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.
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.
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.
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 16×24 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.
How to enclose fish in paper. Beginning at the lower left corner of the folded paper, fold in an inch or two to make a new folded edge, at an angle. Crease the new fold.
Hold down the middle of the fold as you lift the corner toward the center. Continue around the package.
With about six folds, you’ll create a half oval. The final twist ensures the package will hold together.
Wrapping fish in parchment for baking isn’t quite as exacting a process as Japanese decorative paper folding, but careful folding can make the difference between a tight package and one that leaks all over the baking sheet. Even with the most careful folding, the packages are not absolutely sealed, but they’re tight enough to keep in most of the moisture and aroma of the food. Traditional directions for folding parchment call for cutting the paper into a heart shape, but a rectangle or square will do the job nicely.
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.
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.)