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Baking mats and parchment

(article, Hank Sawtelle)

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I love to roast vegetables, and I wonder if I could roast on parchment paper to help with clean-up? Or on a Silpat? Or are both the Silpat and the parchment paper best for cookies (and 350 degrees as opposed to 450)? Any tips?
— Susan M., Portland, Oregon

Good news: You can use either parchment paper or a baking mat to bake and roast at 450 degrees, and both are way easier to clean up than a gunky pan.

Don't tell Ray Bradbury, but parchment paper is good beyond 450 degrees. It's made by treating wood pulp with sulfuric acid (the French call it papier sulfurisé), which gives it nonstick and heat-resistant powers. 

I use it at 550 degrees to get pizzas off of my pizza peel smoothly and onto the pizza stone. The exposed parchment paper areas turn dark and brittle at that temperature, but the disc under the pizza dough doesn't burn. (Does it go without saying that you must keep it away from flame?) The alternative is cornmeal, which burns reliably and is difficult to clean up. 

[%image squash float=right width=400 caption="A baking mat works well for roasting vegetables and helps with clean-up."]

Just don't confuse parchment paper with waxed paper, which has a coating that will melt and smoke if you try to roast on it. 

The only time you might want to avoid parchment is if you are roasting very saucy or sugary foods; at high temperatures, the sticky liquid can run over the edge, under the parchment, and burn into a difficult mess. A baking mat would be better in that case.

Baking mats are super-cool and convenient. They are sheets of heat-tolerant silicone rubber with woven-fiberglass “skeletons.” They are fine up to 480 degrees, according to one manufacturer's website. 

What happens above 480 degrees? I am very curious, but not enough to try it at home. 

[%image paper float=right width=400 caption="For roasting squash, as well as cookies or other baked goods, parchment paper works well, too."] 

The most common consumer brand of baking mat is the Silpat, made by the French company Demarle (who, by the way, appears to be covertly taking over the world with a Tupperware-style direct-sales network, so your neighbor may be offering to sell you a Silpat soon). 

I bought an Exopat, also made in France, from my local restaurant-supply store. I have used both brands and they are functionally identical. There are others as well, although beware of flimsy versions. 

You might be tempted, out of habit or caution, to grease the mat or spray it with nonstick spray, but you really don't need to, and it will only make clean-up harder. 

The main naughty thing to avoid with baking mats is cutting on them — knives, pizza wheels, and the like can cut into the silicone and expose the fiberglass, which can then get into the food. Not fun.

Parchment generally comes in rolls for the consumer market, but commercial kitchens buy it in pre-cut sheets, which is way more convenient and less curly (and sloppy). If you do a lot of baking and roasting, consider getting a pack of half-sheet, pan-sized parchment paper. (Prices may be better at your local restaurant-supply store than online.) 

For some reason, most consumer baking pans are a slightly different size, so you may also want one or two “regulation” half-sheet pans, which are 13-inch-by-18-inch shiny aluminum pans. Silpats (and Exopats) also fit perfectly in half-sheet pans. 

They are also sometimes called “jelly-roll pans.” I don't really know anything about jelly rolls, other than that Van Morrison sings about them on that one album I bought to impress girls in college. 

Anyway, once you're set up, you can get parchment in pan and pan in oven with lightning speed, and look like a pro doing it with authentic pastry-chef gear. Your friends will be impressed (at least, they should be). 

[%image reference-image float=right width=400 caption="You choose."] Parchment also has [/articles/features/parchmentpaper "other uses"] in the kitchen, such as separating layers of sticky stuff (marshmallows, etc.) for storage, and cooking foods en papillote,_ or in pouches.

So if you don't have either a baking mat or parchment paper, which should you invest in? Functionally, they are very similar, although my hunch is that a baking mat would have slightly better nonstick performance for extremely sticky items. 

For giggles (and so I'd have pictures for this column), I roasted some sliced acorn squash at 450 degrees on both a baking mat and parchment paper for 20 minutes, and both released cleanly (see photos) without any coaxing. The baking mat buffers the bottom of the food against heat (i.e., burning) slightly better than parchment paper. This can be good or bad — some bakers swear by parchment paper for crispier cookies, for example. 

Personally, I usually reach for the Exopat for baking and roasting because I think it's cooler (more space-age?).

Someone's probably going to ask which is worse for the environment — parchment paper that gets thrown away, or baking mats that have to be washed (although barely) with fresh water and detergent. I don't have a clue — ask Umbra, perhaps?

p(bio). Based in Portland, Oregon, Hank Sawtelle has engineering, legal, and culinary degrees.

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