Home Chef How-To: Cook En Papillote

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“En Papillote” [on-poppy-yote] is a French culinary term, meaning, literally, “in parchment.” Like a love letter, food is wrapped up in an envelope. Unlike a love letter (we hope), it is then steam cooked. This healthy and mess-free technique harnesses the excitement of Christmas morning, as diners unwrap the steamy, aromatic little bundles right at the table.

What You Need:

Even if you’re the worst present-wrapper of all time, you can master cooking en papillote. Either parchment paper or aluminum foil will work for wrapping. Large leaves, such as plantain, grape, or bamboo leaves are also used for this purpose in some ethnic cuisines. Note of caution, though: Do NOT use wax paper! As the name suggests, it is coated in wax, which will melt into your food, and that is not tasty.

What to Cook?

Choose light, tender foods, such as white fish, chicken, veggies, or thinly sliced root veggies (like potatoes). Within its cocoon, the food is cooking in its own steam, so the same types and cuts of food that come out great steamed will work perfectly en papillote.

1. Prepare the Ingredients

When putting foods together to cook en papillote, think of setting up a wrestling match–you want everybody to be about equally matched in size. For example, if you’ve got a thin piece of fish and a potato, you’ll need to cut that potato up pretty thin too, or else you’ll end up with overcooked fish and crunchy, raw potato wedges.

Because the moisture comes from the foods themselves, a light drizzle of olive oil is enough to keep the meal from drying out. As a steam-based technique, en papillote is low-fat and retains most of the good-for-you nutrients in the food.

However, you can add different juices, broths, wines, and oils to amp up the flavor. The beauty of cooking en papillote, as with slow cooking, is that the flavors all sit together and combine into a harmonious medley. Keep this blendedness in mind as you choose which herbs, spices, and liquids to add.

en-papillote-home-chef-swaddle 2. Swaddle

With foil:

Whether it was a gift box, an infant, or a rucksack full of whatever 6-year-old you thought you needed to survive as a runaway, you’ve probably done this basic motion before.

Place food in the center of your parchment paper, leaving enough space to comfortably fold up the sides. Be careful not to add too much food to the sheet. Gather up the edges of the foil at the center, folding smoothly to ensure the bundle is sealed.

With parchment:

The options here are open-ended, but I’ll let you in on a favorite trick among chefs: Fold your parchment in half and use a pencil to trace a half-heart, with the open side of the parchment to the right of the curved line, so that the sheet opens up to form a full heart. Cut along the line you made and place the heart folded on a cooking sheet.

Arrange the food on one half of the heart, again, being careful not to pack it too full. Leave about a quarter inch around the edges. Fold up the edges a little bit at a time, in pleats like Catholic schoolgirl uniform. When you reach the pointed edge of the heart, twist to secure your seal, and you’re good to go.

3. Cook

Recipes will vary depending upon what you’re cooking, but a medium heat, like 350F, should do the job.

Deciding how long to leave your food in the oven can be tricky, since everything’s under wraps. Food cooks quickly with all that heat trapped in a little package. More delicate foods, like fish, may take only ten minutes, while heavier foods, like root veggies or chicken, may take closer to twenty minutes.

You’ll notice the pack puffing up with hot air as it cooks. If you need to check the food, just be sure to reseal it securely before putting it back in the oven. Just use caution when you remove this bad boy from the oven and cut open.

4. Serve

The best part of cooking en papillote is the presentation! Serve up each bundle still sealed, and let your guests open them at the table. As you unwrap, warm steam rushes upward, filling your nostrils with all the rich flavors of the food inside.

(Note of Caution: The same rule applies as when you used to make Jiffy Pop as a kid – give the packets time to cool a bit before serving, or back the heck up because steam is hot and it will escape. You gotta keep the money maker safe, guys.)

This sensory preview alerts the brain, whetting the appetite and heightening anticipation. Since the sense of smell is closely connected to the sense of taste, this process actually prolongs your experience of the dish, increasing the impact of every sumptuous note upon your palate. Oh, the French – they think of everything.

When you’re finished, clean-up is easy-peasy. Simply throw the wrapping away (or rinse and recycle it). Rinse off your fork, and proceed to post-dinner drinks with the abandon of a wealthy socialite with a full kitchen staff.

Now You Try!

Just reading about flavor is like just staring at a scratch-n-sniff sticker. You’ve got to experience it to really enjoy it. Master cooking en papillote this week when you make our lemon- and dill-infused Mahi Mahi en Papillote.