En papillote is a French term meaning “in parchment” that refers to a cooking method in which food is steam baked while enveloped in a pouch of parchment paper, aluminum foil or a paper bag. It is common to cook poultry, fish and vegetables en papillote because the method steams the food quickly while also retaining moisture either from the food itself or a sauce or stock. The method is simple, quick, low fat and can add flair to a meal since each serving is served in a personal own pouch that allows a cloud of steam and aromas to escape. Fresh ingredients and advanced preparation are crucial elements of successfully cooking en papillote.
For most en papillote recipes, aluminum foil can be used in lieu of parchment paper, the traditional method, and has the added benefit of being safe to use on a grill. If using parchment, the paper must be cut into a shape similar to a heart that is folded over the food and sealed by rolling the edges together prior to baking. When the dish is nearly finished cooking, the parchment paper pouch will be brown and puffed up. Wax paper cannot be used because it tears easily and will burn in the oven.
Cooking fish such as salmon with lemon, garlic or capers is a classic en papillote recipe. Additional combinations include chicken and asparagus, sweet potatoes and leeks, flounder or sole with tomatoes, mushrooms and shallots, and orange roughy fillets topped with mustard sauce. Veal, lobster tails, shrimp and other shellfish may also be prepared using this cooking method. Spices, seasonings and herbs such as basil can be added to many en papillote recipes and most dishes will cook in less than 30 minutes in a moderately hot oven.
Steam cooking food by wrapping it is a method that is not unique to Western cuisine. A common Latin American dish called the tamale consists of masa or corn-based dough and additional fillings like vegetables, meat or cheese wrapped in a banana leaf or corn husk and steamed or boiled. A similar method is used to prepare a variety of Indonesian, Malaysian and Singaporean dishes including otak-otak, botok, pepes and buntil. Large leaves are used to wrap fish, seafood or coconut flesh based cakes that are then steamed or grilled. In some cases, the wrapping is consumed while in other cases like tamales the wrapping is discarded prior to eating.