A new twist in bakeware

Silicone is flexible, colorful and easy to clean and store

April 06, 2005|By Jill Wendholt Silva | Jill Wendholt Silva,KNIGHT RIDDER/TRIBUNE

For 45 years, Marilyn Hail made her family's favorite lemon cake in a traditional metal fluted bundt pan. But two years ago she decided to buck tradition.

When her son gave her a flexible silicone mold purchased at a hardware store as a Christmas present, she gave the Space Age bakeware a try. "The texture is good. The taste is no different," the Leawood, Kan., home cook says.

Her biggest criticism? "It just looks pale, like it hasn't browned enough."

Hail says she still prefers standard glass, ceramic and metal baking pans, but she can see the appeal of the new heat-resistant material. "I'm an old-fashioned cook, but I think a new cook would be totally intrigued with it because they don't have a preconceived idea."

Although temperature ratings vary, most silicone bakeware is heat-resistant up to 500 degrees. It can go from the freezer to the microwave. It is top-rack dishwasher-safe. The bakeware is soft and squishy to the touch and its nonstick properties and overall elasticity allow a batch of muffins to pop out of the molds.

Once available only in commercial kitchens, French-made Silpat baking mats started the mainstream move toward silicone. Next came Hot Spots, a popular silicone potholder, followed by spatulas and whisks in an array of bold colors for less than $10 that gave curious bakers an inexpensive way to check out the new technology.

Now a host of specialty products ranging from heart-shaped silicone cake pans to the $15 Silibrush, a silicone-tentacled pastry brush, are coming home.

"It's a great, fun material in terms of its flexibility. We sit around like mad scientists trying to create something new for the category," says Michael Karyo, chief executive officer of SiliconeZone. "We haven't had any real innovation in the bakeware category for a long time."

Karyo didn't invent silicone, but he did bring it to the masses. The company produces a line of 200 brightly colored items that are sold at better housewares stores and specialty supermarkets such as Bed, Bath and Beyond and Whole Foods.

In just over three years, the company has grown to $11 million in sales. Still, most retailers say silicone bakeware is less than 5 percent of the market.

"We're not going to put the metal bakeware people out of business," Karyo says.

Thom West first encountered SiliconeZone bakeware at a trade show three years ago. "I knew it would be a while when people who work in the industry didn't even know what it was," says West, a buyer for the upscale housewares store Sur La Table.

But recently West spotted a five-piece baking set at Wal-Mart for $20. Prices can range from $70 for a French professional madeleine mold to $10 for a spatula, but generally pieces range from $20 to $25.

"I think people are still very practical and most just want stainless bakeware," says Louise Meyers, owner of Pryde's Old Westport, a gourmet housewares and kitchen store in Kansas City, Mo. "A lot of people are fascinated with silicone, just not fascinated enough to buy it. It's for a certain type of cook."

"It's really personal preference," says Lisa Hoffman, a spokeswoman for Bed, Bath and Beyond. "It's a different method of cooking."

The first time West made madeleines, he pulled them out of the oven and inadvertently flexed the pan. The madeleines flew all over the kitchen.

The flexibility of the bakeware can be its greatest asset and its greatest liability. Because the sidewalls are a bit wobbly, it's advisable to use a cookie sheet to support a mold filled with batter. Some bakeware lines such as KitchenAid include a metal baking rack for additional support, but that can defeat the storage advantage.

West says the brilliant colors -- red, cornflower blue, lime green and bright orange -- are one of the appeals of silicone bakeware. For years, the commercial versions came in gray or burnt orange, hardly fashion-forward colors. Hot Spots are available in a dozen colors, including wine, sage, bamboo and clear, but valentine red is the biggest seller, with blue and black following closely behind.

Silicone is easy to clean and easy to store. Wad up a silicone bundt pan, then let it unfold to its original shape. Even over time, it has a memory that allows it to spring back to its original form. Plus its nonstick properties mean baking with less grease.

Professional bakeware can withstand temperatures as high as 900 degrees, but most home cooks would never need to bake at temperatures higher than 350 degrees to 400 degrees. For instance, SiliconeZone's bakeware is guaranteed from minus 58 degrees to 423 degrees, cold enough to make ice-cream cakes and gelatin molds or hot enough for cookies, cakes and muffins.

Manufacturers and retailers of silicone bakeware say getting past the psychological barrier -- assuring skeptical customers rubber will not burn in the oven -- is the biggest hurdle to wider acceptance. Food-grade silicone is approved by the Food and Drug Administration, and manufacturers are required to heat-test their products.

With silicone's leap into the kitchen, choosing high-quality pieces can be tricky. Brand name or a higher price seem like obvious indicators of quality, but perhaps the best indictor is what Karyo calls the "twist test." Pinch the sidewalls and twist. If a white indentation forms at the crease, chances are fillers were used to bulk up the silicone.

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