The Art of Sweating Vegetables

One cooking technique that I rarely utilized in the kitchen until recent years is sweating. With all the attention sauteing gets, and the natural satisfaction of hearing things sizzle rapidly in your pan, I suppose that’s not a surprise.

But there are distinct advantages to sweating that you simply cannot get with a saute. First, let’s define what we actually mean by sweating for the benefit of those new to cooking.

To sweat vegetables means to pan-cook them with a fat (usually oil or butter) over low to medium heat in a way that doesn’t produce browning.

In other words, slow and steady is the name of the game, rather than the high-speed approach of sauteing. Why do we call it sweating? As vegetables cook over slow heat, moisture begins to draw out from their bodies, which makes them look moist and sweaty. What’s actually happening is that their tough structures are beginning to break down, and their flavors develop and combine.

Sweating is most often used as a first step for many recipies, such as soups, sauces, stews, and others where the vegetables will continue to cook through some other process later. It allows the vegetables to soften and being their cooking process without over-cooking them, and brings out their flavor in a way that simply being thrown into the cooking process at other stages of the work wouldn’t have done.

How to Sweat Vegetables

Unlike making your body sweat, which happens automagically, sweating your veggies will take a bit of work–but don’t worry, it’s really simple if you pay attention to your pan carefully.

Here’s a quick overview of sweating:

  1. Chop up your vegetables into nice, even pieces, so that they will cook evenly. A dice or small slice works best, depending on the final output you need.
  2. Find a nice, wide skillet or pan that will hold your vegetables in a narrow layer. If you have a lot of volume to sweat, you might need to do it in batches.
  3. Start your pan on medium-low heat and add oil. I use olive oil and throw down about 1-2 tablespoons for a typical sweat.
  4. Place your veggies inside the pan and stir around to coat them evenly with oil. For a few minutes, it might seem like nothing is happening–resist the temptation to crank the heat!
  5. If your heat is right, you’ll first observe a soft aroma (if you’re cooking onions, for example), and then a gentle sizzle at the bottom of the pan. The sizzle is key to holding the right temperature–you want just a hint of a sizzle and nothing more.
  6. Stir frequently, since heat will be reluctant to move up the food.
  7. Use your eyes as a guide for being finished–foods should turn translucent. If I’m cooking a lot of opaque foods (carrots, etc.), I use 10 minutes as a good time guide.

That’s really all there is to it–a simple and effective method for preparing vegetables that doesn’t take a lot of time, but can produce a big difference in the flavor of your final product. Enjoy!

Photo by tsakshaug