5 Tips for Better Roasted Brussels Sprouts
Brussels Sprouts are a very polarizing vegetable. Everyone knows they are healthy, hearty, and something we "should" be eating, but their flavor can cause fierce debate. Cooked well they can be addictively sweet, savory, and crisp. Cooked poorly and they bring to mind the worst qualities of the cabbage family: sulfurous, bitter and decidedly mediocre. We've been sourcing, cooking, and experimenting with Brussels sprouts for a while now and have put together our top tips for making these unassuming micro-cabbages into the stuff of your culinary fantasies!
- Tame the texture. Like all cabbages, brussels are unavoidably fibrous and dense. You must overcome this by either cooking them in salty water until fork tender (blanching), or by roasting at a high (over 425F) temperature for upwards of 20 minutes. The easiest way to guarantee a tender interior and crisp exterior is to combine both methods. Trim and halve your brussels, then blanch and thoroughly dry them, and then roast at a high temperature until the outer leaves are starting to blacken.
- Moisture is the enemy of crispiness. There's nothing wrong with soft and chewy Brussels, but if your goal is the type of crispy Brussels that they're serving at your favorite bistro you MUST thoroughly dry the surface of the sprouts before sautéing and/or roasting them. If they are wet they will steam instead of crisp, defeating the purpose.
- Surface area is your friend! The more surfaces of the Brussels that are exposed to heat, the faster they will cook and the crispier then can become. Halving them is essential, but quartering them can be an even better way to get great texture and speed up cooking, especially if they are larger Imperfect Brussels sprouts or just late season ones from the store!
- Be bold with your seasonings. In addition to being dense and fibrous, Brussels have a toughness to their flavor that you have to unlock through deliberate cooking and seasoning. Don't be shy! Brussels sprouts can handle a lot of seasoning and indeed require assertive flavors to taste their best. Think rock band drums more than a delicate Tamborine. Use big hits of salt like capers, tangy acids like lemon juice or vinegar, and umami bombs like parmesan cheese or bacon. If you like a little spice, try adding some chile flakes, hot sauce, or chile powder for an extra lift. Other fun Brussels toppings to experiment with are fennel seeds, sesame seeds, and pine nuts!
- Balance your flavors! With Brussels as with life, the challenge is in finding balance. Brussels sprouts are naturally quite bitter, which you can overcome either by cooking at a high heat and caramelizing their natural sugars or by adding additional sweetness in the form of honey or balsamic vinegar. Brussels also benefit from some form of acid to cut through the bitterness and balance out the richness from roasting. Our favorite way to do this is to scatter a finely minced Meyer lemon, skin and all, over the top of your sprouts. Brussels take particularly well to the magical fifth taste of umami, or savoriness. You can add this in the form of parmesan cheese, anchovies, or fish sauce. Or you can resort to the porky nuclear option: bacon! The reason that so many non-vegan Brussels sprouts recipes rely on cured pork like bacon or pancetta is that it adds so many tastes (sweetness, savoriness, smokiness, and saltiness) all in one ingredient!
Brussels sprouts teach us a lot about cooking. Every ingredient has something to offer us, and it's often the tough and challenging ingredients that are the most delicious and rewarding when cooked properly. So get cooking! Preheat your oven, embrace the bitter brassicas of the world, and show your friends that properly roasted Brussels sprouts are one of the most divine vegetable preparations on this planet.