Vegetable

I'm Tired of People Hating on Boiled Vegetables

In defense of an uncool cooking technique.

October  8, 2018
Photo by Julia Gartland

Boiled vegetables fell out of favor 30-something years ago. That’s when roasting hit its stride, and it’s been bad-news-bears for boiling ever since.

Today the technique is mentioned less as a recommendation and more as evidence of vegetables’ darker days. In The Vegetable: Recipes That Celebrate Nature, Caroline Griffiths and Vicki Valsamis write: “Too often when someone maintains a strong dislike of a particular vegetable, what they’re thinking of is some mushy, over-boiled version they had to eat as a child.”

Indeed, by the time I was growing up in the ’90s, my mom was so scarred from the boiled peas of her childhood that she boiled eggs, pasta, and little else. Which means, of course, that now I want to boil everything.

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“Also, lightly boiled green beans, snap peas and asparagus are bright green, tender rather than mushy, and taste fully of themselves!”
— Patricia F.
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This is problematic.

We’re officially in a golden age of vegetable recipes. Just this week, our books editor Brinda Ayer published a roundup of 6 vegetable cookbooks we can’t wait to sticky-note into oblivion. And that’s only about right now. Extend the survey to the past year or five or 10 and I wouldn’t know where to start:

There is Plenty by Yotam Ottolenghi (2011) and its follow-up Plenty More (2014). There is On Vegetables by Jeremy Fox (2017) and Six Seasons (2017) by Joshua McFadden. There is Salad for President (2017) by Julia Sherman and Saladish (2018) by Ilene Rosen and Donna Gelb. And so on and so forth.

Yet even with this slew of content, boiling—once the default vegetable cookery method—is all but MIA. Take Ottolenghi’s Plenty More. The book’s premise is “vibrant vegetable cooking.” There are 12 chapters organized by technique: tossed, steamed, blanched, simmered, braised, grilled, roasted, fried, mashed, cracked, baked, and sweetened. Boiling doesn’t even make the cut.

This theme pops up elsewhere. In Lucky Peach Presents Power Vegetables! by Peter Meehan, there are almost 100 recipes, only one of which prominently features boiled vegetables—in this case, turnips with anchovies, garlic, and capers. Though you wouldn’t know it from the title. Others proudly state their methods (like grilled scallions, braised cold celery hearts, roasted squash, and roasted cabbage), but boiled turnips are just turnips.

Most recipes, it seems, are either shy about boiling—burying it in the method versus showcasing it in the title or headnote—or defensive with cushy adjectives. In the 75th anniversary edition of The Joy of Cooking, the authors write: “Properly done, boiling is one of the easiest methods of vegetable preparation.” But it has to be properly done. Similarly, in her cookbook Prune, Gabrielle Hamilton shares a recipe inspired by her Italian mother-in-law: “Well-Boiled Vegetables With Olive Oil.” Not those badly-boiled vegetables you might be familiar with. These are done well.

But boiled-vegetable lovers have to be defensive, right?

In a moment of increasingly scientific food publishing, roasting holds an unbeatable card: Maillard reactions. Or, chemical reactions that produce “brown coloration and full, intense flavor," according to food science authority Harold McGee.

J Bryan Lowder—in a Slate article exploring the downfall of boiling and rise of roasting—considers this the tipping point: “After you’ve experienced the way roasting concentrates (and enhances, via caramelization) the flavor of something like cauliflower, it is frankly impossible to go back to the boiled version, even doused in butter.”

It’s true that boiling can’t compete with browning. As McGee explains, it’s physically impossible: “The temperature of water can’t rise above 212°F.” Which means “foods cooked by ‘moist’ techniques—boiling, steaming, braising—are generally pale and mild compared to the same foods cooked by ‘dry methods’—grilling, baking, frying, [roasting].”

Maillard reactions produce a range of flavors. But the most prized one, especially with respect to vegetables, is meatiness. In a New York Times article all about the “the lure of burned food,” Tejal Rao writes how “incorporating a burned vegetable or fruit, like onion or citrus, into vegetarian dishes will produce a serious, almost meatlike depth of flavor.” Which is to say, roasting, charring, and even burning vegetables makes them taste more like meat and less like themselves.

That’s why I love boiling. It encourages vegetables to be just as they are. Tells them they are beautiful. Teaches them to be confident.

McGee, it turns out, agrees. In that chapter on Maillard, he points out the drawback of these reactions: “If you want to emphasize the intrinsic flavors of the foods, avoid high temperatures that create the intense but less individualized browning flavors.”

I want those individualized flavors. I want a carrot to taste carroty. I want a turnip to taste turnipy. I want a parsnip to taste parsnipy.

In her book An Everlasting Meal, Tamar Adler pays homage to this old-school technique: “Boiling has a bad name and steaming a good one, but I categorically prefer boiling. We think we’re being bullish with vegetables by putting them water when we’re actually being gentle.”

That’s why I love boiling. It encourages vegetables to be just as they are. Tells them they are beautiful. Teaches them to be confident.

Gentle, considerate, and—yeah, I’ll go there—loving. A boiled vegetable doesn’t have to be the bland mush of the mid-20th century. It can be, instead, the most self-assured cabbage you’ve ever met in your life. Imagine that.

You just have to follow a few principles:


How to Boil Vegetables

Use enough water. But how much is enough? The Joy of Cooking gets real specific, noting that for green vegetables you should use 4 quarts for the first pound, then an additional 1 to 2 quarts for each additional pound, but for root vegetables, you just want to cover them by a couple inches. Between you and me, it’s not worth fussing over that much. Just make sure the vegetables have enough water to move around in. Imagine those exercise classes where the instructor tells everyone to stand up and stretch out their arms, making sure you won’t be constantly bonking your neighbor.

Salt the heck out of the water. Again, how much is debatable. In the revised version of the iconic Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone, Deborah Madison recommends 1 teaspoon salt per 1 quart water. Meanwhile, in the also iconic Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat Samin Nosrat recommends “2 percent salinity for water for blanching vegetables.” This translates to 1 tablespoon plus 1 scant teaspoon fine sea salt or Morton’s kosher salt per 1 quart water. So, big difference. I lean toward Samin’s measurement but, as she says, “Your palate is the ultimate arbiter.” Add a smaller amount of salt to the hot water, taste, and go from there. Just never underestimate the importance. Boiling in salty water doesn’t just cook the vegetables; it seasons them from the inside out, something that roasted vegetables never equally achieve.

Don’t overcook. Don’t undercook, either. I could point you toward a million and one timing charts, but I’d rather not. Instead, I’d rather you taste, then taste again, then taste again. Cook time depends on myriad factors, from vegetable type, to how you cut that vegetable, to how big and crowded your pot is, to how crisp or tender you prefer. I like soft—neither al dente nor squishy—but it’s your boiled vegetable. Keep in mind that carryover heat means the vegetables will continue to cook post-draining. In other words, when they’re nearly perfect, they’re perfect. Psst: If you’re boiling different types of vegetables (look at you!), boil them in separate batches. This feels fussy at first, but actually makes everything easier.

When it comes to serving, keep it simple. Pour olive oil with abandon. That’s it. The 2018 in you will want to add some crispy breadcrumbs or briney capers or a whole garden of fresh herbs. But don’t. At least, not yet. Spend some time with the boiled vegetables, just as they are: salty, tender, and oil-slick. Then think about the bells and whistles. I have a feeling you won’t even want them anymore.

Are you a boiled vegetable skeptic or devotee? Share your opinions in the comments!

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22 Comments

Emily October 15, 2018
Anybody know what the sauce in the first photo is - maybe a peanut sauce? I always love a good peanut sauce recipe.
 
Author Comment
Emma L. October 15, 2018
Hi Emily! It's actually a tahini sauce with mustard and maple. Recipe here: https://food52.com/recipes/77941-mustardy-mapley-tahini-sauce
 
Emily October 16, 2018
Thank you!
 
Maureen October 14, 2018
My Mother was a southern cook and all veggies were boiled. Rather than complain about that I am very grateful that as child in the 1960s she she only cooked from scratch. Nothing frozen. Long-cooked green beans are a revelation...the problem arises with the cruciferous ones due to the odor.
 
Lisa P. October 14, 2018
I’ve always preferred boiled carrots over raw. There’s something comforting about them. Unless they’re Italian and finally grated over a salad - then sweet & raw is wonderful.
 
Author Comment
Emma L. October 14, 2018
In such a boiled carrots and parsnips phase right now!
 
swantopofit October 14, 2018
Agreed! The fresher the vegetable, the better it is boiled over other methods. I especially love boiled summer squash, cooked to very tender but not falling apart.
 
Priscilla R. October 14, 2018
If you like boiled (or sreamed) green beans, try okra cooked for just a bit.
 
Author Comment
Emma L. October 14, 2018
I actually haven't tried boiled okra! Which is odd because I've tried it so many other ways... Adding to to-do list, thanks!
 
Joella October 14, 2018
Coincidentally I was rereading Tamar Adler’s Everlasting Meal this weekend and was excited to see someone else take up the cause for boiled veggies. Always good to to challenge ourselves out of a rut. I’m inspired.
 
Author Comment
Emma L. October 14, 2018
Such a great book. So glad to hear you're inspired!
 
Janet October 14, 2018
I keep in mind that acid will change the color of green vegetables so I add a small amount of baking soda to the water for green beans, broccoli, or, asparagus. They stay very bright green that way.
 
Patricia F. October 14, 2018
Bravo! Actually, I roast a lot of vegetables, but I always "boil" broccoli. I don't think I use as much water as you say, but just enough to cover. I think broccoli tastes bitter when roasted. Also, lightly boiled green beans, snap peas and asparagus are bright green, tender rather than mushy, and taste fully of themselves!
 
J October 9, 2018
There's another huge plus for those of us who can't stomach worms: sorry, everyone, but organic broccoli is chock full of little green worms from the size of a speck of pepper to half an inch. However, here's the good news: boiling broccoli (cut it first into bite-size florets) will turn the green devils orange or brown, and they'll likely float to the surface of the water. Where I live, all of our Farmers' Markets are certified organic, and, given the choice, I choose cauliflower so that I can pluck off the little green devils before I cook, using the tweezers I keep on my knive rack just for that purpose. And I never, ever buy Brussels sprouts, no matter how gorgeous because I can't stand the thought of who's hiding inside.
 
Lisa P. October 14, 2018
As one who once threw a cauliflower across the kitchen in fear & disgust upon finding a worm, I especially like your instructions. Thank you, thank you!!
 
Maureen October 14, 2018
We grow organic vegetables and my husband can't understand why I refuse to eat some of them...well, seeing earwigs crawl out of an artichoke will do that to you. I fall back on my grandmother's method of soaking in a mix of water and vinegar...it seems to draw the little devils out!<br />
 
Beth100 October 8, 2018
I steam my vegetables, love the flavor and texture, plus the nutritional value is preserved perhaps more than with boiling.
 
Smaug October 8, 2018
I go back quite a way, and I don't remember boiling ever being the method of choice. Some things you might blanch briefly in boiling water, but both flavor elements and nutrients of most/all vegetables are water soluble. The go to I grew up with was a method of steaming where thevegetables were placed in a pan with a small amount of moisture (often their own was enough) and whatever else- usually some butter, salt, pepper if nothing else- and cooked covered until the moisture was cooked away. Still use this probably more than any other method.
 
nan J. October 9, 2018
Ditto
 
Janet M. October 21, 2018
I'm in my middle 70s and aside from the veggies plopped in next to a pot roast, <br /> for decades, I never met one that wasn't boiled. I'm glad we have lots of ways to cook vegetables now and I roast them a lot. But steaming doesn't get it for me--or maybe the way I learned to "boil" with just enough water on the bottom of the pan to keep veggies from burning was actually steaming. Green stuff like broccoli, green beans, cabbage, etc., was salted in the water and cooked in almost enough to cover, but corn, little green peas, carrots, were cooked with no salt and a pinch of sugar--salted later. From the midwest, our veggies were never mushy--served slightly firm, but not crunchy, and that's still the way I like them. Only potatoes were actually covered with water, and not 2 inches! <br />Usually there wasn't much liquid left when the veggies were cooked--mother drained them, plopped them back in the pan with a stingy dab of butter to give a little shine, seasoned with salt and pepper. The tiny amount of leftover cooking liquid went into gravy--if that was part of the meal--or the fridge to get added to soup in a day or two. And that's the way i boil veggies to this day!
 
Smaug October 21, 2018
It was, indeed steaming. I do steam potatoes (unpeeled) with a separate pan of water and a steamer,but for most things if you steam this way it's like boiling, you end up throwing out a lot of flavor and nutrients.
 
witloof October 8, 2018
Full out boiling isn't great, but simmering {the water pops gentle bubbles} is fine. I think it also depends on the vegetable. I prefer my green beans and broccoli simmered, my artichokes and potatoes steamed.