Today in Tedium: In the next week or so, ovens around the country are going to be filled with all sorts of baked goods ahead of Thanksgiving. Pies. Cookies. Biscuits. And lots of stuff in between that I will probably eat, even if I have no role in baking it myself. In recent years, a key tool that will enable such rapid-fire baking with startling efficiency has gained widespread popularity among cooks. It’s called by a variety of terms—“baking sheets,” “parchment paper,” “backpapier,” and others. The question, as originally posed by fellow writer, word obsessive, and fan of nerdy things Gretchen McCulloch, is this: Where did this object, and the terminology behind it, come from? This sounded like a mystery that I could add a little clarity to. So I did. Today’s Tedium ponders parchment paper, pardner. — Ernie @ Tedium
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“Apicius, the most gluttonous gorger of all spendthrifts, established the view that the flamingo’s tongue has a specially fine flavour.”
— A quote about Marcus Gavius Apicius, a gourmet who lived in the first century A.D. and is widely associated with an early cookbook, the Apicius. That cookbook has one of the earliest references to parchment paper I can find, in a recipe for “Creamed Kid Flavored with Laurel,” a reference to a skewered meat dish made from a young goat, or kid. (That said, this version of events is from a 1936 translation of the De Re Coquinaria of Apicius, so it’s possible that it was modernized in some way.)
Parchment paper and parchment are not the same thing, just an FYI
The thing about searching for information about the basis or history of a term or idea is that you’re effectively starting from a position where it’s already everywhere, and you have all the benefits of the object’s existence, but often, none of its history.
When an object is a branded product, like, say, Windex, you can generally find a starting point tied to a corporate history. But in the case of parchment paper or baking paper or whatever it’s called, you’re dealing with literally centuries of history, along with decades of more recent innovations that helped turn it into an object that makes life a little easier. In that way, the comparison point is probably nail clippers, an object where its industrial history leaves enough questions that much of its story is lost to time.
In the case of parchment paper, it helps to break it down to its main basic parts in the modern day: Cellulose, the basic chemical compound that composes plant life, and from which paper is made; and silicone, a kind of polymer made from a mixture of a silicon-oxygen compound, carbon, and hydrogen. More on the silicone in a second—the cellulose makes a good starting point, as it exposes a fallacy in using “parchment” to describe parchment paper right off the bat.
Parchment, in its base form, isn’t in reference to wood-generated cellulose, which is a key element of most types of paper along with some bioplastic products like cellophane and rayon fiber. Instead, as the U.S. National Archives note, it’s generally associated with animal skin that has been scraped and prepared for writing; another, similar term for this material is vellum, which is generally made from calf skin. This use goes back thousands of years, and because the modern alternatives didn’t exist yet, was probably the stuff that Apicius used to bake his creamed kid.
It took us until the 19th century to find a non-animal replacement for parchment, which came to be known as parchment paper. In 1847, when French scientists Jean-André Poumarède and Louis Figuier came up with a chemical treatment process for plant-based paper that kept many of the qualities of parchment.
A key element of parchment paper is its treatment. As explained in the 1874 book A Manual of the Chemistry of the Carbon Compounds, the use of sulfuric acid played a key role in giving parchment paper its distinctive qualities.
“If unsized paper be dipped for a few seconds in a cold mixture of two volumes of concentrated sulfuric acid and one volume of water, and then washed with water and ammonia, the so-called parchment paper is obtained,” the book states.
It didn’t take long for observers to see the potential in the kitchen. In an 1859 edition of The Pharmaceutical Journal, researcher A.W. Hoffman wrote of the potential for the substance in a variety of settings, including in chemistry. But he was quick to note that it would find a home in kitchens the world over—especially given the relative grossness of the alternative. “In closing the orifices of vessels for preserves, et cetera, few housewives will hesitate to substitute an elegant material like vegetable parchment paper for the animal membrane, so frequently offensive, which is now generally in use,” Hoffman wrote.
The material, often called “backpapier” in Germany, also found a home in food preservation and distribution, as it proved an effective tool to prevent the spoiling of foods. In a 1889 edition of the Kansas Farmer, parchment paper is called out for its ability to store butter for storage and delivery.
It is a well recognized fact that where any part of the surface of butter is exposed to the air such exposure tends to diminish the aroma, which is so highly prized in a first-class article. The one aim in packing, therefore, should be to get a package as near air-tight as possible before shipping. This cannot be accomplished with muslin. The best material so far devised for that purpose is, we unhesitatingly say, parchment paper. When butter is compactly wrapped in such paper, you not only manage to retain a good deal of the original flavor—of course, not as deli-cate as when first made, but still enough to enhance its value—but you also add to its keeping qualities—a great desideratum during the summer season—and make it look attractive and inviting to the buyers.
These days, parchment paper outside of a food context refers to a writing material—thick paper made from wood, cotton, or flax—while vellum refers to translucent paper stock.
(Fun story: When I was just out of college and focused on getting a full-time newspaper design job, I actually mailed my portfolios in vellum paper envelopes, because it was partly transparent and it created an interesting effect. Cool, huh?)
I didn’t really have a place for this ad for asbestos baking paper sheets, which date to the early part of the 20th century and function differently than the baking sheets we think of today (rather than being put under a food to bake without sticking to the pan, it’s put on top of a food to help prevent burning), but when I saw this image, I couldn’t not not NOT include it in this article. Per MagazineArt.org, the ad comes from a 1903 issue of Modern Priscilla.
How silicone became a key part of baking paper
The invention of plant-based parchment paper is interesting! But half the question raised by Gretchen is less about how parchment paper came to be, but why it became so prominent in the past couple of decades specifically in terms of baking sheets.
In a Twitter poll, more than a third (36 percent) of her followers that responded said they remembered parchment paper only as far back as the 2000s, meaning that either most of her followers are Billie Eilish’s age, or it only gained prominence recently. I’d like to speculate that some of that might be a side effect of cooking culture picking up around that time thanks to the Food Network, food blogs, and folks like Martha Stewart singing its praises. You were more likely to see someone using parchment paper on TV in 2003 than you might have been in the 1970s, fact of matter.
Another trend that really picked up steam in the 2000s was silicone rubber cookware. Generally molded, such cookware benefits greatly from being both flexible and resistant to heat—a great combination for the kitchen.
And while the discovery of the polymer dates to at least the beginning of the 20th century, one company can be credited for popularizing the substance. In 1945, the chemical company Dow Corning—jointly owned at the time by Dow Chemical and Corning Incorporated—was founded specifically to help discover uses for silicone products in the consumer market. An Associated Press story from the era highlights exactly how bullish the company was about silicone. Sample quote:
Michigan hunters have been using a silicone gun grease and another silicone to keep their boots soft and waterproof. There is also a silicone ski grease to slip faster over the snow. Had Hitler possessed one of these silicone greases in his first winter in Russia, his big guns would not have become useless at 40 below zero when their greases hardened and disintegrated.
The quote highlights silicone’s key advantages in extreme heat and cold. Silicone materials, depending on the combination, have a very high melting point of above 400 degrees, which means that it’s perfect for kitchen environments and can be used for baking and putting in environments such as boiling water.
Or on parchment paper, evidence of which I’m finding as far back as the 1950s.
The first newspaper article I can find that specifically recommends using parchment paper lined with silicone dates back to a 1957 fruitcake recipe, where the paper is recommended as a way to all “for easy removal of cakes from pans.”
As for evidence of an invention or patent, I’m having trouble finding the exact patent for silicone-coated parchment paper, but a related patent filing, a 1955 application (granted in 1958) for “Method of applying a protective wrapping to a pipe,” specifically cites the use of silicone in parchment paper in the 1950s:
It has been found that parchment paper treated with a liquid silicone has excellent characteristics as a separating medium. The silicone treated parchment paper which is preferred is one made from vegetable fibers and this then is coated with silicone in liquid form and permitted to dry. It is sold on the market as silicone treated parchment paper and has no affinity for or is adhesive to the bituminous material or wax and clean separation will always occur. Regardless of the period of time of contact of this parchment paper and the coating, no undesirable characteristics are imparted to the coating and the latter always remains in a state of purity. This is not true of parchment paper which has been treated with other substances and attempted to be used with high melting bituminous material or microcrystalline wax.
(One interesting discovery I found which is completely unrelated to anything on this topic: Silicone came up in a lawsuit in the early 1960s, Johnson & Johnson v. The Kendall Company, which was literally a patent lawsuit over the coating of the protective paper used on adhesive bandages. Kendall, see, was the corporate parent of Curad, the main competitor of the Band-Aid. In case you were wondering how in the weeds we can get on this topic.)
Of course, this wouldn’t work if silicone was a carcinogen like asbestos. And as you might be aware, there was a scandal involving silicone breast implants in the ’90s that has actually resurfaced in the news recently. There’s not a lot of evidence to suggest silicone creates similar risks in cookware, according to Scientific American, but it’s also worth noting that more testing could probably be done.
That said, it’s not like nothing has been done. In 1979, the Food and Drug Administration designated silicates as GRAS (generally recommended as safe) substances, including silicon dioxides, which are what silicone turns into when it reaches its melting point. But still, there’s definitely room for more testing.
Nonetheless, it’s worth keeping in mind that a big part of the reason why modern-day parchment paper is seen as something of a miracle material is the addition of silicone—and just like any substance rooted in a chemical, there’s always give and take to consider.
The answer to the question, “Can I replace wax paper with parchment paper in the kitchen?” In fact, doing so might be a great shortcut to starting a fire. See, silicone material is designed in such a way that resists heat, which makes it perfect for baking; wax paper, also known as “greaseless paper,” is not. (As the Reynolds website notes, though, there are some cases, though, where wax paper makes sense in the oven—say, at the bottom of a cake pan, below some batter, where it’s not directly exposed to the oven’s heat—but you wouldn’t just want to randomly swap it in because you’re out of parchment paper.) So despite the fact that these materials seem like kitchen doppelgängers, DO NOT CROSS THE STREAMS.
Like many inventions, parchment paper of the kind used in baking is a combination of inventions.
Someone had to come up with an alternative to using animals for creating parchment and vellum. Someone else had to come up with the silicone coating that turned this paper into something more powerful and effective than parchment paper on its own. And someone had to figure out that asbestos was a bad idea for cooking.
But the power of being able to cook something, and put it on a surface, and put it in the oven, and let it do its thing, and have it not stick to either the pan or the paper it’s connected to is very powerful. As Lifehacker helpfully put it, it’s one of the most useful things in your kitchen.
I was thinking about this recently when I found myself cleaning a baking sheet that had the remnants of a meal on it that was pretty tasty but was basically impossible to get off the sheet. It was maddening, even when using my tough biodegradable soap of choice, and it made me frustrated with cooking, an art I’ve only recently gained any sort of affinity in myself. Should have used parchment paper. Lesson learned!
Someone out there was probably feeling just as frustrated the day that they sprayed a little silicone coating onto a sheet of paper and realized, hey, this could actually work. I don’t know exactly who that is, but whoever you are, the culinary world wants to thank you.
Thanks again to Gretchen McCulloch for the idea! She has a relatively new book out, Because Internet: Understanding the New Rules of Language, as well as a newsletter—both of which you should definitely check out.
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Editor’s note: This post has been clarified to note that there are some use cases for wax paper in the oven, though not as a direct replacement for parchment paper.