Absolute Best Tests

The Absolute Best Way to Cook Broccoli, According to So Many Tests

August 27, 2020
Photo by Ella Quittner

In Absolute Best Tests, Ella Quittner destroys the sanctity of her home kitchen in the name of the truth. She's boiled dozens of eggs, mashed a concerning number of potatoes, and seared more porterhouse steaks than she cares to recall. Today, she tackles broccoli.


The year is approximately 25 B.C., and the world’s primordial broccoli is about to be presented to a human for possible consumption. “Aspetti!” hisses the emperor’s chef, his eyes wide as the tiny treelike structures make their way to the grand dining table of Domus Augusti. “Wait! Is there any way to make it look any less…limp? Or any more…green?” But it’s too late—the florets are already in motion. And the emperor, never one to mince words, takes a single bite before pronouncing it “fine but kinda boring,” thereby relegating it to side dish status, at best, for thousands of years.

I’m fairly certain that none of the above actually happened, unless you count as fact a wild quarantine dream I had on Advil PM, which also involved Billie Eilish and, at one point, a boy I barely knew in high school.

But consider the gist: Bad broccoli is a bummer. The green stuff, which does in fact have origins in ancient Rome, is said to have been engineered by the Etruscans, as an offshoot of cabbage. And some of its many modern iterations—looking at you, cafeteria steam tables, salad bars, and my late grandmother’s “casserole surprise”—are a stark reminder of that cabbagey connection, with brocc that’s soft and grassy, lacking in notable character. (No disrespect to properly prepared cabbage, which is a separate topic.)

Good broccoli is, however, a revelation. We’ve all had it. Maybe you even make it at home, and are just reading this article as a favor to my mom. Good broccoli is the stuff not of quarantine nightmares, but of year-round daydreams, with tender, savory stalks and, optionally, crispy browned tops. Sometimes it’s encased in a delightful tempura crust, or blended into a deeply flavored soup. Sometimes it’s the star of a stir-fry, or the best supporting actor in a curry. Sometimes it’s just chilling by itself on a sheet pan and you’re not sure if you’re allowed to eat it, but you suspect your significant other will say it’s for his lunch the next day, so you sneak a floret while he’s just out of sight and burn the roof of your mouth.

Join The Conversation

Top Comment:
“If you want the broccoli warm when you serve it, simply turn the heat up to high again and now, if you want to, give it a quick saute, just to heat through. It's delicious at room temperature. ;o)”
— AntoniaJames
Comment

In any case, good broccoli is an important cause, and one I happily agreed to research for Absolute Best Tests. (Broccoli’s cousins, broccolini, broccoli rabe, and gai lan or kai lan, aka Chinese broccoli, each have their own cooking nuances, which are not discussed in this article—but please DM me if you want to discuss cruciferous vegetables at any hour.)

Read on for the results of my marathon broccoli trials.


Controls & Fine Print

I prepared nine heads of broccoli—yes, I averted my eyes in the grocery checkout line in lieu of explaining the task at hand—the exact same way:

  • Trimmed the very bottom of the stalk
  • Peeled the tough outer layer from the stalk
  • Cut the stalk into coins, roughly 3/4-inch thick
  • Broke the florets apart into roughly even pieces, about 2 to 4 inches long

For cooking methods that involved a fat, I used extra-virgin olive oil, except in the case of the stovetop sauté, for which I used vegetable oil. I seasoned only with kosher salt.


Methods

“Cook Forever”

  1. Set a large, covered pot of water over high heat.
  2. When it reaches a boil, remove the lid and add the broccoli florets and stem coins. Boil the broccoli for 5 minutes, then drain.
  3. In a large sauté pan or skillet, heat a few tablespoons of extra-virgin olive oil over a medium flame. (If you’re following the real recipe, this is where you’d add garlic and anchovies, and sauté a few minutes.) Add the broccoli, season with salt, and turn the heat to the lowest possible setting.
  4. Cover the pan and cook for about 2 hours, until broccoli is extremely tender, gently stirring a few times throughout. Adjust seasoning to taste and serve.

See this Genius recipe by Roy Finamore for full instructions.

Blanch

  1. Set a large, covered pot of water over high heat. Prepare an ice bath.
  2. When the water reaches a boil, remove the lid and add a couple tablespoons of salt. Add the broccoli florets and stem coins, and cook until they reach desired tenderness.
  3. Transfer with a slotted spoon to the ice bath.
  4. Before serving or proceeding with another recipe, drain on towels and season with salt.

Steam

  1. Set a large pot with a few inches of water and a steamer basket over high heat, then cover.
  2. When the water comes to a boil, add the broccoli florets and stem coins to the steamer basket, then cover again. Steam for about 5 minutes, until the broccoli reaches desired tenderness.
  3. Season with salt before serving.

Stovetop (Sauté & Steam)

  1. In a large wok or sauté pan, heat a few tablespoons of vegetable oil over medium-high heat until shimmering.
  2. Add the broccoli florets and stem coins and cook, stirring occasionally, until the broccoli has browned in places and perked up to a bright green, about 4 minutes.
  3. Add a few tablespoons of water and cover the pan to steam the broccoli for about 3 minutes, until it’s fork-tender.
  4. Remove from the heat and season with salt.

Slow-Roast (325°F)

  1. Heat the oven to 325°F.
  2. Toss the broccoli florets, stem coins, and a few tablespoons of extra-virgin olive oil on a rimmed sheet pan. Season with salt.
  3. Roast, stirring occasionally, until tender, about 1 hour.

High Heat–Roast (425°F)

  1. Heat the oven to 425°F.
  2. Toss the broccoli florets, stem coins, and a few tablespoons of extra-virgin olive oil on a rimmed sheet pan. Season with salt.
  3. Roast, stirring occasionally, until tender, 20 to 25 minutes. (If the crispy bits begin to burn before the stalks are tender, you can turn down heat to 350°F or so and continue to cook.)

Boil

  1. Set a large, covered pot of water over high heat.
  2. When it reaches a boil, remove the lid and add a couple tablespoons of salt. Add the broccoli florets and stem coins, and cook until they reach desired tenderness, 3 to 5 minutes.
  3. Drain and season with salt to taste before serving.

Grill

  1. Heat the grill to medium. Toss broccoli florets and stem pieces with a few tablespoons of extra-virgin olive oil and pinches of salt.
  2. Grill until tender and slightly charred, flipping once or twice midway through, about 8 minutes total.

Microwave

  1. Place broccoli florets and stem coins in a microwave-safe bowl and add a few tablespoons of water.
  2. Cover the bowl and microwave on high for 3 to 4 minutes.
  3. Drain and season with salt before serving.

Findings

The Crispies

Slow-Roast (325°F)

I won’t bury the lede here: Slow-roasted broccoli is perfect in almost every way, except for its visage. (Unless you like your broccoli wizened and shrunken, like it’s been wandering through a forest without water for weeks.) But looks be damned, slow-roasted broccoli is tender, with concentrated flavor and lots of crispy bits, almost like French fries.

Roast (425°F)

Roasting at a high heat resulted in deliciously crispy broccoli. That said, it browned so quickly that I had to pull it from the oven before the stalks were fully cooked, which might suit someone looking for more bite.

Stovetop (Sauté & Steam)

The sauté-and-steam method is great for efficiency, and for optimizing both crispiness up top and tenderness down below. Aim for as little water as possible in the steaming step to avoid soaking previously crisped bits.

Charcoal Grill

Should you fire up a charcoal grill solely to cook broccoli? No—you can get similar results at a high temp in the oven, with less prep time. But if you’ve already got the grill going, and you like a bit of char and bite-back, grilled broccoli will have a fair amount to offer you.

The Softies

“Cook Forever”

Roy Finamore’s method for cooking broccoli, which involves blanching then sautéing over a super-low flame for two hours, produces the Cadillac of broccoli. It’s admittedly something of a bummer to look at, devoid of liveliness in color and structure, but it has the texture of broccoli-butter, and that’s more than enough reason to give it a go.

Boil

I so desperately wanted to like boiled broccoli, because I have a thing for underdogs. But despite being exceedingly simple to execute, the method didn’t have much to offer, unless you’re a fan of super-soft brocc. The actual flavor was weaker—as if it’d been leached away by the cooking water—than that of the other methods, besides the blanched batch.

Blanch

Blanching produced broccoli that was nearly identical to the boiled batch in texture, just a few shades brighter, since blanching stops enzyme actions that can cause fading.

Microwave

Microwaving broccoli is certainly efficient, about 5 minutes from start to finish. The end result is similar to boiled broccoli in both texture and flavor.

Steam

Steaming broccoli produces a more deeply flavored, almost earthy specimen than boiling, blanching, or microwaving. If you’re looking for a soft brocc with just a hair of structure, steaming will bode well.


So, What's the Best Way?

If you’ve got an hour

Slow-roast broccoli for the most concentrated flavor, without sacrificing crispy treetops. (Not a technical term but it should be.)

If you don’t have an hour

Consider grabbing a wok and sautéing broccoli at a high temp for just a few minutes, before finishing with a quick in-pan steam.

If you are a soft-broccoli lover

Break out the steamer.

For a real treat

Consider Roy Finamore’s “cook forever” technique, which really does take forever in broccoli speak (two and a half hours all in). But it’ll be two and a half hours well spent.

What should Ella test next? Let us know in the comments, or send her a message here.

Join the Conversation

See what other Food52 readers are saying.

  • MegWood
    MegWood
  • John Mathew Worlock
    John Mathew Worlock
  • Tim
    Tim
  • Julie O
    Julie O
  • Kevin Stull
    Kevin Stull
Comment
Ella Quittner

Written by: Ella Quittner

Ella Quittner is a contributing writer and the Absolute Best Tests columnist at Food52. She covers food, travel, wellness, lifestyle, home, novelty snacks, and internet-famous sandwiches. You can follow her on Instagram @equittner, or Twitter at @ellaquittner. She also develops recipes for Food52, and has a soft spot for all pasta, anything spicy, and salty chocolate things.

19 Comments

MegWood September 13, 2020
I am curious if you could do this for asparagus. I am truly addicted to the stalks of greenery and would love to know the best cooking technique. Though I have already discovered that I love them crispy as opposed to soft. But it would still be a lovely read for me.
 
Kevin S. September 14, 2020
I use this approach with many of my veggies (broccoli, asparagus, cauliflower, zucchini, carrots, etc.). As indicated in a prior post on this thread, I use a steam then saute approach (medium high heat). I start with a small amount of water with a twist or two of salt. I vary the amount of water depending on how hard or soft the veggie is. I normally use 1/3 cup for broccoli & cauliflower, 1/4 cup for zucchini and 1/2 cup for carrots. Asparagus varies (1/4 cup for small, 1/3 cup for medium, and 1/2 for large stalks). Best wishes.
 
John M. September 12, 2020
Thanks for the nice tour of the broccoli neighborhood. We like it - we eat it several times a week - and we're open to new ideas.
 
Tim September 12, 2020
I’ve been steaming for 4or5 minutes till “al dente” then draining, squeezing lemon juice on then sauté in butter, treating like risotto letting in soak up then adding more till tinder. Kids love it!!!
 
Mary September 12, 2020
Tim,

The steam sautéed method it does the same thing but without the added step of draining. By using only 1/3 cup water to 1 to 1-1/2 lbs of broccoli (or any other veggie), all you have to do is remove the lid and sauté it in your butter, lemon juice, white wine, etc
 
Tim September 13, 2020
Mary,
I will try tonight!!
 
Julie O. September 11, 2020
If we haven’t already eaten it raw...I’ll try one of these!
 
Kevin S. September 11, 2020
I too prefer the Stovetop method but I reverse the process. I put about 1/3 a cup of water and a twist or two of salt in a saute pan, add the broccoli and steam at medium high heat until all the water has evaporated. Then I add butter and saute to al dente, add a sprinkle of Herbs de Provence for the last minute and serve.
 
Mary September 11, 2020
Steam/Sauté Method is my absolute go to method for broccoli and most veggies. I learned this from Pam Anderson's cookbooks and it never fails. Use a sauté pan, add veggies, a healthy pat of butter, and 1/3 cup of water. Bring to a soft boil for 4-6 minutes, remove lid and sauté until the water is fully evaporated, then season. It’s easy to cook, easy to clean, and always perfect.
 
Mary September 11, 2020
Steam/Sauté Method is my absolute go to method for broccoli and most veggies. I learned this from Pam Anderson's cookbooks and it never fails. Use a sauté pan, add veggies, a healthy pat of butter, and 1/3 cup of water. Bring to a soft boil for 4-6 minutes, remove lid and sauté until the water is fully evaporated, then season. It’s easy to cook,easy to clean, and always perfect.
 
Liana W. September 4, 2020
How about blanch and saute. That is my method, the green color stays vibrant and it adds a mild crispness.
 
AntoniaJames August 31, 2020
My go-to, after years of cooking broccoli so many different ways, is this "Stovetop (Brown and Steam)" method. It's similar to the stovetop method noted above with two key differences.

First, when cutting (a) leave a bit of stem on each floret; (b) cut lengthwise through each floret to expose two flat sides; and (c) cut remaining stem into planks, not crosswise, with at least one cut side exposed.

Heat oil in skillet until quite hot, then throw the broccoli in, turning each piece so that a flat side is face down. Sprinkle generously with salt.

**Do NOT touch the broccoli.**

Resist the temptation to saute. Just as when one browns a piece of meat, you want to give that cut side time to get brown - good and brown. Bits of the edges will get nice and crispy while the flat sides are browning. Peek after 2-3 minutes, more or less depending on the BTUs level of your burners.

When most of the cut flat sides are getting a bit of dark brown, turn the heat off and cover tightly with a lid. Let steam for a few minutes, checking (peeking, quickly) to make sure the broccoli is not overcooking. It should still be bright green. Remove the lid as soon as the broccoli is tender. (You can add a few tablespoons of water, cover and turn the heat up to produce more steam, if necessary, but be careful not to overdo it.)

If you want the broccoli warm when you serve it, simply turn the heat up to high again and now, if you want to, give it a quick saute, just to heat through. It's delicious at room temperature. ;o)
 
JoAnne L. August 30, 2020
I quickly steam broccoli just until it is still bright green and crisp tender. I bring an inch of water to a boil, put the broccoli in the steamer basket and lightly salt the broccoli. I have great results with this method and can do a quick reheat in the microwave the next day without losing flavor or crispness. The trick is to not allow the broccoli to overcook, just a quick steam, three minutes or so.
 
signe August 29, 2020
One more method. Bring water in a pot just to a boil. Add broccoli but don't let it boil again. Boiling breaks down the florets. Cook for a couple of minutes or so (not sure how long). Drain. While it is draining brown butter in the pot, cut up preserved lemons and add to pot with drained broccoli.
 
Pete M. August 29, 2020
Simmering is what is usually meant by boiling. And I agree it works fine IF you add enough salt before adding the broccoli. Lack of salt will cause minerals to leach out quickly, and leave vegetables grey and flavorless. (Osmosis in cooking is covered very clearly by Salt Fat Acid Heat.)
 
SB August 28, 2020
My go-to is the stovetop method, but I find there’s no need to add any water for the steaming portion. I just lower the temp and pop on a lid for a few minutes.
 
Lianne August 28, 2020
As noted in another comment, salt can really make a difference for many of these methods. The microwave method can be much improved by salting the broccoli first, adding no water (1 tbsp if you are worried), covering in plastic wrap and microwaving for 4-6 min depending on the strength of the microwave - there's plenty of water already in the broccoli to steam it. Salting before microwaving also allows the salt to dissolve in the water released by the broccoli, resulting in seasoned steamed broccoli that is on the table in 5 min. Roasting is the only method I use if I have the time, but this microwave trick is great for summer when I don't want to turn on my oven.
 
M August 27, 2020
This is missing one of the best ways to cook broccoli: BROIL. Toss with oil and seasoning, spread out on baking sheet, broil for a few minutes until cooked to your liking. It's quick, easy, and gives crispy bits and a touch of char.
 
Pete M. August 27, 2020
Blanched, boiled, or steamed--none will be good unless you salt the boiling water first! Just like any other vegetable....