Heating plastic wrap in the oven may make a lot of home cooks cringe, but it’s an old school trick that is commonly practiced in professional kitchens. Plastic wrap is also commonly used in cooking sous vide, and millions of people microwave dishes covered in plastic wrap every day. Is it safe to heat plastic wrap this way?
Why Heat Plastic Wrap, Anyway?
In a video for Cooking Light, 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!”
Those videos are a number of years old, but the topic still provokes strong responses. Meanwhile, this Simply Recipes recipe for restaurant-style poached chicken calls for wrapping narrow cylinders of boneless chicken tightly in plastic wrap and poaching it in water that’s heated to a high simmer and then shut off. Is that brilliant…or risky?
Is It Safe to Cook With Plastic Wrap? Experts Weight In
As it turns out, most experts agree that you safely can put plastic wrap in the oven or heat it by other means (cooking sous vide, for example)—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 Dotdash Meredith 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.
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°F (depending on the specific manufacturer). So even with the protective layer of the foil, we can see where this trick might still make home cooks uneasy.
Get the Good Stuff
It turns out that not all plastic wraps are created equal. Some brands’ formulations break down under heat more readily than others. The easiest way to get an indication whether plastic wrap can withstand heat is to check on the box to see if it’s labeled “microwave safe”. If you plan on heating the plastic wrap, spring for a quality brand.
What to Use Instead of Plastic Wrap
In the case that you want to try cheffy recipes without having to break out the plastic wrap, simply wrap in foil as an easy, less-intimidating workaround. Pressing parchment paper directly on the surface of the food (if the recipe calls for pressing plastic wrap on hot food) is another route to consider. Waxed paper will melt and leave a greasy, waxy residue, so don’t use that.
If you’re microwaving, consider using an inverted microwave-safe glass or ceramic plate over your bowl or dish.
For more about heating plastic and food safety, read this article about the differences in grades of plastic bags and wraps.
A version of this article originally appeared on MyRecipes.com