Wax Paper vs. Parchment Paper: What's the Difference?

Both of these kitchen papers have slick surfaces and are extremely useful in a variety of applications. Find out when to use which and how they are similar to—and different from—one another.

When it comes to cooking, some of the greatest modern inventions are handy items on rolls that lend some assistance to cooks everywhere. From foil that seals dishes tightly to cook in the oven or on the grill or lines a pan to make cleanup easy, to plastic wrap making an airtight seal on anything in your fridge, the ability to reach for a disposable kitchen aid and tear off as much as you need has always been a game changer.

But while there's not much confusion when it comes to what to do with foil and plastic wrap, when you look at the paper options, it can get a bit confusing. Wax paper and parchment paper, what's the difference? And while they both might tout some "nonstick" capabilities, are they the same thing? And if not, when it comes to wax paper versus parchment paper, which should you choose and when?

What Is Parchment Paper?

Parchment paper is made from cotton fiber and/or wood pulp. Most parchment paper has been coated with a silicone product to make it both nonstick and heat-resistant. It is used most often as a barrier between food and what you're cooking it on or in to make removal smooth and cleanup easy; think lining baking pans or sheet pans for roasting vegetables. Safe for oven use up to 425° to 450°F (depending on the brand), parchment paper can be found in both bleached and unbleached versions, and either on rolls or in pre-cut sheets or even shapes that fit perfectly into round cake pans, for instance.

While parchment paper is not recyclable, it is compostable, plus you can reuse it if it is not damaged. You can often use a sheet of parchment a few times for items that are dry, like cookies, as long as there is no residue from previous use, and the paper has not become brittle from the heat.

What Is Wax Paper?

Wax paper is paper that has been coated with food-grade paraffin wax to make it both nonstick and moisture-resistant. It has been around since the 1950s. It is not heat-resistant—even low heats can melt the wax—so it is not suitable for lining pans the way parchment paper can. (The one exception to this rule is when baking cakes, as the batter will completely cover the wax paper, preventing the wax from melting.) Because of the wax coating, it is not recyclable or compostable.

a photo of a baking sheet with parchment paper and wax paper
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When to Use Wax Paper Versus Parchment Paper

These very different products are both handy for a variety of kitchen tasks, some of which are particular to the product, and some which they share.

In the Freezer

Both of these products can be used for freezing. Either can be used as a layer in between items you do not want to stick together while frozen, such as baked goods like brownies or shaped raw burgers. Additionally, parchment paper can be used to line dishes that are designed to go from freezer to oven.

In the Oven

Only parchment paper is safe for use in the oven, and only up to 425° to 450°F before it will begin to break down and get brittle or burn. Wax paper is not oven-safe in any application.

For Food Prep

Both products are fantastic tools for food prep. You can use either to measure out dry ingredients for baking for easy transfer into a stand mixer or bowl, or to line a sheet pan for ingredient organization and easy cleanup. And both can be used to help roll out sticky doughs without having to add as much flour.

When Should You Use Wax Paper?

Use wax paper when you need to wrap individual cooled items that are sticky, such as caramels or marshmallow cereal treats, or when you want to create a protective barrier for moisture for food that might travel, as with a tuna sandwich. It can also be used directly on top of cold dishes to protect them from air, such as a chilled custard pie or cheesecake. (Parchment is not useful for these applications since it is not moisture-resistant and will get soggy and tear when you try to remove it.) Wax paper should not come into contact with food or cooking vessels that are hot, since the wax will melt at fairly low temperatures.

When Should You Use Parchment Paper?

Use parchment paper to line baking sheets and cooking vessels to make removal easy and cleanup fast (but remember it's only safe to 425° to 450°F). If you like to make candies, like caramels or chocolates, you can line a baking sheet on which to cool these products. You can also use parchment paper directly on top of foods such as stocks or soups when you want some evaporation protection, but not the tight seal of a full lid.

Can You Substitute One for the Other?

If the use is both cool and dry, the parchment paper and wax paper can be used interchangeably, such as in your freezer or fridge or at room temperature, for rolling out doughs or helping with food prep. If the application involves any kind of heat, use parchment paper. If the cool application involves moisture, use wax paper.

Bottom Line

Wax paper is paper coated in wax and is great for creating a nonstick surface but shouldn't be exposed to heat. Parchment paper is paper that's been coated with silicone and can be heated up to 425° to 450°F. Both are great for separating foods you plan to store, and they're also suitable for covering items in the fridge or freezer (if you don't need a tight seal).

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