Paper-Bag Cookery

Appears in

Oxford Companion to Food

Oxford Companion to Food

By Alan Davidson

Published 2014

  • About

Paper-Bag Cookery was an early British food fashion, an answer to all those wrapped foods of the Far East and S. America. Food (together with any necessary liquid) was put in a greaseproof-paper bag brushed out with fat, sealed with clips, placed on a trivet, then baked in the oven. Some dishes, for example a tapioca or a steak-and-kidney pudding, would first be potted up before bagging, but the majority—roasts, made dishes, stews and vegetables, even soufflés—had no other container than the paper. It was a development of the French method of cooking en papillote, favoured particularly for fish such as red mullet, veal chops (perhaps the classic), and small birds. These would be wrapped in foolscap paper first brushed with fat. Usually meat had been first browned, though fish would not be, and the point of the wrapping was to steam the main item with aromatics and vegetables without loss of the juices. Paper bag cookery was more ambitious. Meat did not need preliminary browning: holes were punched in the bag to give colour to ‘roast’ beef or the bag enclosing a chicken was rent asunder at the end to impart a nice finish. It was claimed that cooking was more rapid and the oven need not be so hot; that there was no loss of nutrients; that it saved on washing-up and kitchen equipment; that the cooker was never soiled and servants were less necessary. It was only viable once wood pulp papers could be made greaseproof and square-bottomed or gussetted grocery bags could be produced: all developments of the 1870s and 1880s. It was a fashion driven at once by manufacturers (the ‘Papakuk’ and the ‘Dreycoul’ are two brand names) and by the press (the Daily Express at the forefront). In 1911–12 five books were published on the subject. The fad may reflect broader social conditions, particularly the lack of servants and the first necessary steps in reducing the domestic workload of women left to fend for themselves. Since the general adoption of aluminium foil in the 1950s, the principle of en papillote has been broadened and deepened.