Aromatic vegetables form the foundation of flavor for a variety of dishes, including soups, stews, stocks, sauces and braised meats. The vegetables should be sweated in fat to release the most flavor. Sweating vegetables is one of the most fundamental cooking basics to master, a culinary base with unlimited possibilities.
Aromatic vegetables develop a slightly sweet flavor as they cook and are mild enough in flavor to mingle in the background without overwhelming the other ingredients in a dish. In French cuisine, recipes often start with a mirepoix, a blend of aromatic carrots, onions and celery. Similarly, recipes in New Orleans often begin with onions, celery and bell peppers. Try swapping similar vegetables such as mushrooms or garlic for any of these more common aromatic vegetables. Parsnips make a good substitute for carrots when a slightly nuttier, less sweet flavor is desired. Try leeks, shallots and fennel in place of onions, each providing a similar sweetness when cooked. For an Asian flavor base, sweat leeks with fresh ginger and scallions.
Vegetables sweat within a matter of minutes, so it's crucial to prepare all your aromatic ingredients in advance so you can add them quickly as needed. The vegetables must cook evenly for the flavors to meld uniformly, so they should be cut to the same size. Chop each vegetable and keep them separated until you're ready to add them to the pan. Choose the proper pan size based on the number of vegetables you need to sweat. The vegetables will steam rather than sweat if they are too crowded. If the pan is too large, on the other hand, vegetables will brown or burn instead of sweating. The pan should be large enough to arrange the aromatic vegetables in a single layer with some overlap acceptable.
In the Skillet
Preheat your choice of fat, such as butter or olive oil, in a pan over medium heat, using just enough fat to coat the pan. The pan is ready for vegetables when the oil begins to shimmer, but hasn't begun to smoke. Add the vegetables -- they should sizzle gently when they hit the pan. Spread them evenly across the pan. Sprinkle a bit of salt over the vegetables to add flavor and release moisture from vegetables. Stir the vegetables frequently but not constantly to promote even cooking and prevent browning or burning. When the edges of the onions begin to turn translucent, toss in your choice of herbs and spices, such as fresh ground black pepper, rosemary, thyme or garlic. Cook for a total of four to five minutes until the onions are translucent and the vegetables are soft, but not mushy.
It would certainly save time to simply toss the fresh aromatic vegetables in a pot with the rest of the ingredients for a dish, but the flavor in the dish would be entirely different. The aromatic flavors wouldn't meld together and linger in the background. When you sweat aromatics in oil or butter, the flavors are drawn out slowly and concentrated with the small amount of fat. Sweating should not be confused with sauteing or caramelizing in which the aromatic vegetables are cooked until brown, making the final flavor stronger and more prominent in the finished dish.
- Bon Appetit: Make 'Em Sweat (Veggies, That Is)
- Fine Cooking: The First Step to Great Flavor
- The Kitchn: Technique: How to Sweat Vegetables
- The Kitchn: Technique: Word of Mouth: Aromatics
- Serious Eats: How to Sweat Vegetables
- Serious Eats: Ask The Food Lab: Do I Need To Sauté Vegetables When Starting a Stew?
- Photo Credit Luca Fabbian/iStock/Getty Images
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