Put aside your pots and pans: to cook ‘en papillote,’ all you need is a sheet of parchment paper. Long used in cultures around the world, en papillote is a technique that calls for putting food in a wrapper of some kind—parchment paper in France, grape leaves in Greece, cornhusks in South America, and banana leaves in Thailand—and then baking it. You can fill each pouch with a protein, vegetables, starches, and a sauce; the steam cooks the ingredients for a fuss-free method that minimizes prep and clean up and maximizes flavor. Best of all, the finished meal arrives on your plate like a gift, waiting to be unwrapped. Sound like fun? It is. Here’s what you need to know before you start incorporating en papillote into your cooking routine.
The most accessible wrapper to use for en papillote is parchment paper. For each serving, start with a 16” square; for the nicest presentation, many cooks trim this square into a circle or a heart shape.
Quick-cooking foods work best for cooking in parchment, as the gentle steam that cooks the ingredients isn’t strong enough to make an impact on tough cuts of beef or thick chicken thighs. That’s why you’ll often see fish (with or without skin) and shellfish as the main event. Most vegetables, on the other hand, from sweet potatoes to arugula, work well, as do starches (so you can create a whole meal inside a packet). If you want to include an ingredient that cooks more slowly, first cut it down into small pieces.
Steam builds up when you cook en papillote, which means there’s little need for fats that often deliver heat and flavor in a sauté. Instead, acidic ingredients like lemon slices, umami bombs like soy sauce, and aromatics like garlic and ginger will infuse the wrapped-up meal with their flavors. As you brainstorm ingredients for your parchment package, stick to one cuisine or theme so you don’t overwhelm the balance—food cooked en papillote tends to be delicate. If the food you’re cooking has a drier texture, be sure to add moisture by way of white wine, lemon juice, broth, coconut milk, or cream.
To make neat bundles, arrange your food in a small pile close to one edge. Then fold the parchment piece in half over the food. If you want to be extra sure your packets don’t open, you can brush the rim of the paper with water or egg white, which act like glue. Starting at a corner, make small folds along the open edge—as if you’re crimping a pie crust. When you get to the end, make the final folds really tight to form a good seal. Repeat until you’ve made as many packets as you need, then transfer to baking sheets.
You can cook a parchment package on a baking sheet in the oven or directly on the grill. As the dry heat builds up outside, moisture from your ingredients begins to create steam inside. Oven temperature isn’t too important here—it’s the steam that does the cooking—but around 400° is a safe bet. To know your food is ready, you’ll see the parchment puff up.
Because the sealed packets have the look of a gift, surprise guests by placing the unopened packages directly on their plates and instructing everyone to rip the paper open themselves. But don’t forget to warn them: The steam build-up can get quite hot.