Parchment paper: A cheap alternative for chefs
Great cooking equipment – copper pots, high-tech gadgets, anything manufactured by European car companies – can set you back some financially. So now, while we’re waiting for Ben Bernanke to cook up something in his kitchen, is a particularly good time to appreciate a chef’s tool that’s as inexpensive as it is versatile.Parchment paper is a cook’s hide-in-plain-sight secret. It’s one of those things so innocuous, so low-tech (it’s just a sheet of silicone-treated paper) that usually it’s overlooked as a kitchen tool. Yet with a simple roll of parchment, you can accomplish wonders. Think how often you use a blank sheet of paper.The catalog of its uses is downright astonishing: to line cookie sheets or cake pans; to slide breads and pizzas onto baking stones; to encase fish “en papillote”; to wrap aged cheeses, cones of “frites” or roasted nuts, even those yummy breadsticks you get at Pizzeria Mozza.Who said paper was obsolete?In cooking school, one of the first things they taught us to do (after making stock and knotting our ties) was to cook rice, which we simmered under a parchment lid. Called a “cartouche,” it’s a circle of paper cut to fit the circumference of the pot, with a little hole snipped at the center like a release valve. We used it for braises and stews too, and for glazing baby vegetables. At the time, we all thought it was kind of silly, cutting out little circles of paper instead of using the shiny lids that rose in stacks on the shelves of the teaching kitchens.But the little circles were revelatory: They kept some moisture and heat in the pan yet allowed enough of it to escape through the vent so that the liquids could reduce at a leisurely pace.The paper-and-scissors fun didn’t stop there. We crimped more of it into pouches for salmon or bass en papillote, made cones (or “cornets”) for piping frosting and writing with chocolate, like a group of patient origami-makers or a diligent kindergarten class.And the best thing? No cleanup. The cartouches and cornets, the baking sheets and cake liners, the piping bags oozing with melted Valrhona chocolate and pastry cream, were thrown away when they’d served their happy purpose. (Disposable might not be chic, but it makes practical sense for some things; and think about your harried dishwasher.)Unlike many of the cooking techniques and fancy gizmos I got to play with in culinary school, parchment paper translates perfectly to an ordinary home kitchen.Use parchment when you bake: Measure out your dry ingredients onto a sheet of paper — which you then roll into a funnel — and pour them straight into your bowl. Then reuse the same sheet to roll out pie dough (use one sheet underneath and, depending on the consistency of the dough, another on top) or line cake tins or form logs of cookie dough. Your cakes won’t stick to the pans, nor will your doughs stick to the counter.Cut out stencils with the paper, then dust powdered sugar or cocoa over the stencil onto the cake or cupcake below for birthday parties. Roast vegetables on a sheet of parchment so that they caramelize on the paper, not the pan. Skim grease with a torn bit of the paper, cut messy beets or mince hot chiles with a protective sheet of paper over your cutting board, or use it to line a steaming basket.Finding parchment is easy too (unlike, say, those French crepe pans). You can buy big sheets at cooking supply stores, and boxes of the stuff sit patiently on grocery store shelves next to the aluminum foil and plastic wrap.A note about the unbleached paper: Although it might seem more virtuous to choose it, the white stuff works better. White parchment is less brittle than unbleached, so it’s easier to work with. And it colors up nicely in the oven — which is a useful indicator of how long it has been in there.Cooking en papillote (the French term) or “in cartoccio” (the Italian) is a simple yet dramatic preparation, in which ingredients are wrapped in paper and then baked in a hot oven. What’s encased within the paper is either uncooked or partially so: The flavors come together inside the packet as the contents cook, and steam inflates the paper. (Be sure to go off the times given in recipes, as these are gifts you can’t rewrap once opened.) You can often assemble the packets ahead of time, bake them quickly, then present your guests with a little gift at the table.At Fraiche in Culver City, Calif., chef Jason Travi’s “branzino en papillote” arrives table-side, where it’s unfolded, the paper cut open and rolled back by an adroit server’s fork, the tender fillet of skin-on fish perched atop braised fennel, black olives and ribbons of roasted red pepper. Travi says the dish, on the menu since the restaurant opened last year, is so easy it’s never going away.And at Joachim Splichal’s new Beverly Hills restaurant Paperfish, New Zealand red snapper is cooked en papillote — also unveiled at the table. “We are called Paperfish,” says executive chef Yianni Koufodontis. “A little interaction with the guests; it’s fun.”Paperfish’s paper fish is not actually served in paper — the parchment originally used kept burning — but in a clear packet of heat-resistant cellophane. It’s called Fata paper, though, so I guess it’s nominally accurate.(To seal the packets, Travi uses a flour-and-egg paste; Koufodontis ties his poufy bunches of plastic with a string of scallion. At home, just fold the edges of the paper incrementally and tuck the last edge underneath: It will look like a nice origami crescent, no staples necessary.)Count the ways Craft chef de cuisine Matt Accarrino uses parchment — to roll out wetter doughs, such as the black pepper crackers he pairs with cured salmon; to drain the caramelized pears for the frisee salad; to line the hotel pans in their walk-in refrigerators and the trays on all the stations — and you can see how the Los Angeles restaurant goes through about 4,000 sheets of it a week.You can wrap a whole lot more than fish in parchment. Try vegetables, fruit, even pasta, like a recipe for pasta cooked with goat cheese, kale and radicchio (inspired by a Lidia Bastianich recipe for “rigatoni ai cinque formaggi in cartoccio”).The pasta is cooked quite al dente, then encased in parchment with goat cheese, pine nuts and quickly sauteed greens. As the packages bake in the oven, the pasta finishes cooking while the tangy goat cheese, laced with a hint of lemon, pepper and parsley, builds a quick sauce. Ribbons of kale and radicchio don’t have a chance to overcook, nor do the toasted pine nuts, which retain a nice crunch.And once dinner’s over — the handy wrappers tossed in the trash bin for easy cleanup.