How to master roasted vegetables

Three ingredients and two concepts are all you need to unlock all the caramelized goodness you want

Published March 13, 2010 1:20AM (EST)

Roasting vegetables changed my relationship to them forever. Sautéed or steamed, they were mild and sweet and kind; we were friends. But after a roasting, getting a little singed around the edges, more intense for their scarring, all hot and sexy, I wanted them. OK, maybe that metaphor was a little TMI.

Anyway, the point is that once I discovered how much a ripping hot oven will complicate, concentrate and caramelize both carrots and cauliflower, I realized that you can roast pretty much any vegetable — broccoli, asparagus, string beans, whatever — with the same method, with fantastic results.

All you need is salt, pepper and olive oil and two things to keep in mind: HEAT and SURFACE AREA. Heat and surface area. Heat and surface area. There are no more typographical ways for me to emphasize this, but imagine there are, and imagine I'm using them. Because the relationship of heat and surface area pretty much define 75 percent of cooking, and 100 percent of the time you're talking about browning something.

Heat: Heat, of course, cooks your food. At a very high temperature, sugars will caramelize (and proteins will brown), which is really what you want out of roasting vegetables. (And at an even higher temperature, of course, they will burn, which is what you really don't want out of roasting vegetables.)

Surface area: The more surface area you have directly touching the roasting pan or the hot air of the oven, the more caramelization you're going to get, because it's the outside of a piece of food that gets the most intense heat. So this means two things: 1) don't pile your vegetables on top of one another — lay them out in one layer. And 2) how you cut your vegetables really matters. Tiny pieces will have more exposed surface area relative to their insides than big chunks. And an elongated shape, like a domino, for instance, will have more surface area than a cube.

So, keeping these two things in mind, you can always adjust what you need to do get the results you want. You'd like more browning? Turn the heat up or cut your vegetables smaller. You'd like your vegetables more cooked and tender? Cut your vegetables smaller and turn the heat down. Like that roasted flavor, but not too much? Cut your vegetables bigger and/or turn the heat down. You're smart people. You're picking up what I'm puttin' down.

OK, so what vegetables can I roast?

I really think most any specimen likes a nice, high-heat zap in the oven. Very few come to mind that don't: mainly very watery ones like celery or leafy greens, or dense, tough ones that need extended cooking time, like mature beets. And potatoes kind of deserve some special attention and particular tricks I'll get into another time.

But here's a list of some of my favorites, and how I like to cut them for optimal browning and tenderness:

Asparagus: Leave whole; peel if necessary.

Bell peppers: If not roasting over an open flame, cut these into 1-inch chunks.

Broccoli: Cut into 1- to 1½-inch diameter individual florets, the tips of which get charred beautifully crisp. Peel, then halve or quarter thick stems (which are delicious!).

Brussels sprouts: Halve them.

Cauliflower: Treat like broccoli.

Corn: Cut into kernels; will cook very quickly and you may only want to brown one side.

Carrots: Cut a 1-inch chunk off the top end at a 45-degree angle. Roll the carrot a quarter turn and repeat. This weird oblique shape gives you lots of surface area to caramelize its abundant sugars. ½-inch coins or half-moons also work well.

Eggplant: Cut into 1½-inch chunks.

Fennel: Cut into 1-inch pieces.

Green / string beans: Really! They're great. Just make sure they're tender; old, tough ones get tougher in the oven. Leave whole, stems removed.

Onions: Cut into 1½-inch wedges, and break apart into individual layers.

Parsnips: Treat like carrots.

Radishes: Leave whole if small, about 1 inch in diameter; otherwise cut in 1-inch pieces.

Sweet potatoes: Cut into 1-inch pieces.

Tomatoes: Cut 1-inch-wide wedges or ½-inch slices. They won't really brown well but can have a nice concentrated flavor.

Turnips: Cut into 1-inch chunks.

Zucchini / summer squash: Cut into 1-inch chunks, or oblique-cut like carrots.

OK! Get to the method, already!

  1. Preheat your oven to, say, 425. Again, you can go hotter or cooler, depending on what ratio of browning-to-tenderness you want, but this is a good temperature to get started with.
  2. Cut your vegetables
  3. In a big bowl, toss them with plenty of salt and pepper and good extra-virgin olive oil. Taste a piece. There should be enough salt for you to taste it fairly sharply, enough pepper to your liking, and enough olive oil to give every piece a nice sheen and for you to really taste it. The oil will conduct heat, giving you an even browning rather than little dry, scorch-y bits.
  4. Spread the vegetables out on a baking sheet, making sure they're all in one layer. You don't necessarily need a lot of space in between pieces, but definitely don't crowd them on top of each other. Use multiple sheets if necessary.
  5. Put in oven, in the middle or top rack. Hang out. After a while, you should hear sizzling, and it should get pretty intense after about 10-12 minutes if your pans aren't fully loaded and if you cut you according to my sizes above. Quickly, take your pan out and close the oven door to preserve the heat. Lift a few pieces and check the undersides to see how they're browning. If it's a light color, stick them back in and let them go. But if they're nicely browned, flip them over on the pan before returning them to the oven; most of the browning will take place on the side that touches the pan.
  6. Listen again for the sizzle to build back up; you want to check on the vegetables while they're still sizzling — if the sound builds, then slows down, it probably means that the liquid is all sizzled out ... and you might be burning. But as long as you're checking on them about every 5 minutes after the flip, you'll be great.
  7. Taste a piece. Is it tender and cooked through? Is the browning lovely? If the vegetables are softened but not brown enough, take them out, fire up the broiler and stick them in there to get good color. If they're as brown as you want them to be, but not yet tender, turn the heat down to 350 and sprinkle on some water, maybe a few tablespoons' worth, to cool the pan and to help create a little steam. And next time you can adjust your heat or surface area.

And to serve:

Mostly I'll just serve roasted vegetables as is, but you should feel free to fancy it up. A sprinkle of good vinegar is always nice, a brightness to contrast with the deep, dark caramelized flavors. Or toss in some toasted nuts for richness, or maybe some raisins for a little sweet-tart action. Fresh hearty herbs, like thyme and oregano, are killer; adding them while the vegetables are still hot will help to bring out their flavor. And shaved Parmigiano, of course, is a strong move.

By Francis Lam

Francis Lam is Features Editor at Gilt Taste, provides color commentary for the Cooking Channel show Food(ography), and tweets at @francis_lam.

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