The Difference Between Parchment Paper, Aluminum Foil and Silicone Baking Mats
And how to know when to use each one!
By Sarah Holden
The sheet tray is truly a powerhouse tool in the kitchen; it’s simple yet incredibly versatile, whether you are roasting a chicken, baking a cake or cooking pretty much anything else in the oven. To get the best use out of a sheet tray or any other baking dish, you’ll want to make the right choice when you line it. And that important choice begs the question — when exactly should you use foil, parchment paper or a silicone baking mat? Each helps make cleanup easier, prevents sticking to the pan, reduces the need for extra fat and helps lengthen the lifespan of your pan, but there are distinct differences between them and when to best use each.
Aluminum foil is exactly that — very thin aluminum that can be cut and shaped. Easy to manipulate, it can be pressed up into hard-to-reach corners (brownie pans, anyone?) and formed into packets. But keep in mind that standard foil is not nonstick, and stickier items could come away with little bits of foil stuck to them.
When To Use Aluminum Foil
Non-stick foil is a good choice for stickier, more delicate foods, including marshmallows or fish. Just be sure to always put your food on the dull, non-stick side. One of the biggest benefits of using foil is that it can handle higher temperatures than parchment or silicone baking mats, so it can be put under the broiler or onto the grill. It is also insulating and isn’t permeable, so it can contain steam when formed into a packet (for gentle, moist cooking), or can cover a pan to protect from direct heat. It can also be recycled, just be sure to wash off any food stuck to it.
Silicone Baking Mat
Silicone baking mats are flexible, rubbery mats made from high-quality, food-grade silicone and fiberglass mesh. They’re almost magical in how nonstick and heat-resistant they are. This is your most expensive option, but they are also reusable and can last for years if you take care of them. They come in a variety of shapes and sizes, and some even with printed size guides on them for rolling or piping.
When To Use a Silicone Baking Mat
Slightly sticky, these mats will stay put once you place them on a baking sheet and are a great choice when baking super thin cookies with a wet dough like tuile (they won’t wrinkle and stick like parchment). Silicone mats are also excellent for evenly distributing heat (even better than parchment). If you have wonky, older sheet trays, using a silicone mat will help correct hot spots. They also help encourage spreading and keep baked goods from browning too much on the bottom.
Silicone mats are the best choice if you are working with very sticky food, especially cooked sugar (such as caramel, toffee or brittles) or a savory dish with a syrupy sauce. As for maintenance, keep knives far from your silicone mats — they are not meant for cutting. To clean, simply wash them with warm soapy water and hand-dry with a towel. We recommend rolling them up and placing in a cardboard tube for easy storage. Also, keep in mind that most are not designed to withstand temperatures above 450 to 480 degrees F, so avoid using under the broiler.
Parchment paper is paper that is coated in a very thin layer of silicone, which makes it heat-resistant, nonstick and water-resistant. It comes bleached white or naturally brown (but there’s essentially no difference between the two), and, in a roll, sheets or pre-cut rounds to line cake pans. Like foil, it can be cut to whatever size you need, layered to cover larger pans, and folded to create packets. It's relatively inexpensive, can be used up to three times before discarding and is compostable.
When To Use Parchment Paper
Parchment’s strength is that it helps bake evenly by creating a thin layer of air between the baking sheet and the paper, which helps insulate, regulate temperature and neutralize hot spots. This is especially beneficial for baked goods, including cookies, cakes and breads. When baked with parchment paper, they will come out more consistent and even. Lining cake pans with parchment is the gold standard with professional bakers — in addition to baking evenly, it reduces the amount of crumbs (helpful when frosting), and makes removing the cake from the pan easier. When it comes to cookies and other doughs, the slight texture of the parchment paper helps reduce spread, as it gives something for the dough to stick to and also slightly absorbs excess fat, helping crisp the edges of baked goods. Parchment is recommended for use up to 420 to 450 degrees F, hotter than that and the paper will start to brown and crisp, so it’s not the best choice to use under the broiler. And, unlike foil, parchment is porous, so when made into a packet it allows some steam to escape, which can be beneficial if you want to avoid your dish getting soggy.
How They Compare
To see the differences in real-time, I made a batch of Classic Chocolate Chip Cookies and baked them off on foil, parchment and a silicone baking mat (it was a delicious experiment). The differences in the cookies were not dramatic but were definitely noticeable.
The first difference we noticed was color. The cookies baked on foil were noticeably darker, especially on the bottom. The parchment-baked cookies were lighter in color in the center but had more color on the edges, while the cookies baked on the silicone mat had a more even browning.
Next we noticed how much (or little) the dough spread, which was shown in the thickness of the cookie. The foil cookies spread the most and were thinnest followed by the cookies baked on the silicone mat. The parchment-baked cookies were thickest with the least amount of spread.
Finally, we noted the texture of the cookies. The foil-baked cookies had a crisp bottom and edges with a chewier bite. The parchment baked cookies were the softest with a bottom that wasn’t as crisp and a thicker, doughier center. The cookies baked on a silicone mat felt like a mix of the other two — they had a slight crunch at the edges but were not crispy and had a soft center and a nice chew.
All of the cookies came out beautifully, so it just comes down to personal preference on how you like your cookies. (I preferred cookies baked on silicone mat, while my husband liked parchment baked cookies!)