My Recipe Box

Baking Fish in Paper

Cooking en papillote yields quick, moist, and aromatic results

by Jay Harlow

from Fine Cooking
Issue 7

Baking fish in paper marries the convenience of baking with the speed of steaming. Enclosing each piece of fish in a small space with vegetables and seasonings creates a dish with its own sauce. It’s hands-off cooking and a great way to get maximum flavor with little or no added fat. I’ve used this technique, also called baking en papillote (pronounced ahn PAH-pee-YOHT), both at home and in restaurant kitchens, and I find it’s as useful for serving single portions as it is for dinner for ten.

In theory, the ingredients also could be cooked in aluminum foil instead of parchment. But I think baking in foil is slower than the almost instant transfer of oven heat through parchment. And aluminum foil cannot match the visual appeal of an oval envelope of parchment, browned and puffed from the steam within.

The proper fish for paper

The ideal thickness of fish for parchment baking is between 1/2 and 3/4 inch. Fish this size will generally cook in 6 to 8 minutes, just right for getting the paper golden brown. Dense fish like monkfish, lingcod, and wolffish should be cut thinner so that it cooks in the same amount of time.

It’s easiest to use a whole fillet; medium-size fish, such as tilapia and smaller red snapper or Pacific rockfish, yield single-serving fillets of an appropriate size. Larger fillets have to be cut into portions, and smaller fillets (from some flatfish) may have to be stacked to create the proper thickness. You can leave on the skin if you like, but be sure to scale the fish first. Freshwater fish other than farmed trout are generally better if skinned before cooking. Small fish of a half pound or less (trout, small mackerel, fresh sardines, and small flatfish, for instance) can be cooked whole, on the bone. Gut and scale them, and cut off the heads and tails if necessary to fit the package.

The only fish I generally don’t cook using this technique are “steak fish,” such as swordfish, tuna, and shark, which are more suited to dry-heat cooking methods. Lean varieties, like snapper, rockfish, and most flatfish, can use a little butter or oil to enrich the sauce, while richer varieties (such as salmon and bluefish) provide plenty of fat on their own. Shellfish like shrimp or crabmeat are excellent for accenting mild-flavored fish.

Other good things in the package

Additions to the package can range from a small quantity of aromatic flavorings to a sauce and vegetable topping—even cooked grains. Vegetables cooked in parchment must be cut in small pieces so that they’re done in the short time it takes to cook fish fillets. Dense vegetables like carrots and celery should be cut into fine julienne; quicker-cooking varieties (summer squash, mushrooms, and onions, for instance) can be cut up to 1/4 inch thick. Vegetables not suited to small slices, like asparagus, may need to be blanched.

Keep the moisture content of the vegetables in mind as well. Tomatoes release flavorful juices that become part of the sauce, but watery vegetables like summer squash can dilute the flavor of lean fish. To reduce this effect, salt watery vegetables after cutting and let them sit for at least 15 minutes to release their water before you assemble the fish packages.

In parchment’s moist baking environment, neither the fish nor the vegetables will brown noticeably. If you want a browned flavor or color, you’ll have to achieve it before the vegetables go into the paper, by roasting peppers or sautéing onion slices.

Rolls vs. sheets

Rolls of baking parchment are sold in cookware shops and some supermarkets, but they tend to be expensive. Much less expensive, but perhaps more difficult to obtain, are the large sheets of silicone-treated paper sold as baking pan liners in restaurant-supply and paper-supply houses. At about 16x24 inches, these sheets are sized to fit a commercial baker’s sheet pan. A typical box of 1000 sheets, many years’ supply for the home cook, sells for about $35 in my area, which works out to less than 2 cents per serving. You also might ask a local bakery if they’ll sell from their supply. If not, get a group of cooks to go in on a box or divide a package among friends who bake.

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Kitchen origami
Baking the packets

These recipes are designed to bake in a 450°F oven, hot enough to cook as quickly as possible without scorching the paper. Arrange the packages on a baking sheet with a rim to catch juices that might escape. If possible, allow a little space between the packages for the heat to reach all the fish evenly. However, a slight overlap of the paper edges is fine.

Depending on the thickness and density of the fish, cooking time will be 6 to 8 minutes. It isn’t practical to open a package and check for doneness, so learn to test through the paper using a skewer. Before cooking, poke a thin bamboo skewer or a toothpick into the thickest part of the fish, feeling for resistance. In raw fish, you can feel the point cutting its way through the muscle and connective tissue; in a fully cooked piece, it will slide in with little or no resistance. As the fish cooks, the uncooked zone in the center gets smaller. When there is just a trace of uncooked center, remove the fish from the heat. It will finish cooking in the next minute or two as the heat continues to penetrate the fish. Have the plates and side dishes ready to go so the fish packages can move from oven to table as quickly as possible.

How to serve a piece of paper

Except in the most formal situations, part of the appeal of fish en papillote is cutting open the paper at the table. The simplest way is to peel back the top and eat the fish straight from the paper. Sharp-pointed steak knives make the job easier. If you don’t want to serve the fish in the paper, slit the edge of the package opposite the creases and slide the contents onto a plate. (The salmon and wild rice dish is an exception: it doesn’t slide out easily. If you don’t want to eat it from the paper, you’ll have to transfer it carefully to a plate.)

Most fish baked in parchment will generate a lot of liquid, which will mingle with and dilute any sauces on the plate. So while a heavily sauced side dish isn’t a good idea, a grain such as couscous is ideal for soaking up the flavorful juices.

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