Big Little Recipes

Roasted Parsnips for Dessert? Yes.

October 27, 2020

A Big Little Recipe has the smallest-possible ingredient list and big everything else—flavor, creativity, wow factor. Psst: We don't count water, salt, black pepper, and certain fats (specifically, 1/2 cup or less of olive oil, vegetable oil, and butter), since we're guessing you have those covered. This week, we’re roasting parsnips, but not for dinner.

While some dishes stay constant at my family’s Thanksgiving—like lemon-herb turkey and roasted potatoes and boozy cranberry sauce—dessert is a free-for-all. We’ve tried pecan pie, lemon pie, pumpkin pie, pumpkin ice cream pie, pumpkin mousse, apple galette, pear crisp, and dozens of others.

But never roasted vegetables.

Of course, roasted vegetables are the default side dish of fall and winter. (And, many tired nights, with a loaf of bread or bowl of pasta, they easily turn into a main.) Maybe it’s shallots or broccoli or squash. Almost always it’s savory.

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Top Comment:
“I had the ingredients already in my fridge, roasted parsnips, caramel sauce and sour cream. This was a lovely unexpected dessert tonight.”
— D

These parsnips are not. Though they start out like any other roasted vegetable—drizzle of oil, pinch of salt, blazing oven—they end up as dessert. It’s a welcome departure from my usual uses for the ingredient (chicken soup or garlicky noodles).

Root vegetables are naturally starchy and sugary. And this sweetness becomes even more pronounced with cooking and baking. Hence why, for example, carrots are beloved in numerous desserts, from American layer cake to Indian gajar halwa.

Photo by Julia Gartland. Prop stylist: Megan Hedgpeth. Food stylist: Lauren LaPenna.

As Harold McGee explains in On Food & Cooking, cooking “weakens the strong cell walls and frees the sugars to be tasted.” Add in the caramelization and browning from high-heat roasting, and you have even more flavor.

This is why many roasted vegetable recipes don’t stop at the oil and salt. They throw in savory ingredients—think garlic, anchovies, cheese—to remind us that, despite all the sweetness, this is a savory dish.

In this case, though, we’re not offsetting the sweetness. We’re emphasizing it. Enter our two other ingredients: granulated sugar and sour cream.

If you’ve never made caramel sauce before (or you have made it and things didn’t go well), let’s tackle it together. I’ll walk you through each step in the video above. Adding a splash of water at the start encourages even cooking, and resisting stirring at all costs sidesteps crystallization. As soon as the caramel is almost-but-not-quite as dark as you’d like, cut the heat, stir in sour cream (tanginess! creaminess!), and pat yourself on the back.

Even more sour cream serves as a downy comforter for the roasted parsnips to cuddle into. Once you add up these three components—the sugary caramel, the swooshy cream, the oven-sweetened vegetables—you get something that tastes like...yellow cake? But how? Who knows?

Sure, it’s not as classic as pumpkin pie. But it’s as cozy as raking leaves, as picking apples, as wearing two pairs of socks.

This post contains products independently chosen (and loved) by our editors and writers. As an Amazon Associate, Food52 earns an affiliate commission on qualifying purchases of the products we link to.
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  • Molly Fuller
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  • D
  • KS
  • Elyn
Emma was the food editor at Food52. She created the award-winning column, Big Little Recipes, and turned it into a cookbook in 2021. These days, she's a senior editor at Bon Appétit, leading digital cooking coverage. Say hello on Instagram at @emmalaperruque.


Molly F. October 29, 2020
Well, it was awful! Caramel grainy, parsnips a bit soggy....
drsls2004 October 28, 2020
There’s some history to this. In wartime (wwII), parsnips & banana extract formed the basis of ‘fake’ banana pudding. Parsnips were such a common substitute for bananas that, once the war was over and bananas were again available, many young children had never actually encountered a real banana, only parsnips.
Emma L. October 28, 2020
Thank you for sharing this history!
D October 27, 2020
Love this! My Swedish Grandma served parsnips with jelly or jam to get us kids to eat them. We would gobble them up. I had the ingredients already in my fridge, roasted parsnips, caramel sauce and sour cream. This was a lovely unexpected dessert tonight.
KS October 27, 2020
I second Elyn's "Wow!" I wonder if you or anyone here can speculate about whether this recipe would work with Swerve. I don't have much experience with sweets and none with caramel, so I can't figure it out. I know Swerve is said to be a great 1:1 sugar substitute for baking, but does it translate to other uses? I'm dying to serve this to my pre-diabetic, suger-avoiding sister.
Elyn October 27, 2020
Wow! This sounds incredible! You always have something unique and special in your posts. I really appreciate that, and look forward to more!
2tattered October 27, 2020
Parsnips. For dessert. Fk no. Never. Uh uh. No way.
Lissa October 27, 2020
Never know until you try. Imma gonna try it!
Nazneen K. October 27, 2020
Yum! Delicious!!