Sturdy foil that easily rolls from its box makes many kitchen tasks easier. We tested 18 top-rated foils only to find that classic Reynolds Wrap Heavy Duty Aluminum Foil ($8 for 125 feet) is still the best of the bunch—but not by much. We came to this conclusion after 20 hours of research and 15 hours of unrolling yards of foil to cover bowls, make campfire foil packets, and (in a couple of cases) sculpt alien-thwarting helmets. All of the heavy-duty foils we tried were equally strong and easy to work with, far outperforming the thinner and weaker standard foils (don’t waste your money!). But Reynolds has a slightly nicer malleability than the other heavy-duty kinds, and was among the thickest and least likely to puncture with regular use. It’s also more widely available than generic brands and comes in a better selection of widths and lengths.
It wasn’t a shocker that Reynolds came out on top during our tests—after all, the brand is synonymous with foil—but we were sure we’d be able to find a bigger difference between it and the generic stuff. That just wasn’t the case. In the thick of testing, we found it nearly impossible to tell the difference between the heavy-duty foils. It started to seem that one kind was as good as the next.
Yet the Reynolds ended up beating the competition by a hair, largely because it’s more widely available and comes in many sizes. A bigger difference between the various foils was how they rolled out of their boxes, but that’s a function of the dispenser rather than the actual foil.
But if our main pick sells out or you simply can’t find it, we’d buy Walmart’s Great Value Heavy Duty Foil ($5.50 for 120 feet). It comes in an ample 120-foot length and works just as well at wrapping foods and covering bowls as the Reynolds. At 4 cents per square foot, it’s also slightly cheaper than our main pick. (However the price is a wash if you have to pay for shipping.) This foil is slightly springier than the Reynold’s Heavy Duty Foil, and overall we didn’t like the way it crumpled and wrapped around dishes as much as the Reynolds.
Regardless of the brand of foil you buy, we highly recommend investing in a ChicWrap Aluminum Foil Dispenser ($19). Every smaller roll of foil we tried came in a flimsy cardboard box that was hard to maneuver and dented easily (risking damaging the foil inside). The sturdy ChicWrap solves all this. Similar to a restaurant-style food service box, the ChicWrap has a cutter on top that allows for easily slicing lengths of foil (no more awkward ripping!). And the box itself will take a lot more abuse than the competition. The ChicWrap works for only 12-inch rolls, though.
I’ve used a lot of foil over the years. Lining pans and wrapping leftovers with foil was my daily chore working as a cook on my dad’s commercial fishing boat in Alaska. In various stints as a restaurant server I’ve become familiar with the food-service rolls found commercially. Foil is also my standby for camp cookouts—to make campfire foil packets—with friends and family. I have a highly attuned sensitivity to crappy foil that’s too thin or doesn’t roll out of its dispenser smoothly.
After many hours of testing, we confirmed something we already suspected: The biggest difference between foils is their thickness. Generally, standard foil is tougher to work with because it tears or punctures more easily, while heavy-duty foil from any brand will do most tasks really well. So if you have some heavy-duty foil in your cupboard, no need to upgrade.
But if you find your foil is difficult to roll out—maybe the cardboard box or the roll itself is dented or crushed—or the little teeth on the box never cut quite evenly, you might want to get a better dispenser. That would involve either buying something like a ChicWrap that you can fill with regular 12-inch foil rolls, or buying a larger roll that comes with a sturdier box.
If you regularly cook for a crowd or go through a lot of foil, you might want to upgrade to a larger food service roll. Most of these are 18 inches wide and range from 500 to 1,000 feet long. You’ll generally save a few cents per square foot compared with smaller rolls.
For a better idea of what makes great foil, I spoke with John Weritz, a metallurgist with the Aluminum Association, who also worked for 10 years making aluminum foil for Reynolds. Weritz told me that the main difference between aluminum foils is strength, which is measured by the thickness of the foil and by its integrity. Thicker foils tend to be stronger and less likely to tear. But any foil can have integrity issues, like miniscule pinholes. According to Weritz, “As you try to get thinner you get a tendency to get more [pinholes],” which can cause the foil to tear more easily.
Foil thickness is most commonly measured in fractions of an inch, although you’ll also sometimes find it measured in microns (one of which equals one-millionth of a meter). “For foil you’re probably looking at something that’s in the area of 0.001 inch thick, maybe even less,” Weritz said. In my research and testing, I found that heavy-duty foil generally ranges from 0.001 to 0.0015 inch thick, while standard foils range from 0.0007 to 0.00095 inch. Despite those tiny increments, there’s a pronounced difference in the feel of standard and heavy-duty foils. After rolling out 18 boxes I could immediately determine which foils were thinner and thicker.
Standard foil comes in 12-inch-wide rolls, ranging from 25 to 1,000 feet long. You’ll also find heavy-duty foils in 18-inch rolls. On the low end, standard foil costs about 3 to 4 cents per square foot, while some recycled foil costs upwards of 30 cents per square foot.
People commonly use the terms “tin foil” and “aluminum foil” interchangeably, but they’re not the same. Until World War II, most foil was made from tin. It was first manufactured in France around 1903, and some of its first applications were packaging cigarettes and candy (including Lifesavers and Toblerone chocolate). In the 1940s, manufacturers started making foil from aluminum (Reynolds introduced it as a consumer product in the late 1940s).
Aluminum tends to be a better material for foil. It’s less expensive than tin, and slightly more malleable. Tin also leaves a noticeable “tin-y” taste on foods, while aluminum usually won’t leave any flavor. The exception is when aluminum foil comes into contact with extremely salty or acidic foods (like vinegar or tomatoes). The foil may break down, creating pinholes and leaving aluminum salts on the food. Reynolds says these salts are harmless, and the FDA says aluminum salts in low dosages shouldn’t cause health problems, but it’s better to cook and store salty and acidic foods in glass, ceramic, or stainless steel.
In recent years, as you probably heard, people thought using aluminum in cooking might contribute to Alzheimer’s disease. According to the Alzheimer’s Association, though, there’s little if any proof that exposure to aluminum contributes to the disease. The myth still kicks around, but studies have failed to confirm any connection.
As anyone who has used foil knows, there is a shiny and a dull side. In the last stage of processing,1 two pieces of foil are rolled back-to-back through the pressing machine. The sides of the foil that touch each other turn out with a dull finish, while the sides pressed against the rolling machine are buffed to a near-mirrorlike shine. Though it might seem the shiny and dull sides of foil will bake or cook food differently, there’s probably not much difference. “I don’t know that it would matter enough to affect how it cooks,” Weritz said. “There are some physical differences in reflectivity, but I don’t know if you’d be able to pick it up on cooking.” America’s Test Kitchen concluded the same thing.
Surprisingly, recycled foils aren’t any better for the environment than regular varieties. Because recycled foil is made with scrap metal that would otherwise be used in other applications, the benefits are a bit of a wash (or a greenwash). And for various reasons, foil can’t be recycled into more foil (see below).
For this guide, we wanted to cover only foils widely available across the country or easily ordered online. Reynolds was the obvious brand to beat, but we also looked closely at store-brand foils and those rated highly on Amazon. If a generic foil came in both standard and heavy-duty weight, we called both in. We asked John Weritz for his recommendations (Reynolds is his favorite). We eliminated foils that had bad reviews, and didn’t include sheet foils, as rolls seem more useful for most people. Because we didn’t find any comparative reviews of foil, we decided to call in a bigger test group than we normally would. In the end we chose 18 foils to test.
Following John Weritz’s advice, we measured the thickness of each foil with a digital micrometer that the L.S. Starrett Company graciously sent to us. To check for pinholes we held sheets of foil to a light. We noted if it was difficult to unroll the foils from their boxes or if the metal teeth didn’t make clean cuts. To test for practical use we made foil packets of potatoes and onions and cooked them in the hot coals of a barbecue to emulate a camp cookout. This was a great method for determining how well a single sheet could stand up to the sharp edges of metal prongs and how easily the foils ripped when unwrapping the cooked packets. As a last functional test, we covered the top of a slick-sided bowl to see how well the foil crimped to the sides. It quickly became apparent that all of the heavy-duty foils beat out the standard ones, regardless of brand.
While all of the standard-weight foils I tried were very difficult to get to stick to the bowl and inevitably slid off, the Reynolds Wrap Heavy Duty clung nicely enough that I could lift the bowl holding the crimped foil edges. Compared with the standard foils, it also made better campfire packets that felt sturdier when flipping in the hot coals, and which were easier to unwrap without tearing. To be fair, all of the heavy-duty foils performed about on par in these functional tasks.
Thickness of foils2
What we did find different between the heavy-duty foils was that the Reynolds folds, crimps, and bends in a softer way than other brands. Their heavy-duty foil has almost a buttery or satiny quality, and once folded stays in place. In comparison, all of the store-brand foils seemed more springy; they did their job just fine, but there was a tactile difference that was less appealing.
John Weritz told me, “The springiness that you are experiencing is likely a function of temper.” As foil is made, it’s often heated to around 700°F and slowly cooled—a process called annealing—which makes it stronger and allows it to be rolled even thinner. Once rolled to the final thickness, some foils are partially annealed (called stress relieving) to make them more flexible. “It’s likely that the springier material has had little or no stress relief relative to the metal that more easily bends into shape,” Weritz said. The tradeoff for that added flexibility, according to Weritz, is a slight decrease in strength. But in everyday testing, I didn’t notice that the Reynolds felt weaker. (Strength of foil will also differ depending on the alloy a manufacturer uses.)
While many of the store-brand foils come in ony 12-inch-wide rolls, Reynolds Wrap Heavy Duty also comes in 18-inch rolls. The Great Value and Smart Sense foils also come in 18-inch widths, but they’re not as easy to find as the Reynolds. Although we think 12-inch rolls are easier to store and great for most tasks, a wider roll is nice if you want to line the grate of a barbecue, freeze foods, or cover large baking dishes. You can also find the Reynolds Wrap Heavy Duty in more lengths than any of the store brands, from 25 to 750 square feet.
We also like that you can find the Reynolds’ familiar blue-and-pink boxes nearly anywhere, while the store-brand foils can only be found at their respective branches. Some stores stock only the wider, 18-inch boxes, in which case it may be easier to find the 12-inch rolls online.
After calculating the price per square foot of each roll tested, we were surprised to find that the Reynolds Wrap Heavy Duty is only a few cents more per square foot than foils from Target’s Up & UP or Walmart’s Great Value brands. In fact, at 7 cents a square foot, the Reynolds came out exactly even with Kmart’s Smart Sense heavy-duty foil. If you purchase food service rolls of Reynolds’s Heavy Duty foil (like the Kirkland box), the price per foot drops to around 4 cents.
John Weritz, who used to make foil for Reynolds, says it’s the only brand he uses. The heavy-duty variety consistently receives four- and five-star reviews on Amazon and just about every other site it’s sold on.
We don’t love the flimsy cardboard box Reynolds’s Heavy Duty foil comes in. It’s easy to dent or tear, and it requires some finesse to get the metal teeth to cut the foil evenly. From experience, we know these types of cheap boxes can dent, allowing the foil to become damaged. But this minor problem is solved if you invest in a ChicWrap.
We’ve been long-term testing the Reynolds heavy-duty foil for six months and have found it durable and easy to work with. We do recommend using the ChicWrap foil dispenser with this roll, though, as it makes it much easier to roll and cut the foil.
The Reynolds foil is so prevalent it would probably take an act of God for it not to be available somewhere. But if the price spikes or you really just can’t find it, we’d go for Walmart’s Great Value Heavy Duty Foil ($5.50 for 120 feet). We like that it comes in a 120-foot length—longer than any of the other store-brand boxes—and that it’s slightly less expensive per foot (4 cents).
Like the rest of the store-brand foils we tested, the Great Value foil is a little springier than the Reynolds. This doesn’t seem to affect how it wraps around dishes or other uses, but we do prefer the way the Reynolds molds.
Great Value receives very strong user reviews on Walmart’s site, receiving five stars of 16 reviews. Many reviewers say it completely stacks up to name-brand foils. You can find it in Walmart stores or on its website.
It’s annoying when foil won’t roll out smoothly or the box’s metal teeth mangle the foil’s edges. This is an inherent problem with all smaller rolls we’ve seen, as the boxes are flimsy and those little metal teeth tend to dent and bend. A ChicWrap Aluminum Foil Dispenser solves this problem. The sturdy box, which holds a 12-inch roll, is loosely modeled after the large plastic wrap cutter boxes used in restaurants, but scaled down for home-size rolls.
Made of thick cardboard, with a very clever slicing tool, the ChicWrap makes it infinitely easier to roll out and cut the foil. You can drop this box and not worry about the foil roll denting, and it’s easy to pull out and cut a strip. (We should disclose that ChicWrap sent this to us to test for free, upon our request.) Other companies make similar products, but we haven’t tried them firsthand. We’d seen ChicWrap’s plastic wrap dispensers favorably reviewed in multiple publications and wanted to find out if their version for aluminum foil would live up to the hype, and it did. I’d say the ease of the ChicWrap solves 90 percent of the frustration of cutting pieces of foil. I’ve been keeping it in a kitchen drawer, and I like that I can tear off a piece without lifting the box. ChicWrap also makes a similar one for parchment, which we’re also long-term testing (along with one for plastic wrap). They’re also a lot cuter than a regular foil box, if that matters to you.
The ChicWrap is a little expensive, but worth it if you use foil all the time. It comes with a standard roll of foil, but can be refilled with whatever brand you like. ChicWrap sells refills, but they’re standard-weight; instead we’d refill with a Reynolds Wrap Heavy Duty roll.
Although we haven’t seen their foil dispensers reviewed editorially, ChicWrap’s plastic wrap dispensers are recommended by Real Simple and Epicurious, and the foil dispenser receives four stars from seven reviews on Amazon.
The width of this foil makes it nicer than our main pick for covering big bowls and sheet pans, or wrapping foods for the freezer. The sturdy box and rigid plastic tube help the foil unroll smoothly, and we found the serrated edge of the box tore the foil nicely every time. But this is not the box for everyone. It’s really big (20 by 12 by 10 inches) and almost 10 pounds. Schlepping it from a cupboard to the counter could get tedious if you did it often. Ideally, you’d store this box where you could use it (maybe in a pantry or laundry room off a kitchen).
Never cook or store acidic or very salty foods in aluminum foil. These can break the foil down into aluminum salts. Although there are probably minimal health risks from these salts when consumed in low doses, it’s not appetizing.
People commonly line the bottom of their oven with foil to avoid food splatters from dirtying the surface. Reynolds specifically recommends against this, as it can cause heat damage to the oven. Instead, Reynolds recommends lining the bottom rack with foil, and only with a piece slightly larger than the dish you’ll be using so it will catch drips but still allow for airflow.
Heavy-duty foil is particularly good to use for freezing food. Because foil has a lower moisture-vapor transfer than plastic wrap, it’s better at preventing freezer burn. Wrap things like raw meat in plastic and then foil to protect against flavor transfer. Of course, if reheating food, never put foil in the microwave (or plastic wrap in the oven!).
You’ll find many references on the Internet about using aluminum foil to do all sorts of household chores. Some of these—like reflecting heat from a radiator or blacking out a window—might have truth to them, but others deserve skepticism. While researching we saw repeated recommendations for sharpening scissors by cutting through foil. But on further inspection, it seems that while this method can remove gunk or burrs from scissor blades, it will ultimately dull them.
Obviously, disposable products usually have more of a negative environmental impact than reusable ones. Foil is no exception. But if you’re debating between foil, plastic wrap, and a reusable plastic container, the answer to which is better for the earth isn’t immediately evident. Adam Gendell, project manager at the Sustainable Packaging Coalition, told me, “Very rarely are there clear winners in these kinds of environmental comparisons.” For instance, a 6-ounce piece of aluminum foil—enough to wrap a sandwich—uses less water and fuel to make than a Tupperware container. But most people throw foil away after the first use, so the Tupperware container evens out in its carbon footprint after about 10 uses. “Of course it’s not that easy since a dishwasher also uses water and energy and has greenhouse gas impacts,” Gendell said, “but throw in some wiggle room and say that maybe after 12 or 13 reuses, the Tupperware wins.”
It’s even more difficult to calculate the difference between plastic wrap and foil. “Unfortunately, I can’t model plastic wrap since we don’t have the data, but my instinct tells me it won’t be much different,” Gendell said. “Aluminum foil tends to be more impactful in most areas compared to plastic films, so the Tupperware might be even more of a clear winner there. But the key phrase here is “after enough reuses.”
Technically, aluminum foil can be recycled, but not every municipality does. “It all depends on who is buying the collected bales of aluminum,” Grendell said. “Used beverage cans are king, and every aluminum recycler has a system optimized around beverage cans. Some of those recyclers don’t mind a little aluminum foil in there, some don’t even mind a little dirty aluminum foil, but it’s not preferable to them.”
And as we covered earlier, aluminum foil isn’t recycled into more aluminum foil. “This is because when post-consumer aluminum is reprocessed, there are irregularities at the micro- or nano-level which could show themselves once the aluminum is rolled very thin to make foil,” Grendell said.
We found the Reynolds Wrap Aluminum Foil ($5 for 30 square feet), the standard-weight version of our main pick, difficult to secure around the edges of a ceramic bowl. It was fine for wrapping foil packets and didn’t have pinholes, but like the rest of the standard-weight varieties, this tore much easier than any of the heavy-duty foils tested.
Reynolds Wrap’s recycled foil ($22 for five 50-foot rolls) compared about equally to other standard-weight foils in our testing, but we did find it tore a little easier than regular Reynolds foil. At 9 cents per square foot it’s more expensive than the heavy-duty foil, and much less versatile. Since recycled foil is made of scrap metal, it’s no better for the environment than regular foil and not worth the extra money.
At first, we didn’t know what to make of Reynolds Wrap Heavy Duty Non-Stick Aluminum Foil ($14 for two 35-foot rolls). It’s a heavy-duty foil coated on one side with a nonstick material. Reynolds wouldn’t tell us what, exactly, that material is, but they call it a “proprietary food-safe coating” that “does not contain Teflon, PTFE, or any material related to Teflon.” I’ve never found food sticking to foil to be a particular problem, and even when it does it’s never a big issue. Reynolds suggests using the nonstick foil to line pans, but you can just as easily do this with regular foil. We didn’t find that the nonstick variety performed any better than Reynolds’s regular heavy-duty foil, and averaging out at 31 cents per square foot, it’s more than four times as expensive.
It was a close call between the Bakers and Chefs food service roll and Kirkland Signature Reynolds Heavy Duty Foodservice Foil Roll ($30 for 750 square feet). There wasn’t much difference between the two. They both performed on par and the prices are about equal if you include shipping ($36 for Bakers and Chefs, $40 for Kirkland). The only difference is that the Kirkland brand (which, as the name suggests, is Reynolds foil co-branded with Kirkland) has a really annoying strip of tape on the foil roll that ended up ripping the foil when I unwrapped it. The Bakers and Chefs didn’t have the tape. If you’re a Costco member, we’d pick up their foil in stores. Otherwise, we think the Bakers and Chefs is a better choice.
Like the heavy-duty variety, Kirkland Signature Reynolds Standard Foodservice Foil Roll is a big box of the name-brand stuff. Just like the foil from the smaller roll, this foil ripped too easily, almost like delicate tissue paper. You can pick it up for $30 in Costco stores or buy for a bit more on Amazon, including Prime shipping.
Durable Packaging Standard Aluminum Foil Roll ($20 for 500 feet) was the only standard foil we really liked. It comes in a heavy-duty dispenser, but the foil rolls over the top of the roll, rather than under the roll and so it rolls out much easier. Because of the better dispenser, we found we tore the foil less. This would be a good roll if you just need a lot of foil to line baking pans. But, again, the standard isn’t going to be as versatile as any of the heavy-duty foils.
Kmart’s Smart Sense Aluminum Foil ($3.50 for 75 feet) had the same issues as the other standard-weight foils we tried; it didn’t wrap nicely around a bowl and tended to tear easily. It did a fine job wrapping veggie packets for the barbecue and didn’t have any pinholes.
Smart Sense Heavy Duty Foil ($3.50 for 50 feet) performed as well as the other store-brand heavy-duty foils. It has the same slight springiness as the Great Value. But this foil averages a little more than 7 cents per foot, making it as expensive as the Reynolds, which we think is pricy for a store-brand version.
Walmart’s Great Value Aluminum Foil ($6.50 for 200 feet) had the same issues as the other standard foils; it ripped pretty easily and didn’t wrap nicely around a bowl. The foil did roll out of the dispenser a little more smoothly than the other smaller rolls of standard foils, simply because the larger roll provides more ballast.
Up & Up Aluminum Foil from Target performed identically to the other standard foils we tested, with the exact same ripping and sticking problems. The price for this foil seems to vary on Target’s website, but at the time of publishing it was $8 for 200 feet, making it about equal in price to the Reynolds foil.
Up & Up Heavy Duty Aluminum Foil ($3.50 for 55 feet) performs just as well as the Reynolds heavy-duty foil. It sticks well to a bowl, makes great foil packets, and didn’t tear nearly as easily as standard foils. But since you need to either buy this at Target, or order online and pay for shipping, we think the more readily available Reynolds is a better choice for most people.
Bakers and Chefs Standard Foodservice Foil ($19 + $12 shipping) disappointed. Every time we tried to rip off a piece, the foil tore awkwardly. Perhaps that’s because it is an 18-inch-wide roll, and the ergonomics of pulling on that big roll just puts too much strain on the thin foil. There was also a strange residue on the foil we tested.
After opening a dozen boxes of standard and heavy-duty foils, it was a shock to feel the thinness of the If You Care 100% Recycled Aluminum Foil ($8 for 50 feet). Indeed, measuring the foil, it was slightly thinner (about 0.0007 inch thick, while the other standard foils were more like 0.0009 inch thick). The foil also looks too shiny, like metallic wrapping paper. It felt like it would rip easily. And at 18 cents a foot, it’s significantly more expensive than other foils. And even though it’s “recycled” it’s no better for the environment.
Although it’s labeled heavy duty, the If You Care Heavy Duty 100% Recycled Foil ($10 for 30 square feet) measures more like a standard foil at about 0.0009 inch thick. Like the standard If You Care foil, it seemed too shiny. It performed about on par with the other standard foils, but doesn’t seem worth the extra money.
Other foils we looked at:
Reynolds Grill Foil ($8.50 for 37.5 square feet) is marketed specifically for grilling, although we don’t see much of a difference between this and 18-inch-wide heavy-duty foil. It didn’t receive higher reviews than those we tested.
Boardwalk Standard Aluminum Foil ($30 for 1,000 feet) didn’t receive better reviews than the other food service rolls we chose to test. For the same reason, we opted not to test the Boardwalk Heavy-Duty Aluminum Foil Roll ($32 for 500 feet).
Nicole Home Collection Aluminum Foil Roll ($11 for 200 feet) also didn’t receive better reviews than the foils we tested.
We eliminated all foil sheets, such as Bakers and Chefs Foil Sheets ($15 for 500 feet), from our testing, as they’re not the most useful for home cooks.
Handi-Foil Aluminum Foil ($8 for 25 feet) did not receive better reviews than those we tested.
Powerhouse Aluminum Foil ($6.50 for 25 feet) is more expensive than others we tested and did not receive better reviews.
Times Heavy Duty Aluminum Foil Roll ($41 for 508 feet) is significantly more expensive than the food service rolls we tested, and it doesn’t get better reviews.
To get the most out of foil, spring for the heavy-duty variety; it’s less likely to tear or puncture than standard-weight foils and better at protecting foods from freezer burn. Although we didn’t find much of a difference in strength between various brands, Reynolds Wrap Heavy Duty Aluminum Foil has the nicest malleability of those we tried, it’s widely available in nearly every store in America, and comes in the widest range of widths and lengths.
Originally published: February 23, 2015