The Food Lab Thanksgiving Special: Roasted Brussels Sprouts and Shallots with Balsamic Vinegar
Last year when I wrote about the humble Brussels sprout, it was from the perspective of someone who believed that I was amongst the minority of people who truly deeply love the tiny brassica.
From the number of positive comments that piece received and the amount of support I've seen lent to the diminutive cabbage-shaped vegetables, it turns out I was wrong all along.
Ladies and gentlemen, it's 2011, and the Brussels sprout is finally having its moment. What we've got here is a sprout with some clout. From topping our favorite pizzas to appearing on the menus at many of our favorite restaurants, good brussels sprouts are thankfully becoming easier and easier to find.
Coming from a family of Brussels sprouts fiends, I've had to develop quite a repertoire of recipes over the years and over the holidays in order to keep things interesting. The vast majority of them—a good 94% (I've counted)—share one crucial step: searing. Slow-cooking Brussels sprouts allows them to develop those funky, odoriferous compounds you get from overcooked cabbage soup while at the same time destroying the beautiful, spicy-pungent, mustard-like compounds they contain.
The goal is to cook them fast, and cook them hard so they char and caramelize, their leaves turning crispy, brown, and nutty, and their natural sugars breaking down into sweeter simple sugars.
This means you want to use the highest heat possible when cooking your sprouts. This can be accomplished easily in a skillet, but if you want to free up some stove-top space this Thanksgiving, you can just as easily do it in a pan in the oven. The key is to preheat the pan in the oven before you add the sprouts to it so that they begin to sizzle as soon as they land.
I like to add a handful of sliced shallots to the sprouts as well to accent their sweetness. The shallots brown and crisp, melting into the mix without overpowering. You can take my advice from last year and incorporate some pork fat into the mix (just render some bacon, fatback, guanciale, chorizo—whatever—on the stovetop, toss the sprouts with the fat, then add the crisped bits back in at the end), but other fats will work just as well. Olive oil, duck fat, chicken fat, or turkey fat are all fine options.
If your pan is preheated hot enough and your oven is going strong, your sprouts should be out of the oven and ready to serve in less time than it takes to rest a turkey.
Want a touch more acidity and kick in there? Sprinkle a bit of balsamic vinegar over the sprouts just as they come out of the oven. The residual heat in the pan should be enough to reduce it almost instantly to a thin coating of tart glaze.
And yes, the secret ingredient here is salt, and plenty of it.
Bonus Brussels Sprout Video
Need help prepping them? Here's a quick tutorial!
About the author: J. Kenji Lopez-Alt is the Managing Editor of Serious Eats where he likes to explore the science of home cooking in his weekly column The Food Lab. You can follow him at @thefoodlab on Twitter, or at The Food Lab on Facebook.