Text by Becky Krystal (c) 2019, The Washington Post
I've been using it for so long I don't recall when I first heard about parchment paper, but I do have a vague recollection of thinking the name conveyed some sort of official, fancy, tied-up-with-a-ribbon kind of purpose.
Thankfully, it's much more prosaic than that.
Parchment paper is one of the most useful, practical items to have on hand in your kitchen. Thanks to a silicone coating, it's resistant to grease and moisture, flexible enough to fold but sturdy enough to not tear. Parchment paper is also pretty heat resistant, capable of standing up to oven temperatures as high as 450 degrees. (Any hotter and it has a tendency to turn dark and brittle.) That heat tolerance is not the case with wax paper, so they aren't always interchangeable. You can buy parchment paper in rolls, or as pre-cut sheets and rounds to fit your pans with less waste. Depending on what you employ it for, a sheet of parchment can be reused several times.
Here are some obvious, and less so, ways to use this cooking essential:
--Lining baking sheets. This is probably the use you're most accustomed to. Lining a sheet pan with parchment not only protects the pan but also the food, whether you're roasting vegetables or baking cookies, biscuits and more. It can act as a layer of insulation between the pan and the food, to keep it from burning or sticking and to ensure even cooking. I prefer parchment paper over silicone liners (e.g., Silpat) for baking items such as cookies, which I have found spread too much when they're not on paper.
--Lining cake pans. I've experienced the tragedy of a cake that doesn't turn out of a pan and, my friends, it is not pretty. Save yourself the heartbreak. While greasing your cake pans, slide a round piece of parchment on the bottom. I will still grease the bottom of the pan even with a parchment round or square since the parchment has a tendency to curl back up if you've cut it from a roll, and the butter or oil acts as a glue of sorts. You can even buy parchment rounds with tabs that hang over the sides of the pan for easy lifting. Likewise, a sling made out of parchment makes it simple to lift a coffee cake or batch of brownies out of a rectangular or square pan for neat slicing and plating. Use two sheets of parchment paper perpendicular to each other, leaving enough overhang to act as handles when it comes time to remove the food.
--Pouring into a mixer. Adding ingredients to a working stand mixer is always a bit of a dance. A bowl is not ideal for accuracy or neatness, and not everyone has a flexible cutting board to do the job, either. Enter parchment paper. Use it as a funnel to pour ingredients (such as a flour mixture into creamed butter and sugar) directly into the mixer bowl without the mess.
--Instead of muffin cups. I'm not going to argue with the convenience - and cute patterns - of store-bought liners for muffins and cupcakes. But if you want a slightly more elegant appearance (I'm looking at you, Baked & Wired), pull out your parchment paper and get crafty. You can find a variety of tutorials out there, such as this one from the Kitchn, but essentially you want a square of parchment and something to shape it around, namely a can. Even if your folds are not perfect, they'll still look quite nice, especially if there's frosting on the cupcake to distract you.
--To roll. This is one instance where parchment and wax paper will work equally well. When you need to roll a log of cookie dough or compound butter, spread it in a line close to, but not at, the edge of the paper (typically the long side). Fold the paper over the food and continue rolling to form a cylinder. Finish by twisting the ends to close it off.
--As a packet for cooking. The French call this method en papillote, but we just call it brilliant. There's a lot to like about cooking in parchment packets: It makes for easy cleanup and a fun presentation when your guests get to eat what essentially looks like a present and catch the whiff of aromatic steam when they open their packets. You can even let people fill their own packets for a pre-dinner activity. Tender, lean proteins such as seafood and chicken cook gently and quickly. Vegetables do well, too, and you can mix things up with the liquids - broth, wine, coconut milk, etc. - you add to help steam the food, in addition to the herbs that will flavor it.
--Storage. Parchment paper can keep your food neat, too. If you're packing up a batch of cookies or any other kind of individual treat, sheets of parchment can keep the layers separated. While you would want to use something less permeable to air for wrapping the exterior (plastic, foil, freezer paper), parchment paper can be placed in between food going into the freezer that might stick together, whether it's rolled-out pie dough or slices of bacon.
--For decorating. You don't need a special bag or pastry tips to elegantly adorn a dessert. Sometimes all that's needed is a drizzle of icing or melted chocolate. In that case, pull out a rectangle of parchment and get rolling. You'll want to form the paper into a cone, but there's no way I will be able to describe it in words as clearly as if you watched a video. Saveur has a good one. Depending on what other serving equipment you have and what the dish is, you can even use parchment cones to hold food, as restaurants do with french fries.
Images: Stacy Zarin Goldberg; Styling: Lisa Cherkasky, The Washington Post