Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Basic Training #3: Roasted Veggies (Or, Heat and Surface Area! Heat and Surface Area! Heat and Surface Area!)

All you need is salt, pepper and olive oil and two things to keep 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.

~Francis Lam, food writer for Salon.com,
on roasting vegetables

Ok, roasting...something I’ve never been too clear on. How is it different from baking? What are the basic principles of roasting? What can and can’t be roasted? So when I magically bumped into two online articles on roasting in one day, I figured it was time to demystify the entire subject.

After reading Francis Lam’s article “How to Master Roasted Vegetables” on Salon.com, I decided I would start with veggies and follow his advice: mind the heat and surface area (see quote above for dramatic representation of their importance). Lam insists you can roast nearly any vegetable, but he offers up a list of suggestions with how to cut each specimen for maximum roasting potential.

I chose three of my own favorite veggies based on varying factors: Brussels sprouts because they are presently abundant and healthy looking at the Soulard Farmers Market; Leeks because my good friend Chris suggested them; and Beets because they are one of my all-time favorite veggies and have the most deeply sweet and earthy flavor when roasted. (I know this because beets are the only vegetable I’ve ever roasted. However, after reading Lam’s principles of roasting, I think I was actually just baking them.)

In the NY Times article “Roasted Beets, Now Stainless” author Melissa Clark makes the promise of no fuchsia-stained hands once the deed is done. It is most commonly recommended to prepare beets in their skin because when cooked the skin falls right off. However, she posits that peeling the beets first prevents handling them when they are hot and their juices are primed to stain your fingers. I followed her advice, and my report is that there is still a bit of juice in the pre-cooked peeling stage that will spot your fingers, but it is NOTHING compared to the full-on Violet Beauregarde (Willy Wonka, anyone?) effect of peeling them when cooked. 

Alright, so I set about roasting vegetables. Lam’s principles of roasting are essentially thus:

1. Roasting is the presence of carmelization that comes from high heat while being baked. So the more carmelized you want your vegetables, the higher the heat you use. Of course, too high a heat and you get burning. So adjust the heat based on the level of brownness you want in your veggies. 400º is standard, so adjust from there based on your preference.

2. The amount of surface area directly touching the pan or exposed to the hot air will result in more carmelization. So don’t pile veggies on top of each other in your roasting pan, and remember that the smaller you cut your veggies the quicker they will cook through and brown on the outside.

With these rules in hand, I got started. I halved both the leeks and the Brussels sprouts because they are both leafy and fragile, so keeping their roots relatively undisturbed helped they stay in tact during the cooking process. I had read to cut the base of the Brussels sprouts after halving them, however I noticed this led to a lot of lost leaves, so I ignored that suggestion after trying it once. The beets I cut into approximately ¾-inch cubes.

I coated all the vegetables with olive oil, salt and pepper, and started roasting at 400º. Being the smallest, I roasted the beets first. I only cooked them at half the recommended time and still felt as though they came out a little too brown and dehydrated.

The leeks and Brussels sprouts I roasted at the same time. I kept the leeks in for the recommended amount of time, and found the bottoms to be perfectly browned and the tops to be just slightly too dark.

The Brussels sprouts were the shining example of the night. Since the outer leaves get very dark very quickly, they fall away when handled and leave a lighter browning on the leaves below them. However, it turns out that having to cut the base off after the sprouts have roasted requires a significant amount of time, in which the sprouts get cold. But sprinkle a little grated parm on top, and don’t they look pretty?

This is one lesson that’s going to take more practice to master.


  1. Have you invested in an oven thermometer? A too-hot oven could easily be the problem -- the temperature can vary by as much as 100 degrees. And the gas company can fix that for you, but it's expensive.

  2. What the heck's an oven thermometer and how does it work?

  3. Mmmmmmm....
    I love roasted veggies. I never thought of using leeks before, so thanks for the suggestion! My prize for vegetable most transformed by roasting is cauliflower. Roasting really brings out the nutty flavor in it in a way thats just awesome. Love the blog - keep posting!