Why It Works
- Using ripe, in-season tomatoes bred for flavor rather than shape and shipping qualities yields the best gazpacho.
- Salting vegetables in advance draws out flavorful internal liquids, which are then used to soften the bread.
- Freezing and thawing the salted vegetables breaks down their cell structure further, which extracts more of their inherent flavor.
As anybody who's seen the best episode of The Simpsons ever knows, gazpacho is tomato soup, served ice cold,* right? Well, sort of. True, these days pretty much every gazpacho you find in restaurants stateside is made by puréeing tomatoes, cucumbers, peppers, onions, and garlic into a soup ranging from smooth to chunky, but that's not really what gazpacho is all about.
*I know, I know... Go back to Russia.
Here's what most people think when they hear the word:
But here is where gazpacho started:
That's right. Stale bread and olive oil. It's not quite clear exactly where the origins of gazpacho lie—some folks say it's the Moors, others the Romans—but one thing is certainly true: people had been eating versions of bread and olive oil soup in the Spanish region for centuries before the tomato even existed in Spain. These days, you'll find gazpacho of all flavors and makes, ranging from white gazpachos made of almonds and grapes, to the Andalusian classic made with tomatoes.
What's the point? you may ask. Who cares if the soup started as bread and olive oil base that then eventually got vegetables added to it? As long as it's delicious, who really cares where it came from?
Well, the reason I care is that all too often recipes for so-called "gazpachos," or those served in restaurants contain no bread or olive oil at all, turning them into nothing more than watered-down salsas. And sure, sometimes this can be tasty but I've never had a watered-down-salsa-gazpacho that can hold a candle to the creamy, smooth, intensely olive-oil flavored, rich-yet-refreshing Andalusian version.
Now, you may think making great gazpacho is as simple as throwing a bunch of vegetables, bread, and olive oil into the blender. If you have awesome vegetables, that's pretty much true. But there's a difference between great gazpacho and perfect gazpacho. It's the latter we're after.
Good Tomato, Bad Tomato: Ripeness and Flavor
First things first: vegetables. Andalusian gazpacho is typically made with a combination of tomatoes, peppers (I like green, you can use whatever color you'd like), onions (red onions offer the best balance of sweetness and flavor), garlic, and cucumber. Most of these are simple. It's the tomatoes that can prove a bit of a problem.
See, the thing is, a few decades ago, tomato farmers realized that more than anything else, the two things that compel a consumer to buy one tomato over another is ruby red color and perfectly spherical shape. Thus they've been hard at work getting tomatoes to look red and be round, completely ignoring something else in the breeding process, namely flavor.
Couple this with the fact that a perfectly ripe tomato is nearly impossible to ship because of its delicate flesh and skin, and you're in trouble. What we've got is a country full of relatively bland tomatoes that are picked while still completely green and hard, brought to market, then artificially ripened by being gassed with ethylene (that's a gas produced naturally by ripening fruits). It's no wonder supermarket tomatoes taste the way they do.
Your best bet for finding quality tomatoes is a) growing them yourself, or b) checking out your local farmers' market. I don't buy too far into the whole local/seasonal thing most of the time (cucumbers, for example, taste just about the same to me year-round, or even when they're just out of my own garden), but tomatoes are one vegetable that is simply not worth eating for most of the year.
Don't bother making gazpacho in the winter or spring.
With a Pinch of Salt: Unlocking Flavorful Juices with Osmosis
Once you've got the vegetables back in your kitchen, your goal is to extract as much flavor from them as possible. In order to do this, let's take a little closer look inside them, shall we?
Now, anyone who's taken third-grade science and looked through a microscope knows that vegetables are composed of cells. These cells have thick, pectin-strengthened walls and are filled mostly with water, along with pigments and flavorful compounds. While they're trapped inside the cell walls, we can't really smell or taste these compounds. Unfortunately, cells are tough characters, and the flavorful compounds are stuck tightly inside them.
Our goal: orchestrate a jailbreak and make sure that all that flavor comes out of the cells and into our noses and mouths where they belong.
Simple mechanical action (i.e. tossing everything into a blender) works pretty well. Many of the cells are ruptured, spilling out their contents, but not all of them. We can do better. Rather than simply trying to smash the cells apart to release their water (and thus their water-soluble flavor compounds), why don't we find a way to bring the water out to us? Salt is the key.
I chopped up identical batches of vegetables and placed them in bowls. One of them was left plain, while the other was tossed with a bit of kosher salt. Half an hour later, the picture above is what I saw. It's one of the most effective uses of salt, and it all has to do with a thing called osmosis.
Water is a fickle lover. Given the opportunity, it likes to spread itself around evenly. Normally, it sits around safely inside the vegetables' cells, keeping all those flavor compounds company. With no competition from the outside, it's content. But once we add a few salt molecules to the outside of the cell membrane, the water feels compelled to share itself with the salt as well. Water migrates out from inside the cell walls, bringing along some of those flavorful compounds for a salt-water-flavor threesome.
It's a pretty significant amount of liquid that comes out, all of it tasty. Indeed, in a blind side-by-side taste test between vegetables that had been salted for a half hour then blended with bread and olive oil vs. vegetables that were blended then salted afterward (I used the same amount of vegetables and salt in both), the salted-and-rested-then-blended vegetables were picked unanimously over the blended-then-salted version.
Better, but could we take this even further?
Breaking The Ice: Freezing and Thawing Ruptures Cellular Walls
One sure way to extract as much flavor as possible from a vegetable is to cook it. That process breaks down cell structure and releases most of the cells' contents. Unfortunately, cooking also triggers chemical reactions that drastically alter the flavor of vegetables. No matter what Lisa says, gazpacho is not simply tomato soup served cold—it's a raw tomato soup served cold.
But what if there were another way to rupture cells? The next thought that struck me came from my friend Aki and Alex over on the awesome blog Ideas In Food: Cryo-blanching, essentially a fancy-sounding word for freezing.
When they perform cryo-blanching, they vacuum seal vegetables in airtight bags before placing them in the freezer. The idea is that as ice forms inside the vegetables' cells, the sharp, jagged crystals end up rupturing and weakening the walls of the cells. What you end up with is a vegetable that's soft as if it's been cooked, but still retains its fresh, raw flavor. Why not use the same method to disrupt the cell structure of the vegetables for my gazpacho?
I gave it a shot. First, I salted my vegetables as usual, allowing liquid to be extracted. After, I placed the vegetables on a sheet tray and stuck them in the freezer until they were frozen. After thawing, sure enough, even more liquid came out of them; I ended up with nearly twice as much as the plain salted vegetables.
Now I know that you must have heard hundreds of times that you should never put a tomato in the refrigerator, much less the freezer. Tomatoes have some pretty soft-skinned enzymes that can be destroyed at low temperatures. These enzymes are responsible for catalyzing some of the ripening reactions that help the tomato develop its characteristic flavor. Additionally, chilling tomatoes can cause some of their cell walls to weaken.
For gazpacho, neither of these effects matters much. First off, we're starting with already-ripe tomatoes, so their flavor should already be fully developed. Subsequent freezing won't harm this. Secondly, we're puréeing them until completely blended anyway. We want their cells to weaken! (By the way, you may want to read up on our tomato-storage trials: these days, we do recommend storing ripe tomatoes in the fridge, or better yet, a wine cooler or cellar.)
Blending the cryo-blanched vegetables up along with their extracted juices proved to be the most flavorful batch of gazpacho yet.
As far as flavoring goes, feel free to add whatever you'd like. I like to keep mine simple, using a significant amount of olive oil (drizzling it in slowly while the soup spins in the blender helps keep it smooth and emulsified), a splash of sherry vinegar, and a sprinkling of black pepper and chives on the finished soup.
If you're into chunky versions, get some extra vegetables and cut them into fine dice then add them back to the finished soup. You'll get a much better texture than the standard blend-until-still-half-chunky method. The soup that results from that method always reminds me of a tomato Slurpee. Not too appetizing.
3 pounds (about 4 large) very ripe tomatoes, cored and cut into rough 1-inch chunks
1/2 pound (about 1 small) cucumber, peeled, seeded, and cut into rough 1-inch chunks
1/3 pound (about 1 small) red onion, peeled and cut into rough 1-inch chunks
1/3 pound (about 1 medium) green or red bell pepper, cored, seeded, and cut into rough 1-inch chunks
2 cloves garlic, peeled and smashed
1 1/2 teaspoons kosher salt, plus more to taste
4 ounces (about 2 slices) white sandwich, French, or Italian bread, crusts removed, torn into rough 1-inch pieces (see notes)
1 cup extra-virgin olive oil, plus more for serving
2 tablespoons sherry vinegar, plus more for serving
2 tablespoons finely minced chives
Freshly ground black pepper
Combine tomatoes, cucumber, onion, pepper, garlic, and salt in a large bowl and toss to coat thoroughly. Let sit at room temperature for 30 minutes. Drain juices into a large bowl and add the bread. Transfer the drained vegetables to a rimmed baking sheet and place in freezer until vegetables are frozen, about 30 minutes.
Remove vegetables from freezer and allow to sit at room temperature until mostly thawed, about 30 minutes. Transfer vegetables and all their juices from the pan to bowl with soaked bread.
Working in 2 batches as necessary, blend vegetables, juice, and bread at high speed, slowly drizzling olive oil and sherry vinegar into blender as it blends. Strain soup through a fine-mesh strainer into a large bowl. Season to taste with salt and black pepper. Serve, drizzling each bowl with olive oil, a few sprinkles of sherry vinegar, extra cracked black pepper, and chives. Gazpacho can be stored in an airtight container in the refrigerator for up to 3 days.
Use only the ripest tomatoes.
Don't use a bread that's too flavorful (no sourdough, for example) or rough. You want it to soften and blend into the soup completely.
You can serve the soup as is with a drizzle of olive oil, sherry vinegar, and a sprinkle of chives and ground black pepper, or you can add a few diced vegetables back to the smooth base for texture.
|Nutrition Facts (per serving)|
|Amount per serving|
|% Daily Value*|
|Total Fat 37g||48%|
|Saturated Fat 5g||25%|
|Total Carbohydrate 23g||8%|
|Dietary Fiber 4g||15%|
|Total Sugars 9g|
|Vitamin C 66mg||330%|
|*The % Daily Value (DV) tells you how much a nutrient in a food serving contributes to a daily diet. 2,000 calories a day is used for general nutrition advice.|