The Food Lab Thanksgiving Special: Brussels Sprouts Worth Eating
All this month, we'll be doing a series of rapid-fire, short-format Food Lab posts to help you get your side dishes in proper working order before Turkey Day. Gobble gobble!
Ah, the much maligned Brussels sprout. Rich in sulfurous compounds known as glucosinolate, even the slightest bit of overcooking can cause these chemicals to break down, producing the foul-smelling odor of long-cooked cabbage. It's what I always imagined Charlie Bucket's* house to smell like. Not pleasant.
At the same time as those sulfurous compounds are being released, the more desirable, distinctively sharp mustard-like compounds are being actively destroyed by an enzyme within the sprout. This enzyme isn't deactivated until around 180°F or so.
So in order to get the best flavor of your sprouts, your goal is to cook them as fast as possible. One way to do this is to plunge them into a large pot of rapidly boiling water. But I have a better suggestions: sear them.
Searing them in a ripping hot skillet not only heats them rapidly, it also chars the leaves a bit, developing the sort of rich, sweet, nutty flavors that only the best brassica-tinted dreams are made of.
Want an even better suggestion? Sear them in pork fat. Sweet, smoky bacon fat, sweet, nutty sprouts, what could be better?
When picking the appropriate pork product for your sprouts, anything fatty and cured will do, really. It's just a matter of personal taste. Here I'm using some slab bacon cut into large chunks that you can call lardon if you're fancy or French or both. I just call it chunky bacon. Equally good (or maybe better) would be guanciale—salty cured pork jowl. I've done this with dry-cured Spanish chorizo as well, which may be my favorite fat to use. No matter what, before you start cooking the sprouts, you've got to render the fat out of the bacon.
You could try doing this in a dry skillet, but air is a notoriously poor conductor of heat, which means that only the part of the bacon in direct contact with the pan is really heating up. Much better is to start with water in the skillet—just enough to cover the bacon. by blasting the heat, the water quickly evaporates, all the while heating the bacon and getting the rendering process started. By the time the water is all gone, enough fat will have melted out (I like to add a bit of extra vegetable or olive oil as extra insurance) that the bacon should be able to cook quickly and evenly, crisping up far better than it would on its own.
A Sprout With Clout
Once you've got your supply of rendered pork fat, it's time to cook the sprouts themselves. If you're doing an unusually large number, you can always jack up the oven to maximum temperature, toss the sprouts with the pork fat and roast them until charred, but I find it faster and easier to simply cook them in a hot skillet.
By splitting the sprouts in half, you increase their surface area and give them a stable position to sit while searing. This helps maximize the delicious charring that gives sprouts the nuttiness and charm to make them worth eating. If your sprouts are especially large, you may need to give them a quick par-cook by dropping them in a pot of boiling water until tender (just a couple minutes), then plunging them into an ice bath before splitting them in half.
After they're done charred in the bacon fat, I season them with plenty of salt and pepper (I don't like to do it before because I find the salt from the bacon fat penetrates the sprouts as they cook, making it hard to judge salt level), then toss them back together with the crisp bacon. If you're feeling extra plucky, you can go for a full half-and-half bacon-to-sprout ratio. Trust me, you'll be popping them like scrumdiddlyumptious bars.
The other great way to cook sprouts is to go the whole nine yards and shred them before charring. The rest of the procedure is pretty much the same. For tips on how to prep sprouts, watch our knife skills video here.
Click through to the recipe for full instructions!
*Quick trivia: Did you know that Peter Ostrum, the original Charlie Bucket from Willie Wonka and the Chocolate Factory is now a large animal vet in upstate New York?