En papillote (pah-pee-YOHT) is French for “in parchment.” It’s a cooking technique that involves a folded pouch of paper or foil. Often used with delicate fish, it is also useful with poultry and veal. Foods cooked en papillote are steamed in an enclosed pouch, which keeps them moist.
When ingredients are cooked while sealed in a parcel, they’re essentially cooking in their own juices, which turn to steam, creating a highly aromatic, moist-heat environment. Flavors and aromas mingle and meld, enveloping and perfuming the dish.
This simple, yet refined, culinary technique creates dishes that are aromatic and flavorful.
Photo of Poulet en Papillote by Isabelle Hurbain-Palatin, flickr.
Papillote for the Home Cook
The method is surprisingly practical for home cooks. Once the underlying principles are understood, execution is straightforward. Keep the following foundation in mind when cooking en papillote at home.
The packet steaming method works best with naturally tender proteins that cook fairly quickly. All manner of shellfish, and thin cuts of poultry, fish and meat are best. When choosing vegetables, mushrooms and herbs, keep in mind how each will react to heat, and at what rate they will cook.
For instance, some vegetables, like spinach, will release a lot of water when steamed and some herbs, such as basil or mint, will turn black.
Liquids can be added for seasoning and aroma as well as to help dry ingredients, like root vegetables, cook properly. Broths and stocks, demi-glace, butter, wine, citrus juice, coconut milk and even tea, are all good options. Just note that each ingredient will take on the character of the next so be mindful of combinations.
Cooking en papillote at home requires no special equipment, other then parchment paper or aluminum foil. Both perform well, although there are details about each to note.
- Easy to use, responds well to heat and can be used directly over fire.
- Salty or acidic ingredients can have a reaction with foil, and cause discoloration and an “off” odor.
- Ingredients with less moisture may stick to foil during cooking: brush with duck fat, butter or olive oil beforehand.
Photo: anjull ayer on flickr
- Takes a little effort to cut and fold into an airtight parcel.
- Browns – or if you’re not careful, burns- in extreme heat.
- Parchment doesn’t react with salt or acids and makes an attractive presentation.
- Brush with water periodically during long cooking times to prevent burning.
- Note: as the paper browns and puffs up, it gives an idea of how quickly the contents are cooking.
The Heat Source & Timing
There are many viable heat source options for cooking en papillote. Most often, the cooking happens in the oven or on a grill, although the method also works in a sauté pan on the stovetop, over a campfire or even in a fireplace. As a bonus, if the external heat comes from direct fire, it may create some browning or add smoky aromas inside the packet, which lend yet another flavor component.
When timing dishes cooked en papillote, there are a few considerations to take into account. First, mind the combination and size of the contents. For example, if you’re preparing tender fish with potatoes, you’ll need to slice the potatoes thinly so everything will be done at the same time.
If you’re preparing rabbit meat or chicken breast, choose slow cooking vegetables with a similar density and thickness. Next, to gauge doneness when steaming in a packet, look to other cooking methods using the same heat source.
For cooking en papillote in the oven, assume it should take just slightly less time than oven roasting.
If parchment cooking on stovetop, use similar timing as if you were using a steamer.
For a foil packet cooking over a grill, allow for just a touch more time than grilling directly on grates.
Photo: Javier Lastras, flickr
Have you cooked en papillote before? What is your favorite food to steam in paper? Tell us here, or find us on social media. Tag @dartagnanfoods on Facebook, Instagram or Twitter to start the conversation.