Butchers twine—also known as cooking twine or kitchen string—is a type of 100% cotton string that has a number of culinary applications, particularly in roasting poultry and meats.
The most common use of butchers twine is tying a roast into as compact a shape as possible, either to prevent burning, to promote even cooking, or both. Note that butchers twine is inedible, so it's important to remove it before serving your food.
How to Use Butchers Twine in the Kitchen
When roasting whole poultry, like chicken, turkey, and game hens, tying back the legs and wings (known as trussing the bird) helps prevent the tips of those extremities from scorching. Some trussing techniques also help secure stuffing in the body of a bird.
Likewise, certain roasts with irregular shapes, like a boneless leg of lamb, pork shoulders, or beef tenderloin roasts (especially ones from the butt end of the tenderloin), are tied in order to form it into a compact shape that will cook evenly.
Other dishes involve slicing open something solid (like a chicken breast, pork chop, or whole pork loin), adding some kind of filling, then cooking it. In these cases, tying the halves together helps the item cook evenly and holds the stuffing in.
Similar preparations start with a flat item like a steak, spreading a filling on it, and then rolling it up into a bundle, with butcher's twine being used to secure the bundle for cooking. An example of this technique featuring a rolled-up flank steak is classic Italian braciole.
Finally, the high heat of roasting causes the muscle fibers in meat to contract, and tying the roast beforehand helps minimize its tendency to curl up during cooking, so that it doesn't come out misshapen. This is also true for the membranes around certain cuts of meat, like oxtail, which is frequently tied when preparing osso buco.
There are other uses for butchers twine, but what they all have in common is that the twine is coming into contact with the food, and it's also being heated. Therefore, it needs be be made of natural fibers, won't melt or ignite when heated, or transfer any flavors or colors to the food itself.
Where Can I Buy Butchers Twine?
Figuring out whether a given twine is suitable to use in cooking is easy: just pop into the cooking section of your grocery or housewares store and looking for a label that says cooking or butcher's twine. It's also easily found in all standard online retail sites.
Additionally, most hardware stores will carry 100% cotton twine, which you can use, but all things being equal, a product designated as safe for culinary use is preferable.
How Can I Tell If Something Is Butchers Twine?
Suppose you're hunting through your drawers and cupboards for cooking twine, and you come across a roll of white string, with no label or any other identifying information. Can you use it? The easiest way to check whether it's safe for use or not is the burn test.
Simply hold a piece of the twine with tweezers and move a small flame toward the end of the string. Cotton twine will ignite when it nears the flame, leaving fine ash when extinguished. Conversely, synthetic fibers will curl away from the flame or melt and form little lumps.
Butchers twine is almost always white, but some varieties, called baker's twine, are striped, and are deemed safe in the oven.
What Can You Use Instead of Butchers Twine?
In some cases, it's possible to use an alternative to butcher's twine—for instance, you could secure a stuffed chicken breast with toothpicks.
When it comes to trussing a chicken, some cooks have used skewers, a rope made of a green onion, or even strips of the chicken's own skin to tie the legs back, but such creative measures aren't necessary. In a pinch, you can simply wrap the tips of the drumsticks and wings in foil.
Other twine alternatives include reusable roasting bands or ties made of heat-resistant silicone. If you're deciding whether to invest in a set of these versus a roll of kitchen twine, keep in mind that the reusable ones need to be washed after each use. They also may not be long enough to secure a large roast (or it may be expensive to buy enough of them to do so).
Another alternative is plain, unflavored, unwaxed dental floss. This actually works well and is also handy for making clean cuts in cakes and soft cheeses.
Note that linen twine can be used in place of cotton twine, but not jute twine. Jute twine is a brown, fibrous twine that is used in crafts and so on, and while it is made from vegetable fibers, it burns easily and sheds fibers, making it unsuitable for cooking.