Paper Plates

Published June 1, 2009. From Cook's Country.

Slip, rip, buckle, and spill. Can any paper plate take the heat and the weight?

Overview:

Update: April 2014

The winning paper plates have been renamed Vanity Fair Impressions Dinner Plates.

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Come summer, meals head outdoors—and so does your tableware. But paper plates can spell trouble. Some are so flimsy you have to use several stacked together. Others become sodden or even rip when you cut into barbecued chicken or grilled steak. Newfangled paper plates with soak-proof shields and cut-resistant surfaces promise a less eventful dining experience. The name, by the way, is a misnomer: These days, disposable plates may be made from crushed stone, sugarcane fibers, clay, even potatoes and corn. (That’s the plate, not the meal.) Whatever the material, we wanted something large enough to hold food without crowding, strong enough to not buckle, substantial enough to keep moisture and grease at bay, and tough enough to prevent knives from shredding it. We put seven brands to the test.

Update: April 2014

The winning paper plates have been renamed Vanity Fair Impressions Dinner Plates.

___________________________________________________________

Come summer, meals head outdoors—and so does your tableware. But paper plates can spell trouble. Some are so flimsy you have to use several stacked together. Others become sodden or even rip when you cut into barbecued chicken or grilled steak. Newfangled paper plates with soak-proof shields and cut-resistant surfaces promise a less eventful dining experience. The name, by the way, is a misnomer: These days, disposable plates may be made from crushed stone, sugarcane fibers, clay, even potatoes and corn. (That’s the plate, not the meal.) Whatever the material, we wanted something large enough to hold food without crowding, strong enough to not buckle, substantial enough to keep moisture and grease at bay, and tough enough to prevent knives from shredding it. We put seven brands to the test.

Methodology:

TAKING THE PRESSURE

We loaded each plate with a pound of picnic fare: hot chicken, baked beans, potato salad, and coleslaw. Holding the plate in one hand, we walked around the test kitchen to simulate mingling at a party (ignoring funny looks from colleagues). A few plates buckled immediately. Others weakened at spots directly under hot food. We pressed a fork into the food as if eating standing up. The best plates held firm. One brand was so weak, its edges cracked and broke—there went dinner.

CUTTING EDGE

Knives should cut through steaks or chicken, not plates. Using five strokes of equal force, we cut chicken into bite-sized pieces using plastic, silverware, and steak knives. The sharp steak knife left no mark in two of the brands, while even a dull plastic knife cut through some brands.

SIZING UP

We measured the angle of each plate’s lip, and then compared them by tilting plates with a slice of pizza on each. The slice stayed put on plates with steeper angles and—whoops—slipped to the floor on plates with lower-angled sides. One brand of plates had a shallow well at the base of the rim that prevented runnier foods like baked beans from running over. While thinking about design, we also looked at how crowded each plate was when loaded with food. All of the plates were marketed as more than 9 inches in diameter. In reality, the largest plate had 8 1/8 inches of space for food, the smallest just 6¼ inches. The rest of the diameter was taken up by rim.

GREASE TRAP

Greasy pizza usually makes an oily stain on paper plates, not something you want to soak through to your table or your pants. We ordered the cheesiest pizza in town and set a slice on each plate. Within minutes, the grease had soaked through some plates, and condensation from the hot pizza left a triangular “shadow” on the table. Recognizing that people also use paper plates indoors on occasion, we microwaved pizza-filled plates for 30 seconds. Plates that hadn’t already become greasy remained dry.

SUMMING UP

Like so many other kitchen products, paper plates have entered the 21st century. Our testing showed that the right material (hint: not paper) is the key to excellence. One of our top two performers is made from crushed stone and polypropylene plastic, the other from paperboard coated with clay. Both are printed with water-based inks and finished with a food-safe, plastic soak-proof shield, respectively. Both were sturdy enough to handle themselves with aplomb in any outdoor social situation.

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