“Curses, foiled again”. Do you recognize this quote? The cartoon Dudley Do-Right was a spin-off of the “Rocky and Bullwinkle” cartoon show back in the 1960’s. The phrase routinely emerged from the mouth of villain Snidely Whiplash, whom our hero Dudley Do-Right of the Mounties had to defeat every week to rid the world of evildoers, thereby winning the heart of his beloved Nell. Nell had a crush on Dudley’s horse, named “Horse”. It was great TV! By now, you are probably wondering what a squirrel, a moose, and a Mountie have to do with cooking. The answer is a bit of a stretch. Today’s tip is knowing the differences and the correct application for parchment paper, wax paper, and aluminum foil. Get it? FOIL! (As in “foiled again.”) I told you it was a stretch. It’s a little scary how my brain sometimes works, which is why I am safest in the kitchen! 😉
Okay, enough of that, time to get down to serious business. Let’s talk about the differences between parchment paper, aluminum foil, and wax paper and when it should be used.
Wax paper entered the home kitchen back in 1927. At the time, it was revolutionary. Wax paper is coated on both sides with a thin layer of, you guessed it, wax making it moisture-proof and non-stick. This makes it the perfect wrap for cold storage or line a pan to make fudge. Putting wax paper between items before freezing will prevent them from sticking together, like separating burger patties. Wax paper’s best use is lining countertops and tables before rolling out pie crusts or kneading bread to prevent a mess and spread out sticky things like homemade candy or chocolate-coated goodies cool. Wax paper has one profoundly serious limitation, it is not heat resistant. The wax melts in the oven creating a sticky burnt mess. Worst-case scenario, it will ignite an oven fire. Wax paper was never designed for baking or oven use. While it may look similar to parchment paper, the coating properties are entirely different. Wax paper is not safe for lining cookie sheets, cake pans, or anything that goes into the oven. Wax paper is cheaper than parchment paper (which makes sense given its usage limitations), and it is still very good at doing the tasks for which it was designed. Just remember wax melts. If heat is involved, wax paper is off-limits.
Aluminum foil was introduced in the home about 10 years after wax paper. Foil was initially made from tin. However, it imparted a “tinny” taste to everything that it touched. It’s been well 95 years since foil has been made with aluminum, yet the name “tin foil” has hung around. It’s been speculated that tin is easier to say than aluminum (it sure is easier to spell!), and it might be because that what grandma always calls it. Aluminum foil conducts and distributes heat without becoming hot to the touch making it very versatile. Lining pans with foil is a great clean-up hack. It can withstand high temperatures making it great for broiling and charcoal or gas grilling. Cooking with foil packets cuts down the cooking time and makes clean-up a breeze. Covering roasted chicken or a turkey will keep the skin from burning, same with the edges of a pie crust. A foil tent will continue the cooking process and keep foods piping after being removed from the oven.
Anything wrapped in foil is safe from oxygen and light, so no nasty smells! There is also an environmental benefit. Unlike wax paper, aluminum foil is recyclable – just rinse it off. Last, if you’re into weird life hacks, there’s a zillion online for foil. The downside to aluminum foil it’s lack of non-stick properties. Food will stick! There is a non-stick variation that is available in stores, but I haven’t tried it. In a pinch, I use non-stick spray and give it a quick coat. It works great. Aluminum foil is a little less expensive than parchment paper. I use heavy-duty foil for roasting and wrapping. The regular stuff works fine for tenting or lining a pan.
Parchment paper started showing up in the late 1990’s and quickly gained traction thanks to the Food Network and Martha Stewart advocating its benefits. Parchment paper is coated with silicone and goes through a parchmentizing process. I’m not exactly sure what that is, but the result is a greaseproof, moisture-resistant paper that can withstand oven temps up to 450° (it may darken, but it won’t burn). It is one of the most versatile materials you can have in your kitchen. Use it to line baking sheets for cookies, pastries, granola, and anything you don’t want sticking to the pan. It is excellent for lining the bottoms of cake or quick bread pans for easy release. It’s also gained popularity for cooking fish, veggies, and other foods in parchment packets.
Like wax paper, it can also be used on countertops during messy tasks to prevent sticking and easy clean-up. Parchment paper can do everything that wax paper can do, with the huge added benefit of being oven-safe. When considering whether to use parchment paper or wax paper, the rule of thumb is parchment paper is for hot — wax paper is for cold.
When comparing foil to parchment, aluminum foil is a more pliable material. It has insulating qualities, making it a better choice for roasting, tenting, and protecting the edges of a pie crust. Foil can also handle more extreme heat, making it a better choice for broiling and grilling. Where foil fails is in the non-stick arena. Parchment is hands down the better option for baking.
When in doubt about which to use, parchment or foil, I found this helpful rhyme: “Sweet treat, parchment sheet. Grill or broil, go with foil”. Nothing more needs to be said. Happy cooking!