In defense of an uncool cooking technique.
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.
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.”
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:
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!