Since its creation in the early 1900s, aluminum foil has been used in various ways: parts for electronics such as televisions and computers, lining of medicine packets, insulation materials, decorations and its best-known use in food production and storage.
To make the foil, slabs of aluminum are passed through rolling mills until the desired thickness is reached. Two sheets of aluminum are rolled together at once and later are separated into individual sheets, which is why one side is shiny, while the other side has a matte finish. Despite their appearance, the shiny and matte sides of foil insulate heat the same.
Tin originally was used to make the product (hence the common reference to “tin foil”), but it imparted a distinctive taste to food. Aluminum, on the other hand, does not leave a bitter aftertaste and also is less expensive and more durable.
Since aluminum foil is sturdy yet malleable, it helps keep light, oxygen and moisture away from foods. This can help prolong foods’ quality and aid in safe storage. Avoid using aluminum foil for acidic foods, since it can affect flavor and the acidity may eat through the foil.
Using aluminum foil as a covering, such as lining baking sheets and pans, can make cleanup easier and maintain the pans’ quality. Some brands of foil now come with a nonstick coating, which is especially handy for sticky or cheesy foods. Covering delicate dishes such as meats, fish or pie crusts with aluminum foil can help prevent drying out or overbrowning.
For microwave cooking, covering foods completely with foil is not recommended. However, very small amounts of foil may be used to prevent overcooking on certain areas of foods such as chicken wings or drumsticks. Always consult your owner’s manual to see if aluminum foil can be used in your microwave.
Disposable aluminum container production surged in the 1950s and ’60s with the popularity of TV dinners. Today, foil pie plates, party platters and baking dishes are widely available and used to transport and heat food brought to and from the home or for entertaining.
Aluminum foil comes in different degrees of thickness, each with its own best use:
- Standard is thin and best for wrapping or covering lighter foods or using in low-heat applications.
- Heavy-duty is suitable for lining baking sheets or trays, using with moderate heat and for freezer storage. Food should be covered in plastic wrap or freezer paper before wrapping with an extra layer of heavy-duty foil to avoid altering the flavor and texture of foods.
- Extra heavy-duty, the thickest option, can withstand high heat and is ideal for wrapping heavier foods such as large cuts of meat.
Although aluminum is recyclable, most recycling centers do not accept aluminum foil, since it often is soiled or damaged. To reduce waste, foil that is clean and in good condition (with no holes) can be reused to cover or wrap foods for home storage. Wash foil with soap and warm water, dry and reuse. If foil becomes too damaged, crumple it into a ball to use as a scrubber for pots and pans (not for nonstick cookware). Sheets of foil can be used to sharpen scissors (cut through a folded sheet six to eight times) or reduce static cling (crumple a clean sheet of foil into a ball and toss in the dryer with wet clothes).