The Food Lab Thanksgiving Special: Gingery Glazed Carrots
On paper, glazing vegetables seems very simple. Combine some cooked root vegetables with a bit of butter and liquid (water or stock are the most common) in a skillet with a bit of seasoning (salt and sugar, usually) then cook it until the fat from the butter and the liquid emulsify into a thick, saucy glaze that coats the vegetable with a beautiful, flavorful sheen.
If you want to be extra cool, you can start with way more liquid than you need, timing it so that by the time the liquid mostly evaporates and thickens into a sauce, the vegetables are perfectly cooked through.
And I want to talk to you about glazed carrots, I really do, but first you'll have to come with me while I spout off a bit on ranges.
You hear this a lot: cooking in restaurants is a completely different best from cooking at home. And it's true. Restaurant cooking is about production and efficiency and yadda yadda yadda. But there are other key differences, namely equipment. See, home burners have an output of around 7,000 to 8,000 BTUs* per hour. That's roughly enough energy to bring four gallons of water to a rolling boil from room temperature over the course of an hour.
*British Thermal Units are a measure of energy. One BTU is the amount of energy needed to heat one pound of water from 39°F to 40°F. You'll often see BTUs per hour (units of power) abbreviated as simply BTUs (units of energy) when talking about stovetops.
A restaurant range, on the other hand puts out a whopping 30,000 BTUs and up.
The immediate implications of this are obvious to anyone. Your pasta water is going to boil faster. Your lobster pot will stay at a rolling boil even when you dump a dozen live ones in there. Your pans will preheat faster. Your meats are going to sear harder. You get the picture.
But there are other, less obvious effects of a powerful burner and how they make restaurant food a little different from home-cooked food. Glazing is prime example #1.
So how does having a powerful burner help this process along? Well, emulsions—the homogeneous suspension of one medium inside another that it normally doesn't mix with (in this case, butterfat suspended in water)—need plenty of mechanical stirring to form. With a mayonnaise or vinaigrette, a whisk or blender provides this action, breaking fat and water up into microscopic droplets. In espresso, the violent pressure of steam pushing through coffee grounds agitates oils and emulsifies them into the water, forming the rich crema that floats on top.
With glazed vegetables, this mechanical action comes from two sources: the cook's shaking and stirring the pan as it cooks (not very effective), and the bubbling of the liquid as it boils.
Beginning to see the picture now?
On a restaurant range, the boiling is crazy fast and violent. Semi-stable emulsions form rapidly and easily with very minimal effort of the part of the cook. At home, on the other hand, most burners simply aren't powerful enough to provide the requisite violence in the liquid—particularly not when you're preparing a Thanksgiving side dish-sized serving.
Rather than a beautifully, glazey sauce, you end up with a greasy, broken one. Still tasty, sure, but not nearly as appealing.
So what's the solution? Well, to solve this problem I took a little cue from some common fondue recipes in which a tiny amount of a thickener is added to the liquid in order to help keep the emulsion of fat and water stable. See, thickeners like starches and gums perform two roles.
First, they add viscosity to the water, making it flow more slowly. Water that flows more slowly will coalesce from tiny droplets into larger ones more slowly, and thus form emulsions that last longer (sugar will also perform this same function, to a degree). Secondly, starch molecules can physically impede both fat molecules and water molecules from bunching up together.
So the key to a really easy, foolproof glaze without a powerful burner? Just add a tiny bit of thickener.
See how nicely that works?
In my own kitchen, I use a touch of xanthan gum, because it's flavorless, dissolves into a completely transparent, glossy glaze, and is quite potent. A tiny bit goes a long way—a mere 1/4 teaspoon is more than adequate for a full eight servings of carrots or other glazed root vegetables.
Don't have xanthan gum lying around? Don't worry, even corn starch will do just fine. The easiest way to incorporate it is to form a small amount of slurry with a bit of cold water, then dump it into your pan a minute or two before it reaches a glaze consistency. You'll see your sauce come together in no time.
Of course, glazed vegetables are a perfect opportunity to add some other flavors to the mix. When I do carrots, I like to add a bit of sliced ginger, some fresh thyme sprigs, and perhaps an orange rind or two to the mix.
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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.