What Is Parchment Paper?

Here's everything you should know, including the best parchment paper substitute for baking and cooking.

October 16, 2020
By: Katherine Lok


Photo by: Jennifer Hardt, Sweethardt Photography

Jennifer Hardt, Sweethardt Photography

Parchment paper comes up often in recipes, including for baking and for parchment-wrapped packets.

But many people, especially beginning bakers, wonder: What exactly is parchment paper, and how is it different than wax paper? What is its purpose?

Parchment paper is an important part of baking and a versatile kitchen workhorse that serves many functions beyond just lining a baking sheet, which it's great for thanks to its nonstick properties. Not only is it great for baking up a batch of cookies, it's also a useful tool for prep work like grating cheese or sifting flour and can be used for steaming delicate fish.

There are many positives to using parchment, but one negative is that it can end up being costly and wasteful, since it's a single-use item. Whether you're on a budget, looking for a more sustainable option or just don't have any parchment paper on hand, there are plenty of other methods you can use, depending on what you're using them for.

What is Parchment Paper?

Parchment paper is essentially paper that's been coated in a layer of silicone, which is what gives it its superb nonstick quality. The silicone coating also makes it heat-resistant as well as water-resistant. In addition, it helps to regulate temperature and ensure even heating during baking.

Parchment paper usually comes packaged in a roll similar to aluminum foil and wax paper, likely found in the same place as those at your grocery store, but you can also find it in pre-cut sheets that are fit for standard-size sheet pans, cake pans and muffin tins, more likely available at a cake supply store.

What is Parchment Paper Used For?

So many things! The pliable quality of parchment paper is great for baking projects where you need to line a loaf pan or baking dish so that whatever you're baking won't stick to the pan. It's easy to cut the paper down to the size you need so it will easily line the pan without any creases. Better yet, if you're baking brownies or making fudge, a little bit of parchment paper hanging over the sides of the pan makes it super easy to lift them out for cutting.

Parchment paper is also great for decorating baked goods. Many professional bakers and cake decorators use a piece of parchment paper to form a DIY piping bag called a cornet that they use to decorate desserts and write out messages. Shaping parchment into a cone also works as a makeshift funnel that helps eliminate mess when transferring items like spices or sprinkles. If you're icing a cake, slipping pieces of parchment paper under the cake before you begin is a great trick that prevents frosting from dirtying your cake stand.

Finally, parchment paper can be an amazing vessel for cooking delicate pieces of meat such as fish. The French method for cooking in parchment paper is called "en papillote," and basically creates a pocket of steam that cooks the fish together with other delicate vegetables like leeks and asparagus. It's an easy way to make a healthy, appealing meal that will make a big impression on your guests. In French cooking, a circle of parchment paper can also become a makeshift lid to cover food so it gets fully submerged in a braising liquid. In Japanese cooking, a specially made wooden lid called an otoshibuta, or drop lid, is used for this same purpose when simmering foods, but can easily be substituted for parchment paper. In cuisines that feature a lot of steaming, such as Chinese cooking, parchment paper is great for lining the bottom of the steamer to prevent sticking.

How is Parchment Paper Different Than Wax Paper?

Wax paper features a thin, waxy coating on each side that makes it both nonstick and moisture-resistant (though it tends to absorb more water than parchment). It's a great substitute for parchment if you're looking to save money, as parchment paper usually ends up costing twice as much. When it comes to using it to prep foods, layer between desserts or cover your work surface to prevent a mess, wax paper is a great alternative that works just as well. It's very important to note that wax paper is not heat-resistant, which means it won't work for baking or oven-use as the wax could melt and create a fire hazard.

What Is the Best Substitute for Parchment Paper?

If your goal is to prevent sticking, nonstick cooking or baking spray is a great option. Many baking recipes for cakes, muffins or quick breads skip the parchment entirely and just call for greasing and flouring the pan to prevent sticking. For roasting or baking savory foods, aluminum foil is a good alternative that allows for a simple clean-up. However, foil on its own is not nonstick, so a coating of nonstick spray or oil might be necessary to prevent your food from sticking.

For a more sustainable solution, silicone baking mats and molds are a great alternative, though they can be a bit of an investment. If you're an avid baker, then silicone might be worth it in the long run as it can last for years.

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