How To Cook In Parchment

This week's question: How and what to cook in parchment paper?

Forming a tightly sealed packet to hold and cook food is the perfect method for steaming or moist heat cooking. Steam is created inside the packet from an outside heat source and the natural moisture from the food or liquid added to the packet. The tightly sealed packet holds natural juices from food like tender fish, boneless chicken, vegetables and fruit during cooking, adding moisture and enhancing the flavor of a dish.

It's a simple technique that delivers great flavor, aroma, and a "wow" factor in presentation. En papillote is the French term for cooking in a parchment packet. Parchment paper has a silicone coating which prevents food from sticking and can handle high temperatures (up to 450 F) without breaking down or burning.

tips and techniques after the jump

Foil can also be used for making cooking packets, but not the best choice for cooking with high acid food (tomatoes, citrus), which reacts with aluminum in the foil, discoloring food and potentially creating an off flavor.

Parchment paper and foil are only two of the materials used to cook food with steam. Banana leaves, cornhusks, grape leaves, even cabbage leaves and dough wrappers like wontons are used to form packets for steaming foods in a variety of cuisines.

The method is widely associated with steaming fish and vegetables together. It is also a delicious way to cook vegetable medleys mixed with fresh herbs and thinly sliced potatoes and onions for side dishes. Try cooking fruit en papillote for an easy dessert using fruit, spices and a drizzle of triple sec, brandy and honey or agave nectar.

Tips for cooking in parchment:
1. Start with a rectangle of parchment paper. Fold the rectangle in half lengthwise. Cut a heart shape 3- 4 inches larger than the food going inside.

2. Choose tender foods with a high moisture content. Combine ingredients and flavors from your favorite recipes. Think of classic preparations- trout with butter, parsley, lemon slices, and white wine, or halibut with fennel, shallots, red onion, Kalamata olives and orange slices. Pair chicken with tomatoes, onions, zucchini, thyme sprigs, olives and capers. Firm tofu picks up flavor from shitake mushrooms, ginger, scallion, garlic, soy sauce, a sprinkle of crushed red pepper and a splash of sesame oil.

Protein choices: Lean boneless chicken, pounded evenly and about 1inch thick.
Flaky fish: salmon, tilapia, trout, black cod, sea bass or halibut. Shellfish. Firm tofu-cut into 1- inch thick strips or cubes.

Vegetables: thinly sliced onions, squash, tomatoes, peppers, mushrooms, and asparagus. Cut vegetables that cook quickly larger than slower cooking vegetables used in the same dish.
Par cook vegetables, like potatoes, that require a long cooking time before using in packet.
Add flavor from aromatics and herbs: ginger, scallions, shallots, fennel, leeks, fresh herb sprigs, capers, olives.

Fat: Brush the protein with a small amount of olive oil or add a slice of compound butter on top of the protein. Fat is not necessary for steam cooking, making it a good method for low calorie meals.

Liquid: Add a few splashes of wine, broth, citrus juice, soy sauce, fish sauce, coconut milk or cream.

3. Open the heart shaped parchment. Place ingredients requiring the most cooking time on the bottom of the packet (onion, fennel, potato) a little to the side of the fold. Place the protein on top. Layer thinly sliced vegetables over the protein. Add herb sprigs, citrus slices, capers, scallions or olives last.

4. Drizzle liquid (broth, wine...) over the layered ingredients.

5. Seal the packet: begin at the rounded top of the heart and tightly pleat or fold over an inch of the paper at an angle. Continue pleating and folding inch- by- inch, working toward the pointed tip of the heart. Twist and tightly seal the last fold. Egg white can be used to help seal the packet-lightly brush on edges before pleating.

6. Place the parchment packets on a baking sheet. The packets can be held in the refrigerator until ready to steam.

7. Bake at 375 F until the packets puff fully with steam and the paper is brown. Fish fillets cook in 7-10 minutes; chicken takes about 20 minutes, depending on thickness of cut. The cooking time is the same as roasting time for most recipes.

8. Plate the packet and bring to the table. Slit the packet open with a knife along the top when ready to serve.

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