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Boiled Brussels Sprouts? They Were Good Enough for Blue Hill

And why you should boil them, too.

November 21, 2018
Photo by Rocky Luten

Brussels sprouts. For many, they’re the indisputable staple side dish of the festive season—the one green thing on the table, if you will. But despite dozens of encounters with Brussels sprouts over the many holidays I’ve spent in the U.K. and America, I never truly enjoyed eating these bulbous brassicas. Whether they’re roasted, toasted, or dusted with a flurry of cheese to mask their stinky odor, I’ve (perhaps unfairly) treated most Brussels sprout dishes with disdain. That is, until I staged at Blue Hill at Stone Barns.

Now, Brussels sprouts usually go wrong in one of two ways. One, they can be nicely browned and caramelized on the outside, but more often than not, the insides are still dense and squeaky, grossly undercooked. Or two, they can fall on the other end of the spectrum—essentially overcooked to the point of near mush, which admittedly is a tad more palatable than their squeaky, undercooked counterpart, but at which point they’ll start to smell like month-old eggs.

But during my time at Blue Hill, there was this one Brussels sprout dish that changed my view of this fall vegetable for good: boiled—yes, boiled!—Brussels sprouts served with a charcoal mayonnaise. This sounds terribly simple, but living up to the farm-to-table ethos of the restaurant, the sprouts were served still attached to the stalk of the plant, so guests had to carve the bulbs off the tree and inadvertently do a little mock-harvesting themselves. The bulbs would then be swiped through a smoky, paprika-tinged mayonnaise dip that was infused with bone char—blackened, fully carbonized animal bones which would usually be considered waste, if not for Chef Dan Barber’s clever resourcefulness in using it to impart a deep, funky smokiness to the dip.

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Already, this makes Brussels sprouts so much more fun and interactive to eat. But the true genius of the dish lies in the cooking of the vegetables themselves. Unlike most recipes which call for roasting or frying Brussels sprouts to cook and caramelize them, hopefully to get rid of their gassy stench, at Blue Hill, they were plunged into a sputtering, 3-feet deep pot of boiling water, salty as the Dead Sea, for exactly four minutes.

Why You Should Boil Brussels Sprouts

What this does is cook the Brussels sprouts very evenly on all sides, making sure that there are no undercooked bits. But more importantly, since water is a much better conductor of heat than air is, the cooking time is greatly reduced. This is crucial, because according to food chemist Shirley Corriher, author of CookWise: The Hows and Whys of Successful Cooking, the longer Brussels sprouts are cooked, the more stinky hydrogen sulfide gas is released. The result of the quick-boiling, then, is Brussels sprouts with a super clean, vegetal sweetness with a tender bite, and none of that styrofoam squeakiness.

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Top Comment:
“The first time I ever saw Brussels sprouts on the stalk was at a dollar store that also sold food. When I was 25 and living in Las Vegas. My mom didn't really cook them growing up, and I guess I thought they grew like tiny cabbages? ”
— Claudia T.
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The technique itself is epiphanic on its own, and works well with just about any classic Brussels sprout pairing: bacon, pears, strong cheeses, citrus-y vinaigrettes, but if you’re looking for an especially killer recipe, here’s my own that’s inspired by Chef Dan’s dish. Instead of a charcoal mayo that’s made from bone char though, I used bacon fat to make a bacon-y mayo. (One can hardly go wrong with bacon, after all.) And instead of leaving the Brussels sprouts on its stalk—which, while wonderfully interactive and undeniably festive with its miniature Christmas-tree look, would be a nightmare to source for—I used individual balls of Brussels sprouts, which are a whole lot easier to prep and share as a game-changing side dish at Thanksgiving.

How do YOU cook your Brussels sprouts? Let us know in the comments below.

6 Comments

Claudia T. December 8, 2018
The first time I ever saw Brussels sprouts on the stalk was at a dollar store that also sold food. When I was 25 and living in Las Vegas. My mom didn't really cook them growing up, and I guess I thought they grew like tiny cabbages?
 
Mari O. November 22, 2018
Also, if you wait till a freeze before gathering them from the garden, they're a bit sweeter, not as assertively cabbagy.
 
Eric K. November 22, 2018
Interesting tip! Thanks, Mari.
 
Mari O. November 22, 2018
You're welcome, Eric. 😊
 
Mari O. November 22, 2018
We use a thin bladed knife to plunge to the insides of the sprout from it's base & then do it again after a quarter turn, then boil till that same knife easily pushes into the largest sprout. They're perfect every time. That cut X allows a bit more of the heat into the guts of the sprout. We usually have ours with gravy, once in a while just butter & a little pepper.
 
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Yi J. November 22, 2018
Ooh that is a great technique. Thanks Mari! Might use that in my next batch of brussel sprouts! ;)