CookingLight diet CookingLight diet
Photo: Jennifer Causey

Here's why you should give crunchy veggies a break.

Joy Manning
September 05, 2018

I like a crisp green bean or firm broccoli floret as much as the next person. At some point, though, “almost raw” became, in the eyes of many food writers and chefs, the only correct way to cook your vegetables. As a result, we home cooks set timers and start checking for doneness the minute a piece of produce touches heat because only “al dente” will do. But did you ever think about what this obsession with crunchy, barely-cooked vegetables costs us?

I’ll tell you: Luscious, olive-oil scented broccoli so tender it melts into a sauce when you toss it with pasta and a bit of the starchy pasta cooking liquid. Green beans whose depth of flavor unfolds as they are slowly braised with tomatoes. Zucchini that takes on the texture of butter and turns into a creamy, garlicky spread to be slathered thickly on slices of sourdough.

And this is to say nothing of the wide world of stuffed vegetables, filled with grains, nuts, ground meat, cheese, and herbs, then braised at a leisurely pace in your Dutch oven or, alternatively, rendered tender quickly via the magic of the Instant Pot.

Think of your grandmother's stuffed peppers, if you are lucky enough to have had one who made them, and how the beef-rice mixture practically fused with the softly wrinkled bell pepper, whose savor and sweetness got turned up to 11 during a long, foil-lidded nap in the oven.

The modern aversion to thoroughly-cooked vegetables is a vestige of home cooking habits gone by, a reaction against the waterlogged frozen veggie sides many of our mothers microwaved in the 80s and 90s. Now the pendulum has swung too far in the other direction. There’s a difference between frozen Brussels sprouts microwaved to the point of turning gray and fresh Brussels sprouts glazed with olive oil and roasted to the point of turning soft and golden.

Another factor that stands in the way of longer-cooked veggies is our fixation with speed. Fifteen-minute dinners don’t allow time for coaxing the maximum range of flavor and custardy texture from eggplant or cooking red peppers to the pinnacle of their inherent sweetness.

When it comes to meaty dishes like pot roast or pork shoulder, we suddenly have all the time in the world; our tolerance for slow food seems to expand to the time it takes. We readily embrace that classic mantra of barbecue: “slow and low.” If you can borrow that mindset when it comes to vegetables, at least some of the time, you’ll reap the rewards and have a broader array of flavors and textures at your disposal.

A longer cooking time imparts two attributes that a flash steam or speedy sauté can’t touch. First and foremost, there’s tenderness. The soft, silky quality that some patience can get you is worth the wait. Prolonged exposure to heat will also lead to flavor concentration and allow the vegetables’ natural sugars to caramelize, yielding a sweeter, more complex dish.

When it comes to recipes that are more than the sum of their parts, such as veggie-rich soups and stews, extra time encourages the magic of flavor melding. During a long simmer, alliums like garlic, onions, or leeks completely seduce their pot-mates, turning blander ingredients like squash or carrots into their best selves. Salt and spices bloom and permeate, bringing elements into a seamless whole.

You already know this from the few vegetables it’s universally permissible to stew into submission. Think of the allure of caramelized onions, braised leeks, or collard greens simmered with pork. The same sound principles can and should be applied to cabbage, Brussels sprouts, parsnips, and more.

Listen, I would never suggest you quit quickly cooking vegetables. It’s the right thing to do a lot of the time. There’s no doubt that when a vegetable that was meant to snap sags on your fork, it’s sad. But make room in your food life for the produce world’s softer side, too. It adds variety and textural contrast to your home cooking, especially as summer turns into fall.

It’s a fast-paced world, but taking it slow for a change can help you out of a or stir-fry rut and make you fall in love with vegetables all over again.