There are few concepts as universal to cuisines around the world as beginning a recipe by sauteing some aromatic vegetables. If you’re making a sauce, a “stew”, or a soup almost anywhere in the world, it’s the thing that you do.
Aromatic vegetables, such as garlic, onion, carrot, celery, ginger and pepper, do what the name suggests: they add taste and aroma to a dish. Since much of cooking is about developing and concentrating flavor, it shouldn’t be much of a surprise that so many recipes start with a saute of a mix of aromatic vegetables. In France, it’s called “mirepoix.” In Italy, “soffritto” and in Spain “sofrito.” In Cajun cuisine, it’s known as the “holy trinity.”
What differs from place to place, cuisine to cuisine, and recipe to recipe is which aromatic vegetables to include. Since in many parts of the world the local cuisine dates back hundreds, if not thousands of years – whereas the notion of having essentially all vegetables available everywhere year-round is a product of modern transportation – the aromatic vegetables used locally tend to be the ones that can be grown locally and/or are native to that part of the world. Mirepoix uses onion or leeks, carrot and celery; Italian soffritto has onion, celery and bell pepper while Spanish sofrito uses onion, bell pepper and garlic. The Cajun “holy trinity” is celery, onion or scallions, and bell peppers. Thai cuisine uses onion or scallions, chili peppers, garlic and ginger. Indian cooking uses chili peppers, onions, garlic and ginger (while also leaning in heavily toward a wide variety of spices). Chinese cuisine also uses garlic, ginger and spices (with some regional variations, such as Sichuan, that include lots of chili peppers). Mexican cooking uses garlic, onion and chilies.
Traditional American cooking is an amalgam of cuisines (and peoples) with their roots in Europe, so it’s not a great surprise that we use onion, bell peppers, carrots and celery heavily.
In some cuisines the relative proportions are rigidly defined; for example, traditional mirepoix is two parts onion to one part carrot and one part celery. In others, the proportions vary considerably from dish to dish.
As a home cook, it’s important to recognize this step for what it is: creating a base layer of flavor for a dish. Sauteing aromatic vegetables, which are mostly water, “sweats” off most of the water, softens the vegetables, and reduces the bulk to concentrate the flavor into something that you can mix in with liquid and other ingredients (including non-aromatic vegetables) to make a sauce, soup or stew.
Sometimes sauteing the aromatic vegetables is the second step in the recipe, where the first step is to brown some meat in your saute pan. Browning meat uses the Maillard reaction to create even more flavor, and the browned bits left on the bottom of the pan after you remove the meat are a feature, not a problem to be removed: it’s called the “fond,” meaning “foundation,” and it’s another layer of flavor. You’ll often see recipes call for browning and setting aside the meat; sauteing the aromatic vegetables; then “deglazing” the pan by pouring in some wine and stirring vigorously to pry the fond off the bottom, partially dissolve it, and mix it in with the vegetables.
Also, sometimes toward the end of sauteing the vegetables, a recipe will call for mixing some spices in. Heat causes most spices to “bloom,” waking them up and magnifying their taste and aroma. This is a very quick process: it only takes 30-60 seconds to bloom spices. As you learn about different cuisines from around the world, you’ll start to notice the balance between aromatic vegetables and spices, often to compensate for the availability of aromatic vegetables. Indian cuisine, for example, uses a very limited range of aromatic vegetables: chilis, onions, garlic, ginger. But it includes an enormous range of spices, in infinite combinations. French and American cooking tends to be the opposite: heavy on the aromatics (and in greater variety), easy on the spices.
Knowing this, and familiarizing yourself with the full palette of aromatic vegetables, gives you license to adjust recipes to your own liking: you can switch out vegetables or change the proportions to manipulate the flavor, or adjust the balance between vegetables and spices. It also gives you the power to make a sauce from scratch, with whatever you happen to have in your fridge.
Speaking of which, if you want to be able to improvise in your kitchen, it’s important to always stock your go-to aromatic vegetables in your kitchen. I always have onion, carrot, ginger and garlic on hand, and frequently celery and bell peppers.
- Generally speaking, you want to use medium or medium-high heat for sauteing aromatic vegetables.
- As we discussed with knife skills, consistency of size is very important with sauteing aromatic vegetables. All of the pieces of everything should be the same size, so that they will cook at the same rate and finish at the same time. The smaller the pieces, the faster they will be done cooking.
- Minced/grated ginger and garlic cook (and burn) much faster than other aromatic vegetables, so watch them carefully. The timing can be a bit tricky, since the water being released from the other, bulkier vegetables like onions and celery can prevent ginger and garlic from burning, so if they’re all mixed in together you can cook them for longer – at least until most of the water is gone. You may want to think about giving the other vegetables a bit of a head start on the ginger and garlic, though, and adding them in toward the end. Regardless of how careful you are, I can guarantee you that at some point you will burn your garlic; we all do, and it’s a rite of passage for all cooks and how we all learn how quickly it cooks. When you do, just toss it and start again; there’s nothing you can do to rescue it.
- Don’t “crowd” your saute pan when you’re cooking your aromatic vegetables. They won’t cook as thoroughly or consistently. Spread stuff out so that the heat can find its way between pieces of vegetable.
- Ginger root keeps for months in your freezer. It is also ridiculously easy to grate when it’s frozen – and maddeningly difficult to grate when it’s thawed. There is always a Ziploc bag of ginger root in my freezer.