The Importance of Knowing How to Sweat Vegetables
Sweating is supposed to be something we do when we play sports. What in the world does it have to do with cooking?
Actually, there is somewhat of a parallel. When a person begins to exert themselves and their body temperature begins to go up, we sweat. Sweating is our body’s defense to overheating. Likewise, when we put some diced vegetables into a pan with a little oil and begin to cook them, moisture rises to the cut surfaces, making the vegetables look like they are sweating.
A sweat is similar to a sauté in that the goal is to cook small, uniform pieces of food in an open pan in a small amount of fat. The difference between the two techniques lies in the temperature.
A sauté should be done over medium-high to high heat, and the goal is to cook quickly while browning the food. While a sauté can produce a finished meal, a sweat is almost always a preliminary step in a longer cooking method.
Why? Because in a sweat, you don’t want the food to brown, and we all know that that golden brown color of the Maillard reactions mean great flavor.
So, what is the point of sweating then, if it’s only a preliminary step? Is it really necessary at all? In my opinion, the answer is “Yes.”
In cooking, we take the time to sweat aromatics—onions, carrots, celery, garlic, shallots, etc—before adding other ingredients in order to start building flavors. Most aromatics are pretty crunchy when they are raw. This translates into strong cell walls.
Sweating helps to draw out moisture from the aromatics and weaken and soften the cell walls. Once the aromatics are translucent, which is easiest to see in the onions, you can add more ingredients and continue with the recipe knowing that you’ve given the aromatics a head start in cooking and drawing out flavors.
Steps to Sweating Vegetables
- Dice or chop onions, carrots and celery to roughly ¼” pieces. The more uniform your pieces, the more evenly they will cook, so dicing is preferable to chopping.
- Mince garlic and/or shallot.
- Heat a pan over medium low heat until hot.
- Add a small amount of oil (no more than 2 tablespoons) to the pan and swirl to coat.
- Let the oil heat for a few seconds.
- Add the diced vegetables to the pan along with a healthy pinch of salt. The salt will help to draw out water from the vegetables.
- Adjust the heat so you can only hear a gentle sizzle. You should not hear loud sizzling or popping, if you do, turn down the heat to maintain the gentle sizzle.
- Stir the food frequently—remember, you don’t want to brown the food, so keep it moving.
- Add the minced garlic and/or shallot (if using), and continue to cook and stir.
- Once the vegetables are softened and translucent, about five to ten minutes, you are finished with the sweat and can then continue with the recipe.
Know it all
Sweating is another cooking fallacy. If you are cooking something for a long period of time such as stew or soup. There is no need to sweat vegetables. Throw them in the pot.
How about spaghetti then? Sweat the onions, garlic and peppers with a bit of oil and some salt and pepper, and let the mushrooms soften up in some butter, allowing the flavors to blend and sweeten up, or just dump them in the pot with the sauce? I tried both and it's way better to take the five minutes and sweat down the veg first. Otherwise you miss the melllow sweetness that adds depth and dimension to the sauce.
well said poutine. i always sweat when adding vegetables to pasta sauce. not doing so makes for a weaker sauce. and chopped garlic should always sweat in oil prior to meat, sauce, etc to flavor the oil prior to cooking the main course.
I thought maybe your comment, 'Know It All' was a fallacy. You can throw it all in the pot ie: brkfst lunch and supper if you like but the object here is to discuss the art and craft of cooking as in to sweat or not to sweat - and I prefer to.
Thanks for the scientific explanation Stephen
What about if I want them in an omelet?
Not if you want to soften and flavor them up for a puree'.
Thank you for this explanation. I always sweat my vegetables before putting them in my soups, chili and stews. I didn't know why, I just did it. Now I know why I do it.
Another good way to sweat the veggies, especially garlic, score the veggies, if garlic with/without the skin, place in a small pan, oven safe of course, place the heat to a low setting, temp depends on what you still may have to prep still. And wait until the desired softness use juice and all, perfect for a quick marinade or even long processes.
Tim Maher-De Troyer
You don't mention two things that I find really useful. Unsalted butter rather than oil because of residues and using a lid to keep things like onions clear. You can also use a little white wine as a moisturiser.
The Reluctant Gourmet
Hi Tim, thank you for your comments. I have always sweated my vegetables with the lid off but your comment makes a lot of sense so I'm going to do some research and adjust my technique if necessary. I also like your suggestion of using unsalted butter, but I think for most home cooks, the residues would not be a factor.
I agree with @Poutine: Sweated veggies are nicer. I think sweating vegetables is sort of a half-way step between poaching (using a fair amount of water) and sauteing them. Poaching only softens and extracts; sweating softens and extracts AND does a mild chemical change (as in Maillard reaction and caramelization). Anyone like to (dis)agree?
G. Stephen Jones
Nope, I agree about the flavor of sweated vegetables. There are just some occasions where a dish calls for poaching for different results.
I’m preparing leeks to make Potato-Leek soup. A tip in my recipe book states that the leeks need “a good sweat.” I have never heard of sweating vegetables but as with Kathryn Brown I’ve always done it and didn’t know why. I didn’t know it had an official name! I always thought I was sautéing. Thx for the explanation!
I was taught that in the 'classic' sense a sweat was when a piece of waxed paper was cut to size to fit snugly around the bottom of the pan, was coated w/a thin coat of butter then placed down on the vegetables to start the release of moisture. The pan was covered to control the moisture lose as browning was the last thing one wanted here. I assumed this procedure was to cook the vegetables without any browning as the end use would be a lighter sauce or soup.