The time is 8:57 pm. You're sweating a bit, but haven't even had a chance to look at the clock to get nervous. Your guests are arriving at 9, and you're stuck in the kitchen wrestling with plantains that have become baked into your sheet pan, because you forgot that they would stick. You end up having to ditch the baked plantains dish and spend an hour scrubbing your pan with steel wool before accepting that it bears new marks that you'll just have to live with. And this whole misadventure could have been avoided if you just used parchment paper. So what is parchment paper?

Give me the basics.

The most basic definition of parchment paper is that it is paper that has been put through a parchmentizing process. This process essentially passes the paper through sulfuric acid, which causes the paper to become that translucent color you know it as and makes the paper dense and impervious to grease. This also means that parchment paper can withstand high heat or wet conditions, generally up to about 420-degrees Fahrenheit

A three-pack of parchment paper rolls costs $11.99 on Amazon (or about $4.00 per 50-foot roll). So while parchment paper is a bit more expensive than your average kitchen drawer item, the protection it offers your food and your pans is definitely worth it.

How is this different from my other options?

Parchment paper is commonly confused with wax paper, but they're wildly different in usage. Was paper is paper that has been coated on both sides with paraffin, which makes it a nonstick, greaseproof, waterproof tool that can accomplish a lot in your kitchen. Wax paper is great for projects that don't go into the oven—like wrapping and storing food, preventing splattering in the microwave, or even making chocolates. However, definitely don't use wax paper as a replacement for parchment paper when putting things into the oven. Wax paper is not heat-resistant, which means it would melt off in the oven and run the risk catching on fire. At the very least, there would be some black smoke coming out of your oven.

Another potential contender would be aluminum foil, which doesn't contain the melting-in-the-oven risk factor. Aluminum foil is just a very tin sheet of aluminum, and it can definitely be used to line pots or pans to make cleanup easier. However, it doesn't have any of the nonstick qualities of parchment paper, so you would need to coat it with cooking spray before actually putting anything in the oven. So parchment paper seems to be the safest bet when cooking.

What do I need to use parchment paper for?

Parchment paper, as opposed to the other similar products above, can be used for just about anything in the kitchen. One of the best used is for baking, because the paper adds a thin airy layer between your pan and the paper that helps even the temperature and neutralize those pesky hot spots that seem to exist in every pan. Parchment paper also helps baked goods exit their pans safely, so you don't have to worry about a cake sticking to the bottom of a deep springform. A sneaky bonus is that parchment paper make cutting brownies or other dishes easier, as you can remove the entire batch from the pan all at once and cut when cooled. 

Another helpful use for parchment paper is insulating meat, as wrapping poultry, meat, or fish in parchment paper before baking creates a steam pocket that cooks the meat more gently and evenly than just the oven. There are tons of other ways to use parchment paper, but those are the ones that are unique to parchment paper itself and shouldn't be interchanged for another lining option.

Parchment paper is definitely important to have on hand—and $5 seems well-worth the protection of your food, your pans, and your oven. So next time you make yourself a fancy snack, do it right and actually line your pan with parchment paper.