The Food Lab: This Creamy, Cheesy Brussels Sprouts Gratin Just Might Be the Side Dish of Your Dreams

The Food Lab

Unraveling the mysteries of home cooking through science.

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Go over-the-top with these extra-creamy, flavor-packed Brussels sprouts gratin. [Photographs: J. Kenji López-Alt]

There are times for subtlety and restraint. Talking to your wife about those used cups you keep finding in the sink. Telling a PR person who has pitched you the same stupid Thanksgiving story for the umpteenth time that it's not them, it's you, but please go away. Adding vermouth to your dry martini.

Thanksgiving is not one of these times. If there's ever been a time to gussy up your excess with a hint of self-indulgence and hedonism this is it. It's an excuse to cook a recipe that contains not just bacon, but bacon cooked in butter with some heavy cream and a cheesy crust thrown into the mix.

Brussels sprouts have come a long way in the days since they were boiled to a stinky, cabbage-y death or, worse, popped out of a can onto the Thanksgiving table. Though they'll never replace stuffing as my favorite Thanksgiving side dish, they still manage to completely disappear from my family's table before anything else even comes close. I blame this phenomenon in large part to the better ways in which we've taken to cooking them.

Rapid, high-heat cooking has been a game-changer for me—it's a technique that consistently delivers those nutty, sweet, charred edges. It's a technique I've used for everything from plain, roasted sprouts to roasted Brussels with shallots and balsamic vinegar, not to mention deep-fried Brussels sprouts (my personal favorite) and sprouts seared with bacon or chorizo.

But what if I told you that there's an even better way to cook Brussels sprouts? One that forgoes that quick cooking in lieu of extra-richness and flavor? A method that not only delivers decadently delicious results, but can be made 100% ahead of time with just a short stay in the oven prior to serving?

This year, I'm planning on braising my Brussels sprouts in a creamy, cheesy gratin. I hope you'll consider doing the same. Here's how.

Step 1: The Porcine Pleasures

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Like Bert and Ernie, or homemade pickles and dudes with mustaches, Brussels sprouts and cured pork are a combo so classic that it's tough to even imagine a world in which they don't come hand in hand. I like to start this recipe with bacon—about a half pound for every two and a half pounds of sprouts—but other cured pork like salami, chorizo, pancetta, or keilbasa would do nicely as well.

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I told you we were frying that bacon in butter, didn't I? I wasn't kidding. Cook the bacon down in butter until it starts to deposit nice browned bits onto the bottom of the pan.

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That's just about what you're looking for. Unlike quick-cooking Brussels sprouts recipes, where you brown the sprouts deeply and rapidly, this recipe requires a slower layering approach, adding flavor at each step before letting it all simmer together.

Step 2: About Sprouts

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With the bacon browned, it's time to add the sprouts. Look for sprouts with really tight, dense heads, the smaller the better. If you manage to find really pint-sized guys (think: the size of a dime or less), then you can leave them whole. Otherwise, you'll want to split them in half or into quarters.

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Though there's no real deep browning going on here, but don't worry about the extra sweetness and smokiness that usually brings. Your sprouts should still pick up plenty of those flavors as you stir them around the pan and dislodge some of the browned bacon bits from the bottom.

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The only other major flavoring they need is a little bit of minced shallot, which I add at the very end and stir around until it's just softened and aromatic.

Step 3: Cream Dreams

Now's where things start to get extra-decadent. Butter and bacon fat not good enough for you? Then oh, how about a couple cups of cream?

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Into the pot it goes. For the record, if you want to keep things ultra simple, simmering Brussels sprouts in plain cream is about as easy as it gets and will lead you to similarly licentious end results. Thought not quite as licentious.

Once the cream hits the pan and you scrape up all remaining browned bits, It's time for a slow simmer.

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As the cream slowly reduces, the Brussels sprouts should soften and the whole thing should transform from a loose soup with distinct elements into a creamy sauce that binds everything together. It's time for salt and pepper.

Step 4: Getting Cheesy

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Once again, we could call it a day right here and serve these bad boys as-is, but what is decadence without a bit of intemperance thrown on top?

For the record, I like my intemperance in the form of cheese. Gooey, melty, bubbly, browned cheese.

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A nice layer of a good melting cheese like Fontina, Gruyère, or Comté is where it's at. If you've gotten this far, you can feel free to take a break. Cover up the casserole, refrigerate it, and it'll be ready to bake when you are.

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A short stay in the oven—just until it becomes irresistibly browned and bubbly—and we're ready to eat, and what fine eating it is.

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Extra cream, bacon, butter, and cheese? Don't worry! Brussels sprouts are such a virtuous, healthy vegetable that you can afford all that extra fat. At least for today.