Vegan Cooking Tips

Packet Cooking

By Chef Nancy Berkoff, RD, EdD, CCE

Whether cooking for one or two or for many people with different food preferences, packet cooking is the way to go.

Packet cooking is a very simple concept. Fresh food and/or leftovers are tightly sealed in single-serving packets made from aluminum foil or parchment paper and baked in the oven for 15 minutes or so. Packet cooking requires very little space or equipment — just a knife, a cutting board, an oven, and perhaps a stovetop in case you need to partially cook some ingredients before they go into the packet.

Packet cooking is also a great technique to use when serving people with varying dietary needs and preferences. You can assemble packets with different levels of spiciness, accommodate diners with food sensitivities, or easily hold the onions at someone's request.

The packet that will hold the food is the most important player for this cooking technique. In French, packet cooking is known as en papillote, named after the shape into which the packet paper is cut. Actually, it reminds me of a child's heart-shaped cutout. You must remember folding a piece of paper in half, cutting one-half of a heart, and then opening it up to reveal its shape. If you do this with foil or oven-proof parchment paper, you've got your oven packet ready.

Cut your heart/butterfly shape so that it is large enough to make the packet around the food. Keep in mind that you will need enough foil or parchment paper that you can fold and crimp the edges tightly and still maintain ‘breathing’ room for the steam.

The next step is to gather the ingredients for your packet. Sliced or chopped fresh produce is always a wonderful choice for this cooking technique, but packet cooking is a great way to use leftover cooked potatoes, carrots, beets, turnips, rice, and beans as well. You will find that little or no fat is required, as the steam traps the food's juiciness.

One thing that you will have to consider to make this technique work is how long each of the ingredients will take to cook. You want everything to finish cooking at the same time. If some ingredients would take a long time, you may need to partially cook them on the stovetop before adding them to the packet.

When you have created your packet, place the ingredients on one side of the cutout. Fold the foil or parchment paper over the assembled ingredients, making certain there is some room for steam expansion. To securely close, roll the edges of the foil or paper at least three times. Foil will stay closed on its own. Some people like to moisten the ends of the parchment paper when folding to help it stay closed.

Tips to Remember

- Choose your packet material. If you use aluminum foil, purchase heavy duty foil. It holds up to heat well and doesn't tear as easily as thinner varieties do. You can also purchase parchment paper. It is sold in rolls, just like foil, in large grocery stores, in discount department stores that have a kitchen supply department (such as Target), in bakery supply stores, and online. Whatever you do, do NOT use waxed paper or plastic wrap.

- Make sure that all of the ingredients will cook to doneness at the same rate of speed. For example, if you wanted to cook a tempeh steak with sliced sweet potatoes, you should partially cook the sweet potatoes before making the packet. Raw sweet potatoes take longer to cook than tempeh does. All the ingredients should finish cooking at the same time.

- Make sure that the seals are tight. With each folding of the foil or parchment paper, press the crease firmly. Make at least three folds, pressing along the way, so that the seals can withstand the pressure of the steam within the packets.

- Do not (or let the food) poke holes in the foil or parchment paper. Holes will allow the steam, flavor, and liquid to escape and undermine your packet-cooking efforts.

- When the packet is done cooking, use caution to open it, as the escaping steam will be extremely hot. Traditionally, food en papillote is cut around the periphery with kitchen scissors. The food is removed from the packet and served on a bed of rice, pasta, greens, toasted bread, or other appropriate ingredients.

Packet Possibilities

Tofu, tempeh, or seitan ‘steaks’ topped with:

  • Chopped fresh tomatoes and sliced fresh mushrooms
  • Snow peas and bean sprouts
  • Sliced yellow squash, zucchini, and mushrooms
  • Fresh green beans and sliced fresh tomatoes

Veggie burgers, veggie ‘ground round,’ or Tofurky™ slices topped with:

  • Sliced, partially cooked, leftover sweet potatoes and shredded kale
  • Corn cut fresh from the cob and sliced fresh tomatoes
  • Three colors of sliced bell peppers and sweet onions
  • Fresh basil and spinach leaves and minced garlic

A step-by-step example

Here's an example of a tofu steak-and-veggies packet that will serve four or five people.

To make the packet

Begin with thinly sliced potatoes, either leftovers or fresh potatoes that have been partially cooked. Place the potatoes in a small bowl with a small amount of oil and herbs of your choice. (Try parsley, thyme, rosemary, and oregano.)

In a large bowl, toss thinly sliced bell peppers, sweet onions, and sun-dried tomatoes with oil and herbs, as above. Slice a lemon.

To assemble

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

Place a 10-inch, heart-shaped piece of foil or parchment paper on a clean table or counter. Place the drizzled potato slices down the center so that they overlap somewhat. Leave a small border on the sides so that you can fold the edges three times. Top the potatoes with the vegetables. Lay extra firm tofu slices over the vegetables to cover and top with a little more vegetables. Place one lemon slice on top. Fold and crimp the edges and set on a baking sheet. Repeat to create three or four more packets.

Bake packets on sheet for approximately 15 minutes or until the packet is puffy. Remove from the oven. Carefully transfer the packets to a serving dish, being careful to avoid the escaping steam. Use scissors to open a rectangle in the top of the packet.

Serve contents immediately with rice, pasta, or cooked greens on the side.