Farmers’ markets around the country are bursting with local fruits and vegetables (or maybe it’s your own garden that’s bursting) and people are trying to use them up before things start fermenting on the vine. If you’re anything like me, you drive home with a car full of vegetables and have no idea what to do with them, or you make a salad.
And, again if you’re anything like me, you grew up eating boiled vegetables. Boiled soft cabbage, boiled flavorless broccoli, wet carrots, mushy beans, and so on. I’ve written before about cooking methods, blanching, and vegetable alternatives, but here’s an entire post dedicated to just one method:
We’ll talk about what roasting is, the benefits of roasting vegetables, how to roast your summer produce, using roasted vegetables in other recipes, and I’ll not only provide a lengthy list of delectable roasted vegetable recipes, but I’ll also give you the simplest, most pared-down roasted vegetable recipe that you can adapt to anything you want!
What is Roasting?
Roasting is, at its simplest, cooking something thoroughly using high, dry heat, and indirect flame, on all sides. It is most often done in the oven and closely resembles baking. Generally, roasting is a high-and-slow cooking method: you use heat above 350 F and cook for at least half an hour, give or take a few degrees and a few minutes.
“Slow roasting,” on the other hand, is the low-and-slow version of the same thing: you use a lower heat and often a much longer cooking time. “Slow-roasting” is similar to braising and slow cooking.
The high heat causes browning and activates the Maillard reaction (see below), without drying out the food. When you roast meat, you almost always want to add liquid to prevent the meat from getting tough and dry, but with vegetables, you don’t have to worry about that. Vegetables generally have no protein and therefore they won’t dry out (they will burn to a crisp, though, if you aren’t careful.) The goal with roasting is to soften what’s hard and to sweeten what’s bitter.
Unlike with sautéing, where you’re trying to get softness and a gentle brown, with roasting you want charring, coloring, and crisping. Additionally, unlike with searing, broiling, and grilling, which cook one side of the food (or one side at a time), roasting cooks the entire surface of your food simultaneously.
Simply put, roasting is halfway between sautéing and grilling, and it uses the oven, rather than the stove or grill.
Who is Maillard and what kind of reaction is he having?
The Maillard (pronounced like “my yar(d)” without the “d”) reactions were discovered by the French chemist, Louis-Camille Maillard, in 1912, while he was trying to synthesize proteins from amino acids.
For a really serious, in-depth exploration of the Maillard reactions, skim through this Serious Eats article.
Simply put, the Maillard reactions are a whole host of chemical reactions that happen in food, but the two most common are those that happen to sugar and protein when you expose them to heat: they turn brown. The flavors, aromas, and colors transform, foods become sweeter, and nutrients more digestible.
Of the benefits, there are also two that stand out: the brownness of the food signals to us on a primal level that the stuff in the food is now easily digestible and will provide a slew of useful calories, while assuring us that the food has been sanitized via cooking. By looking at seared steak, roasted cauliflower, or anything else browned, we know that 1) anything toxic or deadly has been annihilated by heat, and 2) difficult-to-process nutrients will now digest more easily and fully.
Why You Should Roast Your Summer Vegetables
Roasting, like grilling, is one of the best ways to really highlight produce’s flavor without taking away any of the good stuff. In other words, it’s healthy. Because good produce already has so much flavor, you barely even need to add anything to it when roasting (except salt, as I discuss below.) Roasting is “clean” in the sense of “clean eating,” as well.
Unlike older methods of preparing vegetables (steamed, boiled, or raw in salads), roasting illuminates aromas and flavors with which most of us are unfamiliar, and therefore it makes produce more interesting. Imagine if you’re vegetarian, and you’re tired of salads and crudités, you could make a whole meal of roasted, grilled, and glazed fruits or vegetables!
Additionally, roasting is a perfect method for making odd ingredients star-potential: Do you ever have shallots as a main course? Try roasting them and serving with a sweet aioli or vinaigrette! Roasting really lets you tap into your creativity.
And finally: when you combine roasted produce with other flavors and ingredients, you take your cooking to a new level. What about roasted garlic aioli instead of traditional aioli? Or an appetizer of manchego cheese with slices of roasted bell peppers? The possibilities for new combinations are endless, and exciting.
In sum, roasting is clean, healthy, flavorful, creative, and sometimes even surprising!
Tips for Roasting Summer Vegetables
Whole books can be written about roasting, because the method you choose depends on the food, but fortunately for our purposes today, vegetables are super simple and straightforward. If or when someone choose to write about roasting meat, though, then that will be a whole different story.
Here are 11 tips for roasting vegetables:
- Use a medium-high heat, 350 – 450 F. Lower temperature means softer food, while higher temperature means crispier food.
- Roasting will take around half an hour, depending on the size of the vegetable pieces and the temperature you choose.
- Roasting delicate things like lettuce should take about half of that time, though.
- Don’t be afraid of color. When it comes to food, Americans as a whole have learned that brown means burnt. You can see this in our breads, croissants, pie crusts, steaks, etc. However, as I mentioned above with Maillard reactions, brown on your food is not only good, but desired. As long as you’re not eating pure charcoal, charring and browning are what you want. In fact, you can use the color as an easy indicator of doneness, and you won’t have to worry about fork-testing, thermometers, or timers.
- Roasting really aims to feature the vegetable’s natural flavors, so you don’t even need to add more.
- However, if you do want to add other flavors, be generous with them! Don’t shy away from the honey, lemon, garlic, mustard, etc.
- Salt is your friend (unless you have a medical issue that makes it your enemy) and will do things for your food that nothing else can. Add salt and pepper liberally.
- You need some oil but not a lot. A thin coating on the pan is okay but don’t let your vegetables go swimming in it. The two best methods are tossing vegetables in oil in a bowl, then transferring them to the pan without the excess, or lightly drizzling oil in a zig-zag over the vegetables in the pan.
- Ideally, your vegetables should be in one layer in the pan and not crowded, so air can circulate all around. A heavy cookie sheet or wide baking/roasting dish are great for roasting.
- You don’t need to shake, flip, or toss vegetables in the pan, but you should if you can, halfway through the roasting time. This is mostly useful for preventing them from sticking (even with oil, food will sometimes stick to things.)
- And finally: set it and forget it. Put your dish in the oven and trust it to develop on its own. They say a watched pot never boils, but I say a watched roasting pan gets irritated and annoyed.
A Super Simple Roasted Veggie Recipe
Here I present a template recipe for roasting vegetables, a basic skeleton into which you can insert any type of vegetable you want, mix up some ingredients, and produce a simple, yet elegant appetizer, side dish, or main vegetable for a summer dinner!
4 servings of a vegetable of your choosing
about 1/4 of a cup of olive oil (or really any other oil, regardless of smoke point)
a hefty (hefty) pinch of coarse salt (get something good, not table salt)
black pepper (crushed or in a pepper mill)
Preheat the oven to 375 – 450 F. Higher heat means darker color, faster cooking, and less softening. Lower heat means more softening, longer cooking, less color. For leaves and beans, the lower heat is better. For everything else, blast it.
Drizzle half of the oil over a baking sheet or roasting dish.
Prepare the vegetable however you want (washing, rinsing, trimming, etc.), cutting it into either large pieces or large-ish chunks. Eg., just larger than bite-sized for potatoes, halved for leeks, 4 inches long for scallions, etc.
Arrange the vegetable on top of the oil in a single layer, and drizzle with the rest of the oil.
Sprinkle liberally with salt and pepper.
Roast for 15 – 45 minutes, flipping at least once, depending on the vegetable. Leaves and beans roast more quickly (15 minutes) and everything else will be closer to half an hour.
Recipes for Roasting Local Summer Vegetables
1. Leafy Greens
2. Roots and Tubers
3. Beans and Legumes
4. Flower Vegetables
5. Bulbs and Stems