Eats and Drinks
Published: November 14, 2012
En Papillote (awn pah pee yote) is a fun-to-pronounce and really very easy technique that makes for—well, calling it dramatic might be a stretch, but it’s at least a pretty and even impressive presentation. “En papillote” translates to “in parchment,“ and the technique consists of using parchment paper to create a sealed cooking environment. This keeps water vapor, nutrients, and volatile flavor compounds from escaping into the air or whatever cooking medium you might be using (e.g., water, when boiling something). Thus, you get more moist and perhaps more nutritious food. But most importantly, you get the nice effect of a little poof of nommy-smelling steam to the face when you break the seal, which is, of course, the “voila” moment that is the main draw of cooking en papillote, the secondary draw being the simple novelty of cutting into a package to access your meal.
Disposable, custom-fitted single-serving cooking vessels are utilized all over the world. The most common one is probably the banana leaf, which is used for tamales in Central and South America, or for steaming seafood and rice in Southeast Asia, Polynesia, and India. En papillote and leaf-wrapping are distinguished from other types of self-contained cooking—like strombolis or Hot Pockets—in that the containers are inedible and very durable, which enables them to pull double-duty as a serving vessel. Another such example is camping standby of cooking a whole meal in aluminum foil. A more modern alternative is the plastic cooking bag. I know it seems counterintuitive and even dangerous to put a plastic bag in a hot oven, but it works pretty well.
The only special equipment you need is, of course, parchment paper. Parchment paper in the context of cooking is paper that’s been chemically processed to withstand high temperatures and coated to make it somewhat non-stick. That second part also makes it highly water-resistant. The traditional enclosing method is to cut two sheets of paper into a half-heart shapes, place the food in the middle of one (shiny side up), top with the other (shiny side down), and fold the edges over in 1-2 inch increments. But I’ve had just as much success with less painstaking (but admittedly less attractive) folding methods—my go-to is what I call the “double lunchbag,” which involves two sheets folded on top.
The big drawback of en papillote is that, once it’s sealed, you can’t manipulate its contents again until serving time. Thus, all the ingredients need to have similar cooking times, so something delicate like fish is best, paired with green vegetables and flavoring agents like lemon or herbs, and not anything starchy, like grains or potatoes, since they take longer to cook. On the other hand, proteins that take longer to cook can be paired with root vegetables and starches. My favorite camping meal is lamb cubes, potatoes, carrots, and mushrooms. I’ve made this properly en papillote at home and it’s very good. Another shortcoming of this technique is the lack of browning, which is due to the high humidity in the cooking environment. The food is basically steaming inside the paper, after all.
I have found, however, that if the paper is lubed well with oil or butter and placed in direct contact with the protein—and no liquid is added to the package—and if the oven temperature is high enough and the en papillote is cooked long enough, browning does indeed occur. I experimented by roasting a whole chicken en papillote at a high temperature. The parchment paper box indicated that the max temp was 425 F, but I figured they were lowballing and cooked at 450 F with no problem. Although overall the bird remained pretty wan, the wings and legs had a healthy burnish. I only cooked it for an hour since, high humidity or not, it’s still possible to overcook. But I surmise that more time will result in more brown, meaning the fabled “brown paper-bag turkey” (which was apparently a thing in the ’50s) might actually work. That method calls for a turkey to be cooked in a buttered brown paper grocery bag at 500 F for the first hour, 400 F the second, and 300 F for a third. I don’t know if I’d use an actual paper grocery bag since a) they’re not designed to be food-grade and b) who knows how they were stored back in the bowels of the supermarket—on a dirty floor, for instance. No thanks. Instead, I’d opt for wrapping the turkey mummy-style in parchment to achieve the elusive combo of moist and well-browned.
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