Cooking in a parchment or foil packet creates light, simple springtime specialties.
Credit: Becky Luigart-Stayner

Cooking en papillote―steaming small portions of food in a wrapper―is a classic technique. Various cultures use grape leaves, banana leaves, cornhusks, parchment paper, foil, and other materials to encase tender, mild foods, which then take on the character of the fresh herbs, broths, or seasonings surrounding them.

Steaming vegetables, poultry, or seafood in a packet of parchment paper or foil is a simple method that is well suited to delicate springtime favorites. Steaming requires little or no added fat; steam builds up in the packet to cook food quickly yet gently. Topping halibut with sliced lemon and a drizzle of soy sauce, for instance, adds moisture to the packet and infuses the flaky fish with Asian zest. Chicken stays plump when steamed with zucchini and squash, thanks to the natural moisture in the veggies, and is flavored throughout with a drizzle of coconut-curry sauce. While steaming in a basket or in a packet preserves a food's nutrition, steaming en papillote allows for embellishing an ingredient with juices, spices, or herbs.

Steaming en papillote (pah-pee-YOHT) requires no special equipment, other than a roll of parchment paper or foil. Both do the job as long as they're sealed tightly to prevent steam from escaping. But choose parchment when steaming foods with a salt rub or highly acidic accent, such as vinegar, to avoid discoloration or off odors caused by a chemical reaction with the aluminum. And, of course, cleanup is easy―just toss the parchment or foil when you're done.

Perhaps the best part about cooking en papillote is that it's a solution for busy weeknight dinners and entertaining. There's something inherently festive about opening a packet at the table to free a cloud of fragrant steam. Use our easy recipes and tips, and you'll know how to create your own quick entrées to enjoy fresh spring produce all season long.

Parchment pointers
Parchment baking paper has been treated with an acid and coated with silicone (similar to silicone baking sheet liners) to render a sturdy, burn-resistant, nonstick paper impervious to liquids.

• For these recipes, our Test Kitchens recommend parchment paper―bleached or unbleached―sold on a roll since you may need larger dimensions than parchment sold in separate sheets.

• Don't substitute wax paper for parchment when steaming. Wax paper tears easily, and more importantly, it will burn and eventually leak liquids.

• Parchment paper can safely be used in an oven at temperatures up to 450°.

• The parchment will be puffy and slightly browned when the dish is nearly done.

• Parchment paper also makes an excellent nonstick liner for baking sheets or cake pans. Layer crepes, single-serving cuts of meat, or baked goods in parchment sheets for freezing; you can easily separate what you need when it's time to defrost.

Expert tips
Our Test Kitchens Professionals offer these tips to fill parchment or foil packages for the best results:

Choose the right foods. Cooking en papillote works best with tender foods that cook quickly (for example, chicken breasts instead of legs or moist, flaky fish like salmon rather than dense fish steaks). Shellfish also work well, as do vegetables with high moisture content like onions, zucchini, or bell pepper.

Mind the size. Consider the amount of time it will take for the main ingredient to cook, and cut the accompanying items into sizes that will cook in the same amount of time. If you're preparing a tender fish fillet with potatoes, for instance, you'll need to slice the potatoes thinly so everything will be done at once. Otherwise, you'll end up with undercooked potatoes or overcooked fish.

Add moisture. If a food does not have a lot of moisture in it (like carrots or parsnips), add other foods with high moisture content (like spinach or tomatoes) or a splash of liquid to create steam within the packet.

Add flavor. The ingredients in the packet will bring flavors of their own, but you can also add fresh or dried herbs, salt, pepper, and other spices, and liquids like wine, broth, coconut milk, or lime juice. Also consider a pat of herbed butter or a drizzle of cream; because no fat is required to cook en papillote, a little fat―about 1 to 1 1⁄2 teaspoons per packet―goes a long way to build flavor.