Cooking Tip Thursdays is dedicated to making time in the kitchen quicker, easier, and just plain better…
Want a meal you can pull off with little fuss and hardly any cleanup? Cooking en papillote, steaming small portions of food in a wrapper, is healthy and virtually foolproof. The idea behind cooking en papillote is to encase tender, mild foods in a wrapped packet (parchment paper, grape, banana or bamboo leaves, cornhusks, aluminum foil, or any other oven-proof material) that will allow the food to become infused with the juices, spices, and herbs surrounding it. As the package is heated, the air inside expands, and the flavors of the ingredients are swept into it, swirling and mixing, with no escape. Steaming en papillote requires little or no added fat and as steam builds up in the packet, the food is cooked quickly and gently.
The method of cooking en papillote has been around through a vast array of culinary trends. It was especially popular in the days when high-end cuisine was more ceremonious, as servers would open the package at the table in a dramatic show of bursting aromatic steam. And it gained notoriety during the height of the 80’s healthy eating movement, as it required little to no fat. Now, it still maintains its place, mostly in restaurants, for perhaps the pure fact it is esthetically pleasing and refined. Yet cooking en papillote is fast, uncomplicated in its execution, and can make life easier for anyone. Home cook or haute cuisine chef. It is the perfect solution for busy weeknight dinners. Toss ingredients into paper, fold the edges, place in oven, and dinner is done. It doesn’t get much easier than that. And why not surprise dinner guests when entertaining. There’s something inherently festive about each guest opening up their own individual packet to a cloud of fragrant steam.
En Papillote Tips:
- Parchment paper is generally used, though aluminum foil is a bit easier to use. It is simple to fold, you just crimp the edges shut. But choose parchment when steaming foods with a salt rub or highly acidic accent, such as vinegar, to avoid discoloration or off odors caused by a chemical reaction with the aluminum.
- With parchment, you traditionally fold the paper in half and cut out the shape of a heart, then make many small folds to get a tight seal and a half-heart shape. It takes more time, and holds less securely than foil, but it is more attractive when serving.
- Parchment baking paper is coated with silicone (similar to silicone baking sheet liners) to render a sturdy, burn-resistant, nonstick paper impervious to liquids.
- Don’t substitute wax paper for parchment when steaming. Wax paper tears easily, and more importantly, it will burn and eventually leak liquids.
- Parchment paper can safely be used in an oven at temperatures up to 450°.
- The parchment will be puffy and slightly browned when the dish is nearly done.
- Cooking en papillote works best with tender foods that cook quickly (boneless chicken breasts instead of legs or flaky fish like halibut rather than dense fish such as tuna). Shellfish also work well, as do vegetables with high moisture content like onions, zucchini, squash, eggplant or bell pepper.
- Consider the amount of time it will take for the main ingredient to cook, and cut the accompanying items into sizes that will cook in the same amount of time. If you’re preparing a tender fish fillet with potatoes, for instance, you’ll need to slice the potatoes thinly so everything will be done at once. Otherwise, you’ll end up with undercooked potatoes or overcooked fish.
- If a food does not have a lot of moisture in it (like carrots or turnips), add other foods with high moisture content (like spinach or tomatoes) or a splash of liquid to create steam within the packet.
- The ingredients in the packet will bring flavors of their own, but it’s nice to add fresh or dried herbs, salt, pepper, and other spices, and liquids like wine, broth, soy sauce, coconut milk, or citrus juice.