You’ll never have to guess again.
To put the confusion to rest once and for all, we spoke with Charry Brown, current test kitchen manager at Reynolds, and Pat Schweitzer, consumer test kitchen manager at Hamilton Beach and former test kitchen economist at Reynolds, to provide a clear answer for every sweet and savory scenario. But first, a few notes:
Which one is nonstick? While parchment paper is always nonstick, only certain types of foil are. Nonstick foil has a special coating, and should be used when making sticky, cheesy, or starchy baked foods. Standard and heavy duty aluminum foil are not nonstick, but can be sprayed with cooking spray when necessary.
Is there ever a need to grease parchment paper? While it depends on the recipe, you can usually skip the “butter and flour” step if you are lining the pan with parchment paper, Brown says—with a few exceptions. “If it is a very sticky or gooey dough, lightly flour the parchment paper, particularly in the bottom of the pan.” Additionally, always butter and flour the parts of a pan that aren’t covered in parchment.
Does it matter whether foil is shiny side up or down? It depends on the type of foil. When cooking with standard or heavy duty foil, you can place your food on either side. If you’re using nonstick, place your food atop the dull side.
Why do I need to use cover my pans at all? Both materials make for easy cleanup, and ensure your food doesn’t stick to cooking surfaces. Using parchment or foil also cuts down on the need for added grease or butter.
Roasting Veggies in the Oven: Either
Parchment paper is safe up to 420°F, so if you are roasting vegetables at a temperature above that (say 450°F or 500°F), you’ll need to use foil. If you prefer slow-roasting veggies at a lower oven temperature, you can line the pan with either—though, if you do use foil, go with nonstick. “With either foil or parchment paper, drizzle veggies with a little olive oil before roasting and season lightly so you can enjoy their natural yummy flavors,” Brown says.
Some recipes will call for wrapping firm vegetables—such as potatoes, beets, and corn, and even whole carrots and green beans—in aluminum foil before placing them in the oven. Why? It helps them cook to tender perfection. “With potatoes, some people like the really soft skin on the potato,” Schweitzer says. “And other people love that outer, dry, potato skin-style potato. If you want the soft, moist potato, wrap it in foil.”
Tip: If you’re baking veggies wrapped in foil, place them on a baking sheet and add a few ice cubes to the pan for moisture (they’ll slowly melt as the veggies cook).
Roasting Chicken or Turkey in the Oven: Heavy Duty Foil
There are two ways to use foil when making a chicken or a turkey. If you’re cooking at a higher oven temperature (which speeds up cooking time), you can wrap the turkey with foil to prevent it from drying out—no basting required. “Simply line a pan with foil, put the turkey in the foil-lined pan and brush it with oil,” Brown says. “Add seasoning, wrap the turkey in the additional sheet of foil, leaving a little opening on each side for heat circulation, and cook at 450°F.” Thirty minutes before the bird is done cooking, unwrap it to allow the exterior to brown.
If you’re cooking your bird at 325°F, keep it moist by tenting it instead. Place the turkey on a foil-lined pan, season, and top with the foil “tent” during the first hour of baking. Remove the foil and continue roasting until the bird is golden brown, with crispy skin all over. Parchment is not nearly as malleable as foil, so even though you are cooking at a lower oven temperature, you will not be able to form the tented shape.
Tip: Always season your bird after placing it on the pan, which ensures all the seasonings (including any that fall off) roast with the bird.
Cooking Food on the Grill: Heavy Duty Foil
Parchment isn’t suitable for a hot grill, so any time you’re grilling you’ll want to reach for foil. A foil packet works great for steaming fruit, veggies, or shellfish—simply place the ingredients in the center of a piece of foil, connect the long sides over the food, and roll down twice. Then, roll each short edge twice, leaving enough room for the steam to vent. If you’re grilling steak or burgers, place the cooked meat underneath a foil tent when resting to lock in its juices.
Tip: Ball up used foil to scrub down grimy grill grates.
Cooking Fish in the Oven: Either
If you’re steaming a fillet of fish (such as salmon), place it in a parchment paper packet and add veggies, seasonings, and lemon juice. “Parchment keeps moisture and flavor in, but stays strong when wet,” Brown says. If you’re broiling fish, opt for nonstick foil, which can withstand the high temperature and reduce sticking and clean-up.
Tip: Cook fish in a parchment packet for an impressive meal. Serve the whole packet on a plate, then cut an “X” on top to release the aromas.
Baking Cookies: Parchment Paper
Parchment paper will help cookie dough bake into evenly browned cookies that hold their shape without cracks, Brown says. Foil isn’t wrong, it will just result in a different type of cookie. “Cookies baked on foil will be a little bit more spread out, a little browner, and a little crispier,” Schweitzer says.
Tip: If you’re making sugar cookies from scratch, place the ball of dough between two pieces of parchment paper, lightly sprinkle with flour, then roll out the dough. “All the mess stays on the parchment, so you can easily gather it up and toss when done!” Brown says.
Baking Brownies: Nonstick Foil
Because foil can be molded to the shape of any pan, it works best when baking a batch of brownies. “When the brownies are done cooking, simply lift the foil sheets out of the pan to easily cut perfect brownies (and corners, yum!),” Brown says.
Tip: To make lifting brownies out of the pan a cinch, overlap two sheets of foil in a crisscross pattern with the ends sticking out over the edges.
Baking Cake: Parchment Paper
It’s very difficult to line a round cake pan with foil, and any irregularities will affect the shape of the cake. But, because it’s also tricky to line the sides of a round pan with parchment, Schweitzer suggests cutting a circle of parchment for the bottom of the pan, then greasing the sides separately. The parchment paper will make for a more evenly baked cake, will help you frost with fewer crumbs, and will make transferring the cake to a cooling rack much easier.
Tip: Transform a sheet of parchment paper into a funnel and use it to pipe icing onto the cake.
Need a quick way to remember all of these tips? Just think of this simple rule: “Sweet treat, parchment sheet. Grill or broil, go with foil,” Brown says. Parchment is preferable for baked goods and delicate dishes, while foil is best for cooking that involves high heat (broiling and grilling).