We understand why.
This week, our team encountered an old school trick that is commonly practiced in professional kitchens, but makes a lot of home cooks cringe. In a recently published Well Done video, Chef Akhtar Nawab demonstrates how to cook a short ribs in the oven. He tightly wraps the ribs in a few layers of plastic wrap and bakes the wrapped ribs in the oven at a low temperature of 225°F for 6 hours. In another recipe from the chef, Butternut Squash Gratin, we again see Nawab build a dish surrounded in plastic wrap, then bake it. The purpose of this common restaurant technique is to seal moisture into the food. However, the hack had a few viewers scratching their heads and screaming in the comment section. Mostly, we heard slightly more colorful variations on the assertion, “You can’t put plastic wrap in the oven!” As it turns out, you can— but only at low temperatures. That said, it isn’t a hack we’d push anyone to try at home if they’re not comfortable with it.
Numerous test kitchen chefs in the Time Inc. Food Studios further confirmed that using plastic wrap in the oven was a common practice in restaurants, however, in most cases, the plastic wrap does not touch the food. Food grade plastic wrap can be used as a sealant for baked dishes, often covered by a layer of foil. This double layering is a trick used to lock in moisture and help prevent the plastic from melting (the plastic creates steam, while the foil shields the plastic). In a New York Times Cooking recipe submitted by Rich Torrisi and Mario Carbone from Parm Restaurant, the chefs brine turkey breasts for up to 24 hours and wrap them in plastic wrap sealed with foil. The turkey breasts are baked at a temperature of 250°F for 2-3 hours. The recipe instructs that the foil and plastic are removed after this low and slow bake before the breasts are finished at a high temperature for color. The majority of commenters on this recipe couldn’t get far enough past their concern about the plastic to even try it, with just a handful of home cooks testifying to how great the cooking method is.
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According to a Washington Post article, chemistry professor Robert L. Wolke, explains that common plastic wraps found in consumers’ homes melt between 220° and 250° (depending on the specific manufacturer). So even with the protective layer of the foil, I can see where this trick might still make home cooks uneasy. Any perceived risk of plastic melting onto my meal would make me proceed with caution too. In the case that you want to try Chef Nawab’s insanely tender short ribs or his Butternut Squash Gratin (you should) without having to break out the plastic wrap, simply wrap in foil as an easy, less-intimidating workaround.