Treat Your Veggies Like Meat

Text and photos by Emily Stephenson

The best cooking tip I’ve been lucky enough to ever receive came from a pastry chef, who has been a nearly life-long vegetarian. Strangely, this technique involves meat and not dessert.

I was eating dinner at her home, which included the most delicious roasted vegetables; I asked how she does it. Her elegant answer: “I’ve never understood why people don’t treat vegetables like meat.” After prodding for elaboration, I got the secret: get your pan screaming hot before adding anything to it.

A nice, browned, crisp sear is one of the best parts of eating meat, vegetables, bread, and pretty much anything else. This browning is known as the Maillard reaction that happens between amino acids and sugar as they are heated. Science was never my strong subject in school, so you can find more comprehensive explanations here or here or in Harold McGee’s excellent On Food and Cooking. The important thing to know is that browning and caramelization—the process that forms a crust—is what makes cooked food taste great.

When cooking meat, searing the outside is a crucial step (whether you do this first or last is an entirely different debate). You have to be patient and get your pan, grill, or broiler as hot as possible. Have you ever put a steak in a lukewarm pan? If so, it’s a mistake you only make once. The low temperature can even steam the food, which is the opposite of what you want. It only leads to disappointment.

So why put your chopped vegetables in a cold pan and stick in the oven? Why deny yourself even more caramelized, browned sides of potatoes, beets, or even asparagus? Why have mediocre roasted vegetables when you can have sublime roasted vegetables? (Have I made my case yet?)

Once you’ve seen the light, there’s the one two-second step that makes all the difference: As soon as you turn on your oven—425° to 450° is best for roasting most—stick a sheet pan or two in to heat up with the oven. After you’ve done that, proceed with cleaning, peeling, chopping, and whatever you need to do to get the vegetables ready. By the time the oven is up to temperature, your pan will be “ripping” (as chefs like to say), and when you spread the chopped vegetables into the pan, you’ll hear the very satisfying sound of searing. Then continue to roast the vegetables as you normally would: undisturbed for 20 to 25 minutes, then start checking and when the crust forms and the vegetables release from the pan, stirring every 10 minutes until they are roasted to your satisfaction.

Last weekend, I proved my friend’s theory. I found some very adorable fingerling sweet potatoes at the market. After dutifully heating my pan, I dumped the halved potatoes on, and quickly used my jumbo tweezers (pictured) to turn the cut surface down on each piece. They were exquisite.

Posted in Produce

26 Comments

  1. BG said...

    I love roasting vegetables, but never heard of this method. I can’t wait to try it. Thanks for sharing!

  2. vcragain said...

    I assume you do not put the pan into the oven WITH oil on it ? – I would think that might cause the oil to catch alight at that high temp ???? I am seeing this as putting a dry pan into the oven, get it hot, then put OILED veggies into the pan ? Could you elaborate on that step please ? Thank you !

    • Emily Stephenson said...

      You are correct. Mix the vegetables, oil, salt, and pepper in a bowl and add to the pan when it’s hot. You want a screaming hot DRY pan. Thank you for pointing that out!

      • Fiona Binning said...

        I find heating the oil is fine – I do this when roasting potatoes. (Just be careful not to splash the hot oil when you put your veggies in! 🙂
        I’ve never used this method for other vegetables though…I’ll definitely be giving it a try. Thanks!

      • Margaret Mason said...

        Does this method work with parchment paper lining the pan?

        • Emily Stephenson said...

          I wouldn’t recommend parchment. But if the vegetables have enough time to develop a good crust, there shouldn’t be too much cleanup beyond oil, since nothing will stick to the pan.

          • Jen said...

            What about foil?

          • Emily Stephenson said...

            I haven’t tried it!

  3. Krupa Parekh said...

    We are all vegetarians here in India and we always brown our stuff. Try out samosas if you can!

  4. Charles said...

    My baking pan warps at high temperature. Any advice on what type of pans to get?

    • Emily Stephenson said...

      For this type of cooking, warping doesn’t matter. You’ll still have a flat surface to sear the vegetables. But a good, sturdy, stainless steel rimmed baking sheet is best.

  5. Garden said...

    I preheat my biggest cast iron skillet and when its really hot, add my veggies. They cook in much less time…so just be watchful.

  6. Duncan Thistlethwaite said...

    Set the oven to 500 degrees. Cut your veggies in same-size chunks. Put them in a large bowl and douse with high-quality olive oil. Toss. Then season with salt, pepper, cayenne or one of the many seasonings such as Tony Chachere’s. Toss again. Put into a pan or pans lined with parchment. Bake until seared and delicious: 20-40 minutes, depending.

  7. Omigy said...

    Brilliant. We roast vegetables all the time and always look for new methods to do so. Never heard about this method and I shall get onto apply it in our future roasting methods. thanks a lot.

  8. Anne Wittenberg said...

    Where did you get the jumbo tweezers? I usually have trouble turning roasting veggies and they cool down while I’m working on them. I’ve never gotten the “give them a quick shake” to work.

  9. Cara O'Sullivan said...

    would an air fryer achieve the same effect?

    • Emily Stephenson said...

      I’m not sure, I don’t have one! But if you try it let me know.

  10. matt said...

    I have a large oven that takes ages to get up to temp. When I want roasted veg that is nicely browned I will often use the broiler, not the oven. Roasted veg in 15minutes, and great browning.

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