One of my favorite pieces of kitchen kit for many years was a simple plastic pastry mat I received as a gift. It did an excellent job of keeping flour off the counter and was imprinted with circles showing how far dough should be rolled out for different sizes of pie and tart pans. The mat also made it easier to get pie crusts into a pan, because you could invert the pan onto the dough and then just flip the entire assembly over. Try that with a countertop! But eventually, my faithful pastry mat finally gave up the ghost, so I headed down to my favorite kitchen supply store to buy a replacement.
Kitchen stores are dangerous places for me, just like hardware stores and computer stores. Everywhere I look there’s some newfangled, high-tech gadget calling out to me, and my mind races as I consider all the new things I could create if only I had this or that new tool. I thought I would be safe in the cookie-sheet aisle, though: all I needed was a simple US$5 plastic mat. And there it was, right next to…wait, what’s this? A $25 fiberglass-reinforced, nonstick, heatproof, silicone pastry mat! Although I did not immediately grasp how this technological wonder would improve on the old-fashioned plastic mat, it was shiny and had an irresistible texture, not to mention lots of impressive-looking words on the box. Guess which one I left with.
Silicone baking mats were invented by French chemist Guy Demarle. His Silpat mats, introduced in France in 1982, are still made and sold by the company he founded, Demarle. One of the major selling points of the silicone mat was that because it had a nonstick surface, it was not necessary to flour it before rolling out dough. I should have realized this claim was nonsense, though: I’ve found that moist dough sticks quite nicely even to a Teflon-coated rolling pin, whereas dry flour does not—making it harder in some cases, not easier, to roll out dough. The silicone mat behaves much the same way. Its slightly tacky surface keeps it from sliding around on the counter, which is good, but rolling out dough on the top is no different from rolling out dough on any other surface. The flour is still mandatory.
However, the claim of nonstickiness is not exactly false either. Silicone is, as the package said, heatproof—it can live quite happily in a 500°F (260°C) oven. If you bake something on it—cookies or pastries, say—they will indeed slide right off. (Some such mats are made for the express purpose of lining baking sheets.) In other words, silicone baking mats function as reusable parchment paper, which makes sense because parchment paper, after all, is simply silicone-coated paper. The mats merely replace the paper substrate with, in most cases, a finely woven fiberglass mesh that helps the silicone to keep its shape and prevent tearing.
Of course, the pastry mat is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to silicone baking products: you can easily find silicone cake pans, muffin pans, cookie molds, oven mitts, spatulas, whisks, and so on. Silicone appears to be the trendy new kitchen wonder material. But is it really all that great? What makes it better than metal or plastic?
Versatility, Thy Name is Silicone
Silicone is not the name of a specific chemical substance but rather a whole class of polymers, all based on a particular arrangement of silicon and oxygen atoms. Unlike elemental silicon, the brittle material from which computer chips are made, silicone is generally flexible and translucent. Silicones vary in density and texture; some are liquid (used as sealants, adhesives, and lubricants), some are a gel (used in surgical implants), and still others, such as the ones used in baking products, are more solid.
Three properties in particular make silicone interesting as a bakeware material. First, unlike metal, it’s a poor conductor of heat. (Or, to look at it the other way around, it’s an excellent insulator.) This prevents whatever’s on the other side from burning—whether it’s a cookie or your hand. Second, it can tolerate a huge range of temperatures—from freezer to oven—without melting or cracking, so it can be used in situations that would destroy conventional plastic or rubber. And third, it’s flexible, which means removing Bundt cakes, muffins, and the like is a simple matter of flexing the mold. The combination of flexibility and light weight also makes silicone products easy to store.
So are there any downsides to this miracle substance? Well, the very properties that make silicone useful can, in some cases, cause problems. Because it’s a good insulator, it inhibits not only burning but also browning. So if you’re baking something that should be crispy on the outside, silicone is not your friend—stick with metal. Also, silicone’s flexibility can cause large molds to deform when filled with dense, heavy batters. And because silicone baking mats, pans, and molds are not rigid, you often need to put them on a regular baking sheet just to get them into and out of the oven without spilling their contents. On the other hand, a whole stack of silicone baking sheets could fall off a shelf without waking up your downstairs neighbor. It’s arguably the world’s quietest bakeware, and I’ll gladly pay a premium for that.
Note: This is an updated version of an article that originally appeared on Interesting Thing of the Day on September 10, 2004.