Parchment paper is way cool. I admit I kind of love parchment paper. You can use it to cook things ON or IN and nothing sticks to it and no pots or pans get dirty. It’s great for cookies and you can make a circle of it and put it in the bottom of a round cake pan instead of greasing and flouring the pan. No crusty tough bottom, no sticking (at the bottom is a tip you probably don’t know) It’s good. It’s gooood. You can use it for package cooking, what the French call en Papillote, and not just for fish. Now, it is even possible to buy preformed packages so you don’t have to do the fancy folding technique that is used for fish en Papillote. Parchment paper is heat-resistant. In fact, it can stand up to very high heats. That is because it is treated with silicone, which not only makes it non-stick but makes it stand up to very high temperatures. This fact leads people to make a common erroneous statement about it: Parchment paper will not burn. I am here to tell you, it will burn. It will burn very well!
To start, read the entry on oil fires. This will serve as good background.
Parchment Paper Burning
In the photo below, I burned a bit of parchment paper. The paper lit very easily. It is thin, so the flame is not so very high, but it wasn’t so easy to put out. Any adjacent flammable items could have easily been lit by this little fire.
One thing I don’t want you to do is to try this experiment at home yourself. That is why I did it and took a photo: So you could see for yourself that parchment paper burns as readily as any other paper. In fact, I’d say it burns more readily than some paper. Although I put this flame out in the sink, what you don’t see is that I had a fire extinguisher ready in case the fire was more robust than I expected. And, I know how to use my fire extinguisher.
A Bit of Parchment History
First, it may be useful to give a bit more background on parchment paper. You may have read, perhaps in old books about ancient history, of people writing things on parchment. Parchment is something that came before paper, which the Chinese invented, and after such things as papyrus, which people always associated with Ancient Egypt. Papyrus was made from the pit of the papyrus plant. It wasn’t so great but it was used in Europe up to the year 200 and probably later. Around about the fourteenth century, papyrus began being replaced by parchment, which was developed in the Turkish city of Perganum (Begnama). It takes its name from the Latin Pathica pellis or “Parthian skin.”
This parchment was made from animal skins like pig, antelope, goat, sheep, or cow. Many European books, up until the 16th century were handwritten on parchment. Parchment was not paper. When paper became widely available, it began to replace parchment (and vellum) but parchment was still highly prized and useful. It was skin, remember. A bit more resilient, more waterproof, more greaseproof, and yes, more heat-proof than paper.
Later, in the late 1800’s and early 1900’s (perhaps earlier), people began experimenting with treating cloth and paper to be used for special purposes. Paper from pulpwood would be treated with acids and other chemicals, and the result were things called imitation parchment, vegetable parchment, imitation parchment, etc. This early stuff probably bore little resemblance to modern parchment paper, but it was semi-transparent and durable. Recipes using it for cooking began to show up in cookbooks by 1910.
Parchment Paper Safety
Today’s parchment paper is a cellulose based treated paper that is impregnated with silicone. Here are a few points you need to know about it, in terms of heat and safety:
1. Parchment paper is heat resistant, but only up to a point. That point is usually around 420°F (215°C). After that, it might begin smoking. How much heat it can actually withstand depends on the specific conditions you use it under.
2. Parchment paper may be heat resistant, but it is not flame retardant! It will take a flame very easily. In my informal experiments, parchment paper seemed to take a flame better than regular paper such as you would use in a printer or copier. Then, depending on the angle (orientation) of the paper, it propagated the flame very quickly. Parchment will not only burn, it will burn big.
3. You should NOT use parchment paper under a broiler or in a toaster oven. If it gets hot enough, it could flame up, and will, at least, begin smoking and turning black. If it comes into contact with a flame or heating element, you’ll have a fire.
4. Do not leave parchment paper on or near a stove, especially when the stove is in use and unattended. Should something cause the parchment paper to touch the flame or heating element, such as a draft, you could end up with a kitchen fire. Yes, I did this experiment for you (for Science!) I allowed a sheet of parchment paper that was sitting on a baking tray on one side of the stove to touch the gas flame I was using. It went up like a Roman Candle and by the time I got it over to the sink, the paper was burning like a torch. If I had left it, there is no telling what might have happened.
There is a big difference between a materials ability to withstand ambient heat and its ability to withstand exposure to actual fire. Never mistake heat-resistant for fire-resistant! If you have read the article, linked above, on oil fires, you will have learned the difference between combustible and flammable materials. Parchment paper is flammable. Just like the shirt you are wearing is probably flammable. Just like most of your house is flammable.
Now that the grave danger part of the post is over, now that you know (if you were wondering), you can get on with cooking with parchment paper without any worry!
Wax Paper Instead of Parchment Paper (Only For Cakes!)
Remember when I mentioned lining the bottom of a cake pan with parchment paper? I hate greasing and flouring cake pans. In fact, I hate making cakes but my son is always asking for cake, so…Anyway, all you have to do is place a sheet of parchment paper on a cutting surface (like a cutting board), place the cake pan on top of it, bottom side down, and carefully cut paper out around the edge of the pan using an Exacto knife or another razor bladed knife (carpet knife, utility knife, box cutter). Make sure to hold down the cake pan well so it won’t slip while your cutting. Remove the circle and pop it in the bottom of the pan.
You don’t have to grease the sides and you don’t need paper on the sides because a cake should draw away from the sides of the pan, enough to keep it from sticking, anyway. But, now that you know this, what if you want to make a cake but you don’t have parchment paper?
Well, do you have wax paper? You cannot use wax paper as you would parchment paper for pretty much any cooking purpose. It won’t take the heat and it will smoke and the wax will get melty and all sorts of trouble will ensue. But, you CAN use wax paper to line the bottom of a cake pan! See, since you are covering the wax paper with a semi-liquid batter, the paper will not reach a smoking point. The cake won’t stick to the wax paper and it will work like a charm. I still prefer parchment paper but, in a pinch, if all you have is wax paper, go ahead and try it.
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