If you didn't know already, parchment paper is a lean, mean, cooking machine. And if you've never tried it before, you're in for a delicious treat!

Cooking fish, poultry, veggies, and other delights in parchment packets can elevate simply prepared foods to an entirely new level. Simply season some meat, layer with seasonal vegetables, fold, and cook—a perfect yet healthy weeknight meal solution for busy lifestyles. And no expensive ovenware required.

This is one cooking method that should not be kept under wraps.

Fuss-free, mess-free—delicious, nutritious
Best known for the French en papillote hands-off cooking style, you'll find cooking in parchment packets good for much more than the "wow" factor.

Steam captured in the packet quickly, yet gently, cooks items such as fish and chicken in their own juices, keeping them heavenly moist and tender without the need for a lot of the fatty stuff. Fish will practically melt in your mouth.

Plus, aromatics such as wine, herbs, spices, lemons, and onions impregnate their flavours into the food as it cooks in the packets. As a bonus, you're also rewarded with some intensely flavoured liquid to spoon up. Think of it as a mess-free way to fuse and maximize all the flavour nuances of the contents by creating an oven within an oven.

But don't just stop at mains. Parchment packets can also produce truly ambrosial side dishes and even fruity desserts with ceremonious presentation.

Also, consider the nutritional benefits. The packets seal in nutrients often lost with more destructive cooking methods such as boiling and frying.

Prep guide
Parchment paper is a heavy, nonstick white paper that can be found alongside the aluminum foil and wax paper in most supermarkets. Follow these easy instructions for making fanciful packets ready for the oven.

Step 1
Cut your parchment paper into individual 20 to 25 in (50 to 63 cm) long pieces. Fold in half crosswise so that a crease runs down the middle.

Step 2
Create a paper heart by drawing a half heart, with the centre of the heart on the fold line, then cut out the shape.

Step 3
Open the heart and layer the ingredients on one half of the sheet close to the centre fold. Don't forget to leave at least a 1 in (2.5 cm) border around the edges to allow for folding.Step 4
Starting at the top of the heart, fold the edges of parchment together, sealing the edges with tight, 1/4 in (0.65 cm) folds. Twist the end tip of the packet to secure the ingredients and tuck it underneath.

Step 5
Place packets on a baking sheet and cook.

Parchment pointers
Uncomplicated in its execution, cooking en papillote (loosely translated: paper-wrapped) doesn't require a culinary degree to master. Still, keep the following tips in mind.

Oven only
Parchment paper is safe for baking up to 450 F (230 C), but never put it under the broiler or use it on the grill, barbecue, or campfire; and don't substitute wax paper for parchment when steaming.

Choose the right meats
Cooking in parchment packets works best for faster-cooking meats. Ergo, choose chicken breasts instead of bone-in thighs, and salmon filets over salmon steaks.

Assembly required
When layering ingredients on the parchment paper, place fish, poultry, and other meats on the bottom, as they will take the longest to cook. Faster-cooking vegetables, herbs, and fruits should be placed on top of meats. Chop vegetables so that they are of even size and thickness, so they will cook in the same amount of time.

Add moisture
If an item doesn't have a lot of natural moisture, such as potatoes, carrots, and parsnips, add other foods with high moisture content such as spinach or tomatoes. A splash of liquid to create steam within the packet can help as well.

Mind the size
Keep in mind 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. So if you're using a tender fish filet such as sole with potatoes or other root veggies, for instance, you'll need to slice them thinly so everything will be done at once.

Serve with style
To serve, use a very sharp knife to cut an X in the top of each packet. With the knife, lift the cut edges up slightly and slowly to avoid steam burn. It's best to let packets rest for five minutes before slicing into them. You can eat your meal directly from the opened packet, cutting down on grimy dishes in the sink.

Make ahead
En papillote is perfect for a dinner party or a harried weeknight cook because the packets can be assembled ahead of time and refrigerated.

Multi-use
You can also use parchment paper as a nonstick liner that resists moisture, for steaming baskets, baking sheets, muffin cups, or cake and tart pans, to extend their lifespan. Parchment used this way can be reused two or three times.

Recipes

About the Author

Matthew Kadey, RD, MSc, is an Ontario-based dietician, nutrition writer, and recipe developer. www.muffintinmania.com