No kitchen is complete without an arsenal of papers such as parchment paper, wax paper and aluminum foil, which each come in handy for a variety of applications in cooking and baking. If you've ever tried to swap one for the other and ended up with inedible results, however (wax paper for parchment for baking chocolate chip cookies? Never again), it's time to get schooled on exactly when to use each type of paper.
Of course, while these three types of paper often seem like essentials, they aren't eco-friendly. If you're aiming for greater sustainability in your home kitchen, you can invest in a few silicone baking mats, which can replace parchment paper, wax paper and foil in many different uses. (Plus, you can throw them in your dishwasher!) Read on for expert recommendations on exactly when to use parchment, wax paper and foil in baking and cooking — including a few tips you probably haven't thought of — and equally as important, where not to use each of the three.
Best Uses for Parchment Paper
When it comes to baking, a roll of parchment paper is one of the most versatile tools you can have in your kitchen. Not only is it non-stick, it's also heat resistant (up to a point), resulting in perfect texture for all your favorite baked goods. Line a sheet pan with parchment paper to ensure your cookies cook evenly and the bottoms don't get too brown, or place a piece inside your square or round pans for brownies and cakes that will pop out easily after they're baked, says Kristen Tomlan, founder and CEO of DŌ, Cookie Dough Confections. (A pro tip when using parchment for baking: spritz your pan with nonstick spray before laying the parchment down, which will help prevent it from rolling up.)
In cooking, parchment comes in handy for making easy, healthy dinners in the form of individual packets (like these can't-miss parchment packet dinners). This is a method used by the French known as "en papillote." For instance, you can use parchment to wrap a filet of fish with herbs, lemon slices and chopped vegetables, then slide it into a hot oven. "This allows for a hybrid of baking and steaming, keeping moisture and flavor concentrated in the fish without having to use oil or butter," says Jessica Rothacker, owner and head chef at Heirloom Café in Athens, Georgia.
Another surprising use for parchment paper? It works beautifully in helping to keep your kitchen clean as you bake and cook, says Tomlan. Simply add a small piece to the top of your kitchen scale, panini press, waffle maker, or any other kitchen gadget to avoid scrubbing that innards of that item later.
When Not to Use Parchment Paper
Parchment paper is not designed for high heat cooking. Avoid using it in your oven or on the grill if temperature will exceed 400 degrees, says Michelle Weaver, chef at Charleston Grill in South Carolina, as there's a chance it could catch fire.
Best Uses for Wax Paper
Working on a messy project, such as decorating cookies (especially with kids)? Put down a few sheets of wax paper to cover your table or countertop, says Weaver. That way, when you're done, you can roll up any excess and simply toss it. This comes in handy particularly if you're decorating with sprinkles! You can do the same thing when rolling out cookie dough or bread dough to avoid covering your countertop in flour and dough, says Rothacker. Wax paper is also an ideal surface when you're dipping something in chocolate, like strawberries or pretzels, and need a place for the chocolate to harden before you remove it, says Tomlan.
Packing a picnic? Wrap individual sandwiches in wax paper instead of plastic wrap or plastic bags, says Weaver. Not only will it look adorable, especially if you tie it with a pretty string, it will protect your sandwich from getting soggy (and you can save the piece to wipe off and reuse later, too!).
Outside the kitchen, wax paper has a magical way of helping things glide more easily—think loosening a stuck zipper or making a can opener operate more smoothly. "Just rub it along the edge, and the wax will transfer and help glide things along," says Tomlan.
When Not to Use Wax Paper
Whatever you do, don't put it in the oven! While wax paper can be used for many things around the kitchen, getting near any kind of heat is not one of them, says Weaver, as the wax coating will melt off and into your food.
Best Uses for Aluminum Foil
A basic saying to guide your use of papers in the kitchen: "Sweet treats need parchment sheets; grill or broil, go with foil," says Weaver. Foil conducts and distributes heat, making it able to withstand high temperatures from baking, broiling, roasting, or grilling. Anything above 400 degrees, use foil.
Similar to parchment, aluminum works well for individual foil packs for dinner, but since it's more heat resistant, you can cook a wider variety of items using foil this way, especially on the grill or over an open flame. Rothacker recommends chicken with summer squash, onions, garlic and tomatoes for an Italian meal, or steak with bell peppers, jalapeño, onions and lots of spices to make fajitas. To make them, cut about an 18-inch square of foil; place your items in the middle and tent the foil, pressing the shiny sides flat together; then rolling up the sides toward the center.
Additionally, you can use heavy-duty foil to line large roasting pans or sheet pans for roasting meats or vegetables, making for easy cleanup later. Weaver even lines her oven with a double layer of foil to help keep it clean if something like a juicy fruit pie drips.
Aluminum foil can also be great for food storage. "It molds easily around bowls, food, and tops of containers of all shapes and sizes, ensuring a snug fit to keep out air while locking in smell and freshness," says Tomlan. She also uses bits of crumpled-up foil to clean cast-iron pans, which helps to remove any extra food bits left behind. (BTW, here's how to care for your beloved cast-iron skillet.)
When Not to Use Aluminum Foil
While it may seem obvious, make sure you never put anything with foil in the microwave. Even a tiny speck of remaining foil can cause a spark that leads to a fire.
It may sound surprising, but you shouldn't cover a casserole dish with foil directly when baking, as it can impact the final dish. "Acidic foods like tomato sauce [in lasagna] will react adversely when exposed to foil under the heat of the oven," says Brian Owenby, chef at Grand Hyatt Nashville. While foil won't necessarily affect the taste (or the safety of the food), it can cause less-than-appealing dark spots on top of your casserole. To get around this, Owenby recommends first using a layer of plastic wrap over the dish (yes, really!) then covering with a layer of foil. The foil protects the wrap from the food and creates a steaming effect that helps promote even cooking.