Waxed Paper

I have been wondering for a long while how to make waxed paper for food storage. This wasn't what I expected, but pretty cool!


Magpie's picture

These food wraps have been popular for years, and are great for non-meat items. However, I find that using jars/tupperware or the old-fashioned method of putting a bowl in the fridge with a plate as a lid are all suitable substitutes in most cases.

The couple of places I still used waxed paper is to line the bottom of my cake pans and to separate layers of pastries when I am transporting them. Thanks for the nudge to think about alternate options here--I do re-use my waxed paper, but it does need to be replaced every year or so.

I wasn't thinking about cooking. I've been thinking about the millions (?) of miles of wax paper lining cereal and cracker boxes in supermarkets.

Back in another millennium when I was a kid, we'd take our lunch boxes to school (or just a brown paper sack) with a bologna sandwich wrapped in waxed paper and maybe some carrot sticks wrapped in another twist of the stuff. We'd pack cookies, brownies, etc. in a shoebox with layers of waxed paper and mail them to distant relatives. Seems to me like waxed paper was used taffy pulling--although I think maybe I've pulled taffy twice in my life.

We take stuff like butcher paper and waxed paper for granted. Where does the stuff come from? How is it made?

Though the bees' wax fabric is really nifty and could be a nice craft item for sales or for presents. And you could certainly wrap your bologna sandwich in one and take it to work! I bet coworkers would want them.

I did some internet/wiki lookups on the subject. Wax paper is made with paraffin, a petroleum product. It was invented in the 1870s by Hermann Frasch. Non-petroleum possibilities for a small scale town industry might be rice bran wax, or carnuba wax which comes from a palm plant. It would take considerable effort to extract enough wax, plus additional experimental work to find the right mix of oils, waxes and/or reclaimed hydrocarbon copolymers to re-create wax paper in a non-petro future.

Apparently, in medieval times, purified earwax was used. The wiki did not say whence came the earwax: humans, dogs, cattle, goats, pigs? However, since wax paper has electrical insulating properties and the waxes it needs have both candle-making and military uses (chiefly to do with damping down the reactivity of high explosives or making gun cartridges), it might be a profitable year-round industry for a future co-op of free workers or the boss of a palm plantation.

Carnuba workers in the present day are said to be working for very little wages under slave-like conditions, similar to the workers on most present-day tea plantations. As an alternative, parchment paper is made by running cellulose paper through a bath of sulfuric acid which turns the surface into a gel that dries tough and smooth. Parchment paper needs no waxes and it can be used for baking sheets, candy-making, or cooking in pouches utilizing the steam from the foods. It is capable of withstanding heat better than wax paper, since it does not smoke. The waxy substances melt and burn at a lower temperature than the 450 degrees F that parchment paper can tolerate. Farenheit 451 is the burning point of paper.

Oiled silk cloth was used to transport spices, to keep the aromatic flavors in and air out. Oiled paper was used in place of glass in windows to admit light but not cold air. Lightly oiled paper used to line a leather wallet such as beggars and road travellers once carried to transport food might serve the purpose.

Oiled bamboo paper inside a large-bore bamboo cylinder with a tightly fitting boiled leather lid might also serve. People cook rice inside bamboo tubes as a routine thing in parts of Asia. Lard, ghee, or or other refined rendered solid fats (from mutton?) might be a possibility for coating either cloth or paper for town-based butchers’ use in wrapping up cuts of meat for city customers’ convenience. Old sailcloth, maybe, soaked, bleached and freshly infused with a mixture of sugar, salt and oil?

Gourds used to be the go-to container the way we use plastic. Scalding the interior after use would be the sanitation method, I think. Or washing out with vinegar and salt, perhaps. Lighter for transport than stoneware, glazed clay pots or glass containers.

An interesting article on the sustainability of natural waxs, including carnauba. I am not aware of any Fair Trade coops producing it--but it only comes from Northeast Brazil, and off hand I can't name any FT products that come from Brazil.


ClareBroommaker's picture

You've touched on some things that I was thinking about, and even answered my question as to "what is parchment paper?" I've never used parcment paper nor even looked at it in a store. I just assumed it was ungodly expensive because I really thought it was parchment, flattened sheepskin! I began to wonder what was really being called parchment paper when I saw that every TV baking demo advises its use quite casually. But I did not know what it is!

gkb, maybe you have some clue about something my mother told me about. She, born in 1927 in the US South, told me that many people used to have porch enclosures made of a somewhat translucent, non-glass material. She likened it to celluloid, but did not think that was it. We both wondered whether it was some kind of varnished paper. But maybe it was something akin to both parchment paper and celluloid. I don't remember if she told me it was used instead of glass because of cost, or for some practical reason like being able to roll it up and put it away when not in use, or perhaps greater resistance to breakage. In the recesses of my mind, I think I, too, must have seen this material when I was a child. I grew up where tarpaper shacks set on concrete blocks were within walking distance. If it was a cheap substitute for glass, I might have seen it still in the 1960s.

Anyway, I'm thinking just about any oiled paper will eventually form a tougher surface as the oils oxidize. It will just go through an awfully sticky, dirt attracting stage before (and if) it completely makes a smooth glaze. ...I might still have a gob of uninked newsprint that some garden items were mailed in. I think I might experiement with them.

I think the oiled paper is only useful in winter when it does not attract bugs. Maybe cold weather 'sets' the oil the way cold congeals olive oil in the fridge to make it smooth and hard and dirt repelling. I think Sophie's idea below about isinglass is probably correct. Though I believe in the 20's it must have been fishgut and in the 60's vinyl. Celluloid is very flammable and I hope was a short-lived phenomenon! The original Isinglass made of mica was very expensive as it was fireproof and used to make a window in ovens, cast-iron stoves, etc. so you could see the flames or whatever you were baking.

Maybe it was isinglass! Wow. They were in a river town, so maybe I supose it could even have been a local industry. Guess I'll never make anything practical of that material.

In Oklahoma! "The Surrey with the Fringe on Top" had “isinglass curtains you can roll right down in case there’s a change in the weather.” Perhaps that was what your mother was referring to.

Definition: "Isinglass is a semitransparent material formed by cleaning and drying the air bladders of fish such as sturgeon and cod. The substance is used in clarifying wine and beer and making glues and cement. Isinglass is also a synonym for any transparent material that is used to bring sunlight indoors while providing protection from the wind, rain and cold."

Isinglass curtains were originally made of mica. Then celluloid.Today they are likely to be vinyl.

Isinglass from fish guts is something else again.

With the warming of our oceans, fish guts could become scarce, I guess.

ClareBroommaker's picture

Interesting, Sophie! I feel sure a child must have invented isinglass. I read the how-to and it sounded exactly what a child messing around with fish bladders and water might have done! (Makes me think of my kid who spent long hours grinding up bricks and also crushing green locust beans, pod and all, extracting a shiny gum that dried like plastic).