Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Blanching 101

By Lauren Rauh

Though it is an extra step, blanching can be a time saver and can take your cooking up a notch, in taste, nutrition, and aesthetics. Blanching involves quickly cooking vegetables and then shocking them in an ice bath to stop the cooking. This preserves in flavor, nutrients, and color. Blanching can also take out some of the bitterness of vegetables like broccoli rabe.  If you are preparing a dish, for example, that involves a long slow roast in the oven, you can save time by blanching the ingredients first to reduce the overall cooking time.

The first step is to get a big pot of water on the stove to boil. When you add the vegetables to the water the temperature of the water will reduce, if there is a lot of water in relation to the amount of vegetables the temperature will remain high. So a lot of water is important.

While the water is heating, clean and cut your vegetables. Heavily salt your water. (to the tune of 1-2 tsps of salt per qt. of water)  This is an important step since it will contribute greatly to the seasoning of your final dish. To test the seasoning, you just taste the water. If it's salty, your good.

Now set up your ice bath. Take a big bowl or pot and fill it with ice and very cold water. If you can, place something like a colander or steamer basket in the bath for easy vegetable removal. Restaurants are usually equipped with great tools that make blanching super easy, like wire baskets to sit in the ice bath and "spiders " (circles of wire mesh with handles) to remove the vegetables from the boiling water. I don't have either of these at home.

When the water comes to a full boil add your vegetables all at once. The amount of time you choose to cook your vegetables depends on what you will do next to prepare the dish. If you are planning on further cooking the veggies, say in a saute, then you should keep the blanching time to about one to two minutes tops to prevent overcooking. If the vegetables are to be served at room temperature or cold you will want to blanch them just to the desired tenderness. (usually, still with good vegetable texture, but no raw crunch) It's a good idea to pull a piece of vegetable out of the water and test it for tenderness with a fork or your teeth.

The Brussels sprouts took about three minutes. Also the smaller or thinner the vegetable, the less time it will need the boiling water. Haricort vert, for example, only need a minute or two, where as asparagus will need to cook for three or more minutes depending on thickness. Another determinate of "doneness" is the color of the vegetable. Ideally, blanched veggies should be bright and saturated with color; if they start to go brown or gray they have boiled too long.

Once the veggies are cooked enough, you must transfer them from the boiling water to the ice bath as quickly as possible. With few tools at hand, I used a pasta scoop.

Once all the vegetables are in the ice bath, they should remain there for the same amount of time that they were in the boiling water. It's up to you what to do next with your beautiful, bright, seasoned, and crisp vegetables.

Blanching is also an important step in preserving vegetables. If you went a little too crazy at the farmers market and you worry that your produce will spoil before you can cook it all, blanch off some vegetables, dry off or squeeze out any excess water and freeze those babies in zip lock bags!
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