1 Technique, 2 Very Different Cauliflower Purées

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[Photographs: Vicky Wasik]

This article is about how to make the most flavorful, smooth, and creamy cauliflower purée. But I'm going to let you in on a little secret: I could write almost the exact same article and make it about cauliflower soup. That's because there's really no difference between the two. A good cauliflower purée is almost exactly the same as a good smooth and creamy cauliflower soup, except less wet. And, if you're a regular reader of this site, then you know that making puréed vegetable soups is a technique we've described multiple times.

The short version: Prepare your main ingredients (cauliflower, in this case); choose your aromatics; sweat or brown the aromatics; add any secondary aromatics, like spices and pastes; simmer in a liquid; and purée. The particulars of those steps are how you end up with different results.

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Smooth and Silky Cauliflower Purée.

By following the basic technique, I developed two different recipes for cauliflower purée. The first is a more clean-and-simple version that I made by simmering and then puréeing cauliflower and aromatics in a liquid. It delivers a pure cauliflower flavor with a satiny texture, the perfect choice when you want a flavorful purée that's still restrained enough to let the other parts of your dinner do the talking—say, a beautiful roast chicken with a crackling brown skin and savory jus.

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Rich and Nutty Roasted-Cauliflower Purée.

For the other, I roasted the cauliflower first, bringing out deep, nutty flavors, then simmered it in liquid with aromatics before puréeing it all together. It has a much more complex flavor that I'd be inclined to give more of a starring role in a meal—say, as a bold accompaniment to a simple piece of protein, like steamed or poached fish or chicken. Alternatively, you could go all in on its more robust flavor, serving it with something that can stand up to it, like a thick, juicy steak with a deeply seared crust.

Whether you're making a puréed vegetable soup or a vegetable purée, here are the steps you'll need to take, along with explanations of what I chose to do for my two cauliflower purée recipes. (Technically, there are a couple more steps, like seasoning and garnishing. But since the former is pretty obvious, and the latter applies more to soup that's served on its own and not alongside other components of a dinner, I'm leaving them out here.)

Step 1: Prepare Your Main Ingredient

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For my cleaner, simpler purée, I just cut the cauliflower into florets and left them like that. For the roasted version, I tossed the florets in olive oil and roasted them in a hot, 500°F (260°C) oven, turning once, until well browned. This partially dehydrates the cauliflower, shrinking it down (which means that the purée will need less liquid later and the yield will be lower) and turning it rich and nutty.

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Step 2: Choose Your Aromatics

In both purées, I used just yellow onion and garlic, which both help create a depth of flavor without adding any very obvious flavors of their own. I left carrots out, since I didn't want their color and sweetness, and I also refrained from adding celery, which has a very particular flavor that can cut through in simple preparations like this.

Step 3: Sweat or Brown Your Aromatics

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For my simple purée, I sweated the onion and garlic in butter just until they were softened and starting to turn translucent. This yields a cleaner flavor that works well with the plain cauliflower. For the roasted-cauliflower purée, I let the onions and garlic turn lightly golden, bringing out more of their sweetness, richness, and complexity; still, I didn't want to brown them too deeply, since I wasn't looking for too intense of a sweetness.

Step 4: Add Second-Level Aromatics, Like Spices and Pastes

I kept things simple here, since, in both cases, I wanted the character of the cauliflower to be the real star. In both recipes, I added one sprig of thyme to the pot, just for some herbal notes, while in the roasted-cauliflower purée, I also added a pinch of cayenne pepper for a subtle heat—just enough to come across as a kind of warmth in your mouth, not as overt spiciness.

Step 5: Add Your Liquid

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You can really go any of a number of ways here. I tested both recipes with both cream and chicken stock, and all versions work. My own personal preference was for heavy cream in the simple purée, since its richness and lactose sweetness pair so well with the plain cauliflower flavor. A combination of stock and cream, though, was also delicious.

That combination was even more of a win in the roasted-cauliflower purée, where the savory meatiness of chicken stock is such a welcome component, while the creamy dairy adds a richness that just can't be beat.

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Still, in a pinch (or to make either of these vegan, in which case you'd need to also ditch the butter and use oil in its place), you could use vegetable stock or even water. You'll still get great results; maybe slightly less rich and complex, but not worse by any measure.

Step 6: Cook and Purée

To make puréeing easy, the cauliflower has to be simmered in the liquid long enough to be extremely tender, the timing of which will vary depending on whether it's been roasted first or not.

You also need to pay attention to the liquid level: Since you're making a purée and not soup, you don't want it to be as wet. In the roasted-cauliflower version, because the cauliflower loses moisture and shrinks during roasting, you'll need less liquid to cover it in the saucepan. That means you won't have to wait for the liquid to reduce further before puréeing; it should come out thick enough.

For the simple simmered purée, you'll need to add extra liquid to cover the cauliflower, but then cook it down enough that it won't be too thin after puréeing. It's hard to be precise about this, but the good news is it can always be adjusted later. I'd generally recommend erring on the side of too dry, since thinning is as easy as adding more liquid afterward, but even if it comes out too wet, you can always simmer it down further. I like to use a wide nonstick skillet for this, since the increased surface area will speed reduction and the nonstick surface is easier to clean of dried-on purée later.

As for puréeing it, you can either use a traditional blender or use an immersion blender right in the pot. As long as the cauliflower is cooked to the point of being extremely soft, you'll get an incredibly smooth, silky purée.

And that's all there is to it. Now take this soup-based roadmap and make it yours.

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