the bread loses its shape entirely. I suspect the manufacturers of this pan never even baked anything in it.

Still not convinced that anyone would want this stuff, I searched for local bakers who actually use silicone. Most commercial bakeries I called told me they don't use it at all. Cheryl Lew of Montclair Baking took the time to explain why.

"It's too expensive. We use the flat sheets but the other things are just too delicate. They won't hold up and there's really no reason to use them," she says.

Facing a story deadline and still wondering why people would add this kind of bakeware to their kitchen at all, I decided it was time to stop playing around with this silicone ware. I grabbed a vat of sugar, a pound of butter and headed to the kitchen for a final intensive silicone workout.

I baked brownies and re-baked those tri-level brownies that had burned before. I baked some poppyseed cupcakes and brownie bites in those muffin pans that had stuck so miserably. Only this time I was serious. I wanted answers.

Here is what I learned: First, don't buy silicone ware for cakes.

You will be disappointed. Silicone ware tends to make everything you bake a bit more dense. Dense brownies are good, dense cakes are bad.

I figured out that those little muffin pans aren't bad — you just have to butter every cup before filling them with batter. If you do that, the muffins will pop out with ease. Note that spray oil doesn't work nearly as well as old fashioned buttering.

I learned that silicone bakeware needs that tray underneath not just for stability, but also to promote even cooking. The brownies that burned without a tray underneath turned out beautifully when baked on top of a thick air-tray.

And about that rubbery smell that I don't like? It's apparently part of the deal — and note that the smell gets worse if the sides of your silicone pan accidentally rest against the side of the oven.

As I washed up the mountain of pans from my baking adventure I realized that there is one thing I really love about silicone pans — the clean-up. There's nothing to scrub, ever.

Still, the most important thing I learned is that silicone bakeware is not magic ware. It's a pan.

It may look fun, but when you go to use it, you can't pretend you're at a party. You have to take all of the same steps you would with metal bakeware, and maybe a few more.

Tri-Level Brownies

From "Better Homes and Gardens Complete Step-by Step Cookbook"

For oat layer:
1 cup quick-cooking rolled oats
1/2 cup all-purpose flour
1/2 cup brown sugar
1/4 teaspoon baking soda
1/4 teaspoon salt
6 tablespoons butter, melted

For brownie layer:
3/4 cup granulated sugar
1/4 cup butter, melted
1 square (1 ounce) unsweetened chocolate, melted (1 1/2 for richer brownies)
1 egg
1/3 cup flour
1/4 teaspoon baking powder
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/4 cup milk
1/2 teaspoon vanilla

For icing:
1 square unsweetened chocolate, melted (1 1/2 for richer brownies)
2 tablespoons butter
1 1/2 cups sifted powdered sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla
16 walnut halves

Stir together the oats, the 1/2cup flour, brown sugar, soda and 1/4teaspoon salt. Stir in the 6 tablespoons butter. Pat into an 11-by-7 inch pan. Bake in a 350-degree oven for 10 minutes; cool.

Mix granulated sugar, the 1/4 cup butter and 1 square melted chocolate. Add egg; beat well. Stir together the cup flour, baking powder and 1/4 teaspoon salt. Add to chocolate mixture alternately with a mixture of the milk and 1/2 teaspoon vanilla. Spread over baked layer. Bake in 350-degree oven for 25 minutes or until done. Cool.

To make icing, melt 1 square chocolate and 2 tablespoons butter over low heat. Stir in powdered sugar and 1 teaspoon vanilla. Blend in enough hot water to make an almost pourable consistency, about 2 tablespoons. Frost brownies and top with walnut halves.

Makes 16.

Per serving:280 Calories, 3 g Protein, 40 g Carbohydrates, 13 g Total Fat, 7 g Saturated Fat, 35 mg Cholesterol, 110 mg Sodium, 2 g Fiber. Calories from fat: 43 percent.

Oatmeal Cake

Recipe courtesy of Virginia Chitwood

For streusel topping:
1 cup brown sugar
1/4 cup milk
1 cup chopped nuts
1 cup shredded coconut

For cake:
1 1/2 cups boiling water
1 cup quick oats
1/2 cup (1 stick) butter
1 cup brown sugar
1 cup granulated sugar
2 eggs
1 1/2 cups flour
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1 teaspoon baking soda

Mix streusel ingredients together and set aside.

Pour boiling water over oats, add butter and cover for 5 minutes. Uncover and stir occasionally until the butter melts. Cool slightly. Add sugars and mix with an electric beater for about 30 seconds. Add eggs and beat well. Add flour, cinnamon and soda. Mix well, then pour into a prepared 11-by-13-inch baking pan. Top with reserved streusel mix, sprinkling evenly over the entire top of the cake. Bake for 45 minutes at 375 degrees.

Alternately, spoon batter into mini-muffin cups, top with streusel and bake for 25 minutes at 375 degrees, or until a toothpick inserted into the cupcake in the center of your pan comes out clean.

Makes about 36 servings.

Per serving (based on 36): 150 Calories, 2 g Protein, 24 g Carbohydrates, 6 g Total Fat, 2.5 g Saturated Fat, 20 mg Cholesterol, 50 mg Sodium, trace Fiber. Calories from fat: 33 percent.

Chewy, Fudgy Triple Chocolate Brownies

Recipe adapted from Cook's Illustrated Magazine, May 2000 issue

5 ounces semisweet or bittersweet chocolate, chopped
2 ounces unsweetened chocolate, chopped
8 tablespoons unsalted butter
3 tablespoons cocoa powder
3 large eggs
1 1/4 cups sugar
2 teaspoons vanilla
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 cup all-purpose flour

Grease an 8-by-8-inch baking pan. Melt chocolates and butter together over a double boiler, or in the microwave, stirring every 20 seconds. When chocolate is entirely melted, whisk in cocoa powder until smooth. Set aside to cool slightly.

In a medium bowl, whisk together eggs, sugar, vanilla and salt until combined, about 15 seconds. Whisk warm chocolate mixture into egg mixture; then stir in flour with a wooden spoon until it is just combined. Pour mixture into prepared pan, spread into corners and make the surface as level as you can. Bake until slightly puffed and a toothpick inserted in the center comes out with a small amount of crumbs clinging to it, 25 to 35 minutes. Do not overbake. Cool on wire rack until room temperature. Invert and cut brownies into 1-inch squares.

Makes 64 1-inch brownies or about 40 brownie bites.

Per brownie (based on 64): 70 Calories, 1 g Protein, 7 g Carbohydrates, 4 g Total Fat, 2.5 g Saturated Fat, 20 mg Cholesterol, 20 mg Sodium, 0 Fiber. Calories from fat: 57 percent.

Lemon Poppyseed Butterfly Cupcakes

Recipe from "The Cupcake Deck" by Elinor Klivans (Chronicle Books, $14.95)

For cupcakes:
1 cup all-purpose flour
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/4 cup butter
3/4 cup sugar
2 large eggs
1 teaspoon vanilla
2 teaspoons grated lemon zest
1 tablespoon poppy seeds
1/2 cup buttermilk

For filling:
1/4 cup butter
1/4 cup fresh lemon juice
2 large eggs
2 egg yolks
1 cup sugar
2 tablespoons cornstarch, dissolved in 1/4cup additional lemon juice
1 teaspoon grated lemon zest
1 cup heavy whipping cream
2 tablespoons powdered sugar
1/2 teaspoon vanilla

Preheat oven to 350 degrees and prepare 12 muffin tins. If using silicone, be sure to butter cups thoroughly. Sift the flour, baking powder, baking soda and salt into a medium bowl and set aside.

In a large bowl, using an electric mixer on medium speed, beat the butter and sugar until smoothly blended and lightened in color, about 1 minute. Stop the mixer and scrape the sides of the bowl as needed. Add the eggs one at a time, beating until each is blended, about 1 minute. Mix in the vanilla, lemon zest and poppy seeds. On low speed, add half of the flour mixture, mixing just to incorporate it. Mix in the buttermilk. Mix in the remaining flour just until the batter looks smooth.

Fill each muffin cup with 1/4cup of batter, to about 1/2inch below the top of the liner. Bake until just the top feels firm and a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean, about 18 minutes. Cool cupcakes slightly before removing to a wire rack.

For filling: In a saucepan, heat the butter and lemon juice over medium heat, until the butter melts and mixture is hot. In a bowl, whisk the eggs, yolks and sugar together, then whisk in the dissolved cornstarch. Whisking constantly, pour the hot butter mixture into the yolk mixture. Return the mixture to the saucepan and cook over medium heat, stirring constantly, just until it comes to a boil and thickens, about 6 minutes. The sauce should look clear instead of cloudy. Remove from the heat, strain into a small bowl, and stir in the lemon zest. Press plastic wrap onto the surface of the sauce, poke a few holes in the plastic wrap and refrigerate until cold.

In a large bowl, beat the cream with the powdered sugar and vanilla until soft peaks form. Using a rubber spatula, fold 1/4cup of the lemon filling into the cream then swirl another 1/2cup of the filling in, leaving streaks still visible.

Use a sharp knife to slice the top 1/4-inch off each cupcake, then cut into half circles. Dust the tops with powdered sugar and set aside. Using a spoon, dollop about 1/4cup of filling on top of each cupcake. Place the cut tops into the filling, rounded side down, to form the wings of a butterfly.

To finish, spoon the rest of the lemon filling into a plastic bag. Cut off the corner and pipe the bright yellow filling in a line between the cupcake top-wings. Serve right away or store in the refrigerator.

Makes 12 cupcakes.

Per cupcake: 330 Calories, 4 g Protein, 40 g Carbohydrates, 18 g Total Fat, 10 g Saturated Fat, 155 mg Cholesterol, 170 mg Sodium, 0 Fiber. Calories from fat: 48 percent.

You can e-mail food writer Jolene Thym at jthym@angnewspapers.com or call (510) 353-7008.