Why It Works
- Adding a tiny amount of cornstarch to the liquid helps keep the emulsion of fat and water stable by creating viscosity and physically impeding fat and water molecules from bunching up together.
- Incorporate the cornstarch by forming 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.
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 emulsifies 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 beast 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 on 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.
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.
3 pounds carrots, peeled and cut into 1/2-inch disks on the bias, or faux tourné (see method here)
One 1-inch piece ginger, peeled and cut into julienne (see method here)
4 sprigs fresh thyme
2 cups low-sodium chicken broth
4 tablespoons unsalted butter
3 tablespoons granulated sugar
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
1/2 teaspoon cornstarch
1 teaspoon fresh lemon juice
Combine carrots, ginger, thyme, chicken broth, butter, sugar, 1 teaspoon salt, and a few grinds black pepper in a 12-inch straight-sided sautée pan or Dutch oven and place over high heat. When liquid boils, cover and cook, stirring occasionally, until carrots are almost completely tender (carrots should give very little resistance when poked with a cake tester or knife), about 10 minutes. If liquid drops to below 1/2-inch during cooking, top up with a cup of hot water.
Remove lid and continue cooking carrots at a rapid boil. Combine cornstarch with 1 teaspoon water in a small bowl and stir with a fork until homogenous. Pour cornstarch mixture into carrots and stir to combine. Continue cooking until sauce is reduced to a syrupy glaze. Pick out thyme sprigs and discard. Off heat, add lemon juice and stir to combine. Season to taste with more salt and pepper. Transfer to a serving dish and serve.
Feel free to vary the flavorings as desired. Omit ginger and thyme and replace with other herbs or spices (orange zest works well, as does star anise, fennel, chiles, etc.).
If carrots sit in the pan for too long after cooking, there's a chance the liquid will over-reduce and thicken or break. If this occurs, add a few tablespoons of hot water and stir to combine. The sauce should come back together to the right consistency.
|Nutrition Facts (per serving)|
|Servings: 8 to 12|
|Amount per serving|
|% Daily Value*|
|Total Fat 4g||6%|
|Saturated Fat 2g||12%|
|Total Carbohydrate 13g||5%|
|Dietary Fiber 3g||12%|
|Total Sugars 7g|
|Vitamin C 4mg||22%|
|*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.|