High on my list of frustrating, self-loathing moments? Locking myself out of the apartment—and trying to turn out a loaf of zucchini bread only to see that large chunks have adhered to the pan's bottom. In the best cases, it can be cobbled back together, but to the naked eyes (and my guests), it still appears as if a small creature has attacked.
For protection against mangled loaves, choose your vessel carefully (many expert bakers recommend light-colored, non-stick metal pans) and prepare them well. But when a recipe says simply to "grease" the pans, much is open to interpretation: Butter generously, or butter and flour, or butter and sugar? Take extra precaution and line the bottom with parchment paper? Sometimes, you'll even want to create a parchment sling—but not if a crusty outer edge is what you desire.
Oh boy—that's already a lot to remember.
I'll admit, I most often reach for the bottle of PAM spray (or whatever non-stick spray's closest to my person) and spritz away: I find that a spray gives even coverage and the most reliable slides-right-out results. And if that spray includes flour, formulated specifically for baking, I'm on cloud nine. Is it because I'm too lazy to cut parchment paper? I won't deny it.
But for those who get the heebie-jeebies thinking about PAM (maybe it's the spray can or the anticipation of a greasy mess), Food52er Mary Richardson has shared a make-it-yourself PAM-alternative that she says makes "all of [her] baking turn out the absolute best." Her Special Grease is "a homemade pan-release of equal parts vegetable oil, vegetable shortening [or butter,] and flour. [...] Loaves release completely, with nary a crumb left behind."
Community member Beth said she uses a similar blend, which she mixes to a batter-like consistency in a food processor. It keeps for months in the fridge and "works wonders on bundt pans that often have deep creases and shapes."
We blended a batch of Special Grease (S.G, as I'll call it) and tested its magical powers by baking two zucchini bundts from Martha Stewart. We greased one pan generously with butter, then dusted it with flour, as per the recipe's instructions; in the other, we used a paper towel to apply a layer of S.G. in every cranny.
When the cakes came out of the oven, it was clear that the S.G. had affected how the batter interacted with the pan. The S.G. cake had released from the sides of the pan and appeared less domed. You can see in the picture below that the cake on the left, where the S.G. was applied, has a more distinct "outline" around the circumference, with less of a height difference between the center and the edges.
I was certain that the S.G. cake would fall right out of the pan—but it was not the case! While the butter-and-flour cake came right out, with no cajoling necessary, the S.G. cake actually left a few crumbs behind (you'll spot them in the photo below). It was the surprise of the
century afternoon! The S.G., however, did not produce a distinctly different texture or "crust," which was my biggest worry.
But I wasn't convinced just yet that the grease was not magical. More testing was necessary! (Warning: Amateur photos from this point forward.)
First, I followed Stella's instructions: Line the pan with a parchment paper round and then spray it with nonstick spray. Then, I used Special Grease. And finally, I went wild and used a very generous smear of butter.
Parchment Round + PAM Spray:
It was easy to release this cake from its pan, but the parchment created a rippled texture along the bottom of the cake and there was a bit of "stickage" where the batter had flowed underneath the parchment and adhered to the pan's bottom. The cake did feel and look a bit moister than the S.G. cake (pictured below)—and there was no trace of crusty flour anywhere in sight.
The S.G. cake released with no trouble at all—yahtzee! There was no real "crust," though I did detect a tiny bit of flour residue in some areas. What's more, this cake was also the only cake that did not have a mysterious fissure in the center—you'll see distinct "rings" in the two other layers. Was this cake also flatter and more even, with no strange crack in the center, for the same reason that the bundt cake baked in the Special Grease pan was flatter and more even all over?
The cake was also the least "sloped" from bottom to top, which would make for the most perfect-looking assembly.
Loads of Butter:
I would never do this again!! Exclamation point! I had to use a knife to dislodge the sides of the cake, then bang my hand all over the bottom of the pan to release the layer. Once the cake had finally dislodged, I saw the thick layer of crumbs it left behind. I can only imagine how terrible it would be to frost this crumby cake, which also seemed to be the most delicate of the group.
So finally, some redemption for the Special Grease! It had given me the easiest prep—since I already had a container in my fridge and didn't have to take a scissor to parchment paper—and produced the most evenly baked cake. Win, win.
For my final test, I decided to try some standard issue pound cakes. Loaf cakes, after all, have been my chief source of stress. So would the Special Grease be the solution I had been looking for?
I greased one pan with the Special Grease and the other with butter. When the cakes came out of the oven, they looked the same; this time, I didn't notice that one was flatter and one was more domed. Plus, since both had risen a little bit over the pan's edges, it was hard to determine if either had pulled away from the sides.
When I turned the cakes out, the loaf baked in the S.G. pan released easily—I didn't even have to run a knife around the edges. According to baking expert Alice Medrich, the flour in the Special Grease (or when you apply a sprinkling of flour post-greasing) "seals the batter and creates an even crust on the surface of the cake, which further helps it to release from the pan without sticking and usually allows for un-molding without detaching the cake with a spatula."
But still, there was a chunk that stuck behind! See the damage in the photos below.
The butter-greased cake was more stubborn: It wanted to stay in that comfortable pan forever (which is why it remains there in the photos above). By shoving a butter knife repeatedly around the pan's edges, I was finally able to eject the cake—and yet, a few crumbs lingered. Big sigh.
The cake baked in the buttered pan had a lighter, softer crust compared to the Special Grease cake, which was browner, with a more distinct textural difference between the exterior and interior portions. Consider which type of cake crust you like best when deciding whether to use Special Grease rather than butter or nonstick spray. I myself like the contrast of a thick outer edge.
So what's the take-away? Is this Special Grease really magical? Well, I'll hold onto my tub and use it for layer cakes, where it worked just as well as PAM; and wherever a recipe says to butter and flour; and when I'm looking for an even, distinct crust. But I'm not throwing away my PAM bottle just yet, either—it's best for tender-all-over cakes, and it's still handy for marshmallows and taffy, after all.
What's your go-to method for greasing cake pans? Have you tried Special Grease or something like it? Tell us in the comments below.