Cooking en papillote (French for “in paper” and pronounced ahn pah-pee- YOHT) is simply a fancy way of saying “baking in a bag.” The technique involves sealing whatever it is you’re baking in a parchment or foil packet before you bake it. The paper or foil traps the steam from the cooking food, resulting in a moist and juicy finished dish. As the papillotes bake, the steam causes them to puff up and when you cut into them, you are rewarded with a cloud of aromatic steam—the perfect way to bring a little drama to the dinner table.
Papillotes make great dinner-party fare
You can prepare papillotes an hour or two ahead of time, which makes them great to serve if you’re having guests. All you have to do is slide the papillotes into a heated oven and wait for them to puff. There’s no slaving away in the kitchen while your guests enjoy themselves without you.
Papillotes make their own sauce because the juices released by whatever it is you’re cooking—I usually reserve the technique for fish—mingle with any liquid you may have added (usually wine or broth, or both).
You can construct a complete meal en papillote. First, arrange cooked vegetables in the bag (I’m especially fond of lightly creamed spinach or sliced leeks cooked first in butter), and then place meat, seafood, or poultry on top.
Next, top the food with other ingredients such as herb butter, sautéed mushrooms, or finely sliced truffles, and sprinkle over a little white wine or Madeira before sealing the bag.
Parchment or foil will do the job
Though aluminum foil works fine, kitchen parchment has an advantage because it turns brown in the oven as the food cooks. This helps you know when the food is done, and it’s certainly more attractive than foil. If you decide to use parchment, you can find it in 12-inch wide rolls at the supermarket or in 12×16-inch single sheets from kitchen-supply stores or by mail order. If you’re using a roll of parchment, cut off a sheet about 19 inches long for each papillote. If you’re using pre-cut parchment, just use one whole sheet per papillote. Whatever you do, don’t use waxed.
Judging doneness can be a little tricky
Because the food is sealed in a bag, there’s no way to poke at it or cut into it to see if it’s done. I usually assume they’re ready when the bags puff up and brown, but I have occasionally done this and proudly marched into the dining room only to find the fish was woefully undercooked.
The only reliable way to judge doneness is to cut into one of the bags on the sly (save this one for yourself). Then you can check the fish by poking it with a fingertip— it should feel firm, not fleshy, to the touch—or by cutting into it with a knife.
Play up the drama of cooking en papillote
There are a number of ways to serve foods cooked en papillote. To be dramatic, slide each of the cooked, puffed up papillotes onto heated plates or soup plates and pass a pair of scissors around the table for guests to cut into their own. The only downside to this approach is that your guests end up eating out of a paper or aluminum bag—not terribly elegant.
I like to bring the whole baking sheet to the table (I never try this at a dinner for more than six), along with a stack of heated plates. Then I can cut open the papillotes in front of the guests and spoon the contents onto the plates. They get all of the drama with none of the fast food trappings.
While I hesitate to give recipes for dishes that are the result of my own last-minute whims for turning a limited collection of ingredients into something impressive, here’s one to get you started. Remember, you can vary any of the ingredients to suit your mood or the contents of your refrigerator.