Cooking in a packet—also known as cooking en papillote—is one of those rare techniques that’s flashy enough to be done at fancy restaurants and works beautifully at home, too. The basic method involves wrapping food in individual parchment or foil packets and baking them in a hot oven. The flavors inside mingle and intensify as the food cooks in its own steam. When the packets are opened—usually at the table for a touch of dinnertime drama—you have a perfectly cooked dish, bathed in a sauce that’s the very essence of the flavorings you’ve included in your packets. The method is incredibly easy—plus, there’s the whole fun factor of serving something that’s all wrapped up like a surprise.
Get the recipes
Lemony Halibut en Papillotes with Leek Rice Pilaf
Chicken Breasts en Papillotes with Celery, Bay Leaf, and Tomato
Soy and Ginger Shrimp en Papillotes
How to fold the parchment packets
Cut four 15x24-inch sheets of parchment. Fold each sheet in half, forming a 15x12-inch rectangle. With a pencil, draw a half-heart on each, centering it on the folded edge. Cut out the hearts. (This shape is easier to seal than a rectangle.)
Step 2: Unfold the paper and arrange your ingredients, as instructed in the recipe, on one half of the heart. Fold the other half over and line up the edges.
Step 3: Starting at the top of the heart, fold over about 1/2 inch of the edge, pressing down to make a crisp crease.
Step 4: Continue working your way around the edge of the packet, making overlapping folds (like pleats), always pressing firmly and creasing the edge so the folds hold. Twist the tip of the heart to finish. If necessary, make a second fold anyplace that doesn’t appear tightly sealed.
Parchment vs. foil packets
These days, many cooks use foil rather than parchment for cooking in packets. Both have their merits. Parchment makes for a more attractive presentation, and it’s easier to tell when the packets are done without opening them because they puff more than foil does. Foil, on the other hand, is more conducive to a tight seal. Plus, if you open foil packets before the food is done, they’re easy to reseal and return to the oven.
How to make foil packets
To make foil packets, you’ll need four 12x20-inch pieces of regular or heavy-duty foil. Fold them in half to make 12x10-inch rectangles. Put your ingredients on one side of the foil, and simply fold the other half over them. Then tightly fold or crimp the edges to seal.
When is food en papillote done?
Foods cook quickly in packets because the steam trapped inside is such a good conductor of heat. The only tricky part of this technique is knowing when the food is done, since you can’t see or touch it inside the packet. Follow these tips to help ensure proper doneness:
• Make sure your oven is calibrated and fully heated. If the temperature is off, it will affect the doneness of the packets.
• Make a tight seal. The packets will puff, providing the seal is tight. If you’re using parchment, they may also brown slightly when they’re close to done.
• Adjust the cooking time. If your chicken or fish is a little bigger than the recipe specifies, give it an extra minute in the oven; if smaller, reduce oven time slightly.
• Open one of the packets to check for doneness if you want to be on the safe side. If it’s not ready, reseal it as best you can and return all the packets to the oven.
Serving is half the fun
Much of the excitement of cooking en papillote is the moment when you open the packets and release an enticing cloud of aromatic steam. So that everyone gets to experience that moment, serve the unopened packets on plates and let people open their own. The downside to this approach is that there’s no room for anything else on the plate. If you want to serve a side dish, open the packets in the kitchen and slide the contents onto dinner plates, along with every last bit of flavorful liquid. You lose the dramatic presentation but keep all of the flavor, and you can serve your side dish on the same plates.
Once you get to know this technique, you’re going to want to strike out on your own. While there are no rules as to what can and can’t be cooked this way, there are a few things to keep in mind:
• Choose delicate ingredients like seafood, poultry, and vegetables, because they cook quickly.
• Keep it simple. The main ingredients will take on the flavors of whatever else is in the packets, so stick with just a few other ingredients that complement each other.
• Precook any ingredients that need long cooking or that require a lot of liquid (like rice or pasta).
Videography by Gary Junken and Mike Dobsevage, edited by Cari Delahanty
from Fine Cooking