Engineering the roasted vegetable

A few weeks ago I was admiring a deep roasting pan of chopped bell peppers, sliced onions and baby bella mushrooms on its way into my hot oven, to be roasted–at least I imagined–to the perfect burnished caramelization that I’d come to expect of roasted root and cruciferous–of the brassica persuasion–veggies.

Like the batch of shishito peppers that preceded it, drizzled with a bit of extra virgin olive oil, a squeeze of lemon juice and sprinkled with garlic powder. Yum!

Of course, I quickly got over my naive enthusiasm as the clock ticked away the minutes while I watched in dismay as my prepped veggies slowly cooked into a mushy death in the hot hell of the oven. Dreams of pairing these veggies with my mesquite smoked chicken breast and cajun spiced smoked pork belly evaporated.

I’d forgotten the lessons I previously learned in achieving the color, texture and taste that I’d come to love of roasted al dente veggies, especially after figuring out how to produce perfectly crisp and tender cauliflower florets.

  1. High heat: To achieve crispness and browning on the outside and tenderness on the inside, roast at minimum temperatures of 400F. As you approach 500F, you will need to keep a watchful eye to make sure you don’t burn the veggies to a crisp.
  2. Air dry: After rinsing vegetables before chopping and slicing, be sure to let them air dry completely. This is especially valid when batch roasting veggies, where moisture risks getting trapped in pockets, steaming the veggies instead of roasting.
  3. Cut/chop/slice and space evenly: Denser vegetables, especially root veggies, do well when the pieces are relatively equal size, 1-2″ chunks. Veggies that contain more water or whose cell walls collapse (soften) sooner under high heat will do better if cut into larger wedges…or are better suited to a cast iron sear or flame grilling. Achieve more “even” cooking if veggies have more “air space” around them, especially leafy veggies.
  4. Salt after: Seasoning with salt releases water while cooking. Soft-walled vegetables are particularly vulnerable.  Use a pinch or omit salt completely when seasoning veggies going straight into the oven. After all, salt can always be added AFTER the cook.

Follow these basic lessons, and you’re almost always going to achieve lovely roasted tender-crisp veggies. There are other aspects to successful vegetable roasting–such as cookware and storage–but that’s the subject of another post. There are many more internet articles on this topic if you’re looking to refine your technique.

That’s not to say that soft, mushy roast veggies don’t have a purpose. Roasted garlic and onions can be pureed and make a terrific base for a savory broth or soup!

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