Picture it: an overhead photograph of bronze, burnished chicken thighs surrounded by wrinkly bursts of cherry tomatoes, tendrils of skinny asparagus, maybe some dollops of a green-hued sauce. Is that pesto? Chermoula? Scroll down your timeline a bit, and look here: an artful scattering of roasted carrots, some purple onions, and parsnips on a sheet pan. Is that… a roasted grape? Probably.
In recent years, cooking by sheet pan has taken the world by storm. A sibling to the “one-pot dinner” oeuvre of home cooking, sheet-pan cooking employs shallow baking pans made of aluminum or steel. Recipes usually involve permutations of protein, starch, and veg, and most proponents of the method cite relative affordability, approachability, and abundance (thanks to the sheet pan’s surface area) as hallmarks of a sheet-pan recipe — pile everything onto one pan, and dinner will soon be on the table.
One of the earlier instances of sheet-pan evangelism came via New York Times columnist Melissa Clark. Her 2009 recipe for roasted shrimp and broccoli didn’t explicitly call out the sheet pan, but bloggers took note that the recipe “dirties only one pan.” It wasn’t until 2014 — by our count — that Clark then sang the praises of the sheet pan itself. In a February column, Clark wrote, “If you have sheet pans, then you can make a supremely tasty supper for your family (protein, starch, green vegetable) in the oven all at once, with a minimum of prep and very little cleanup.”
“Before that, people were obviously cooking sides and veggies like Brussels sprouts in sheet pans,” says food and cookbook photographer Matt Armendariz, “but once you got bloggers doing ‘sheet-pan dinners,’ it exploded.” Armendariz thinks he started noticing the trend take hold three or four years ago. He’s not far off: Google Trends shows that searches for “sheet pan dinners,” “sheet pan cooking,” and “sheet pan recipes” started to take off around March 2017. Cecelia Jenkins, a senior editor at Cooks Illustrated, notes the magazine created a department dedicated to one-pan and one-pot cooking “back in 2015 due to overwhelming reader demand.” Jenkins says the department’s creation was an organic response to such refrains as “I have a small kitchen, I don’t have a dishwasher, I don’t want to spend a lot of time doing dishes.”
Like many other things, part of the ascendance of sheet-pan cooking can be blamed on Instagram and food photography: No cooking technique has been so connected to a style of social media-friendly photography as sheet pans have been with the flat-lay. Heck, I’m guilty of it. A kinda pretty (if banal) photo is simple to execute with even the most unsophisticated of phone cameras. Lean directly over the pan, shoot your shot, and you’ve got evidence of (hashtag) living your best life, filter at your discretion. To me, the flat-lay/sheet pan combo communicates a message of breezy put-togetherness.
Sheet-pan cooking lends itself to gorgeous photography because all the food exists on one plane, says Armendariz. “You don’t need to worry about exposure or focus issues, for starters. The cooking process can yield a viscerally appealing photo — you don’t have to style or fiddle around with the result.” (Interestingly, when it comes to one-pot cooking — the dominant trend before sheet pans — the people interviewed for this story all agree that one-pot braises, stews, and soups don’t have same social media legs.) Sheet-pan photos on Instagram are so prevalent that hip kitchenware company Great Jones recently released cobalt blue sheet pans, a savvy move to appeal to the Instagram set. “We wanted it to be aesthetically pleasing, something that you could make cookies on and then serve directly on your table,” Great Jones co-founder Sierra Tishgart told Eater, “something that would be joyful to look at and use.”
When following internet trends, it’s not hard to track the rise of the low-tech, inexpensive, and easy-to-use sheet pan. Fueled by Instagram and that other social-media platform popular to the aspirational home cook, Pinterest, sheet-pan recipes seeped into blogs, magazines, newspapers, and mountains of single-subject cookbooks. (Search Amazon if you dare.) “Searches first gained traction in January 2017, and have continually been climbing ever since,” says Swasti Sarna, insights manager at Pinterest. She says searches for sheet-pan cooking have also increased 159 percent between January 2017 to January 2019.
There’s a certain performative nonchalance to sheet-pan cooking, a snapshot of adulting in action — a quiet signal to the world that “I can cook for people I love,” or “I meal prep because #wellness,” or whatever message invites followers into one’s perfectly imperfect curation of their lives. Wade through the Google searches of sheet-pan recipes, and you’ll find the same words repeating themselves: humble, speedy, healthy, family-friendly, easy, approachable, no fuss, magic, hassle-free, breezy, weeknight go-to, “for busy cooks.” Sheet-pan cooking is democratic and forgiving, this word jumble seems to say. Sheet-pan cooking is for the harried and hopeless. In a 2018 article for the Cut, writer Madeleine Aggeler channeled Chrissy Teigen (who was herself inspired by cookbook author Alison Roman) to cook a sheet-pan chicken. “[Sheet-pan recipes] feel easy but elevated,” Aggeler wrote, “like you could pull one out at a dinner party and people would be impressed, but if you said something like, ‘Oh, this? I just threw it together!’ they might kind of believe you.”
“The allure of getting everything on one pan is really convenient,” says Cathy Erway, a food writer and author currently developing a sheet-pan cookbook for Taste, “but it’s not terribly new.” (Erway has contributed to Eater.) The ease of cooking is the appeal, she says, and the aesthetic is a bonus. “Whatever you cook can look like a painting, like a Pollock, especially when you put a sauce on it. It’s easy for amateurs to shoot — you can see the textures, individual bits of caramelization, colors and contrasts.”
For all the talk of convenience, though, sheet-pan cooking has its flaws. Proteins and vegetables can cook at different rates, while overcrowding a pan can result in steaming, which prevents browning, waters down flavors, and yields soggy food. And the “one-pan/one-pot” claim by online recipe writers and bloggers — admittedly one of the biggest draws to cooking via sheet pan — can be greatly exaggerated. Jenkins finds that many online recipes that tout using a sheet pan often obfuscate the amount of dishes actually required to cook them. “It’s strange how many recipes I encounter that require two, three bowls, but still pretend to be a single-pan recipe,” she says. At Cooks Illustrated, “we work backwards from our goal — say it’s a one-pan dish with protein, starch, and veg — and develop ways to cook it so it’s truly one pan.”
This often means staggering cooking times and chopping ingredients into the same size so they cook evenly, but cooking prep doesn’t have to be complicated. “A lot of people want the immediate gratification of throwing a full meal onto the pan and hoping for the best,” says Jenkins. “It is so rare that everything can meld together and be good.”
Does that make the convenience of sheet-pan cooking a sham? Not necessarily, but sheet-pan cooking is just not as easy as throwing, say, ingredients for chili in a slow cooker or Instant Pot, the gadget that has most recently captured the imagination of home cooks looking for easy, quick, speedy, and healthy ways to cook. “Consumer interest in multi-cookers like Instant Pot is fueled by speed and efficiency,” says Kate Shannon, senior editor of tastings and testings at America’s Test Kitchen. “We’re at this interesting point where appliances are getting smarter, but what is that connectivity or those enhanced features getting you?”
Shannon thinks that the sheet-pan “trend” will outlast the clamor for appliances. “We’re always finding new ways to use this thin sheet of metal,” she says. “Yeah, you can make a meal with it, but you can cook slab pies, or use it upside down to cook crisp pizza, or use it to help sort beans.”
And that impossible-to-clean patina most sheet pans develop? “It’s a sign of life,” says Erway, noting that it also helps to cook and caramelize food, an idea echoed by Epicurious, among others. While cleaner sheet pans are better tools for baking cookies, a well-loved pan will only improve roasted vegetables or proteins. Of course, the rustic quality of a used pan is just another element in an Instagrammer’s arsenal.
So maybe cooking with sheet pans don’t deserve all this scrutiny. Even as conversations about the shallowness of social media continue into 2020, there seems to be no harm in celebrating or encouraging an easy-to-execute cooking technique for millennials and Gen Z-ers looking to find ways to get into the kitchen. While social-media influencers continue to peddle in skinny teas and wellness goop, even the most expensive sheet pans are inexpensive — well-made ones cost under $30. Channeling the Chrissy Teigens and the Alison Romans of the world — both of whom champion approachable home cooking for loved ones — is surely a worthwhile pursuit. Unfussy, simple, and humble — these all sound like worthy #2020goals, as attainable as throwing a shallow metal plane into the oven.
Joseph Hernandez is a Brooklyn-based food and wine writer (and self-aware cliche).
Disclosure: Chrissy Teigen is producing shows for Hulu in partnership with Vox Media Studios, part of Eater’s parent company, Vox Media. No Eater staff member is involved in the production of those shows, and this does not impact coverage on Eater.