Wondering why roasting makes vegetables taste sweeter? It’s all about the caramelization.
Here’s the scenario: You have a bunch of vegetables and aren’t sure what to do with them. You don’t have the energy or brain space to make anything remotely complicated. This is what you do: Just roast them to hit that sweet spot. It’s an easy method, and you’ll get lightly browned, crispy-skinned vegetables with tender, honeyed flesh within.
Caramelization Concentrates Natural Sugars
Raw vegetables can taste bitter, especially to people who aren’t totally sold on eating them (such as kids or grown-up kids). Roasting vegetables mellows the flavor, says registered dietician Susan Bowerman on Discover Good Nutrition. She’s the director of nutrition training at weight-management company Herbalife and a board-certified specialist in sports dietetics.
“Roasting is one of my favorite ways to cook vegetables—especially carrots, cauliflower, broccoli, and Brussels sprouts,” Bowerman says. “The dry heat of the oven caramelizes the natural sugars in vegetables, which brings about an amazing depth of flavor. And, it’s super easy.”
Related Reading: Why Cauliflower Is King in the Kitchen
Dry-heat cooking, either by roasting or frying, helps release the natural sugars in vegetables. This caramelization is a non-enzymic browning reaction that happens when there is no water and sugars break down from the heat, according to the Science of Cooking. Different types of sugars caramelize at different temperatures: Sucrose and glucose around 320 degrees F and fructose at 230 degrees F. In the last stage of caramelization, hundreds of new aromatic compounds form, creating a range of complex flavors.
The result is a sweet, nutty, toasty flavor. Yes, we’ll take that please.
The Best Veggies to Roast
Don’t confuse caramelization with the Maillard reaction, which involves reducing sugars and amino acids. The best vegetables for caramelization are root vegetables, squash, and tubers. Beets have the highest sugar content, and carrots come a close second. In the case of the carrot, the reaction actually involves both caramelization and the Maillard reaction because it contains amino acids as well.
Related Reading: The Fall Produce You Need to Try (Besides Pumpkin)
As far as texture, don’t try to soften your roasted vegetables the way you would with a tough cut of meat: low and slow. They need high heat to tenderize.
How to Roast Veggies
The basics in roasting vegetables:
1. Preheat the oven to (at minimum) 425 to 450 degrees F. Unless your oven runs super hot and you know your vegetables will blacken to a crisp, crank it all the way up to 500.
2. Use a metal pan with fairly low sides. Your standard sheet pan is ideal here. Glass baking dishes won’t conduct heat as well, and high sides will trap steam in the pan. Line it for easier clean-up if you want to.
3. Cut the vegetables into roughly 1-inch chunks. The most important thing is that they’re all even in size so they cook at the same time, although denser veggies like squash, potatoes, and root vegetables should be cut a bit smaller than any less-dense types (like broccoli or cauliflower) sharing the pan. All veggies should be as dry as possible so they don’t steam. For the same reason, be sure not to crowd your pan with too many vegetables.
4. Toss the veggies in a generous amount of olive oil, sprinkle with salt and pepper, and spread them out on the baking sheet. You can experiment with other seasonings here too*.
5. Roast for 30 to 40 minutes, turning the veggies occasionally. When they’re crispy and a little brown on the outside and soft inside (test one), take it out and feast.
*Try adding more spices like garlic powder, smoked paprika, dried herbs, Old Bay, five spice powder, and so on. Avoid adding sugar too early in the roasting process as it can make the veggies burn (also, they won’t really need it).
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Related Reading: How to Clean Dingy Baking Sheets So They Look Brand New
7 of Our Favorite Roasted Vegetable Recipes
Try out the technique on all sorts of veggies:
It’s good to have this basic in your repertoire. Toss some Red Bliss, white, or new potatoes with garlic cloves and fresh rosemary sprigs in olive oil, season with salt and pepper, and roast at the bottom of a hot oven, to form a crispy, beautifully burnished crust. Get our Perfect Roast Potatoes recipe.
Don’t disguise the natural flavor of this roasted squash with a heavy tomato sauce. Stick with olive oil, pepper, and Parmesan. The flesh of one of our favorite fall vegetables cooks into long, tender strands (like … spaghetti) that are sweet and earthy-tasting. Get our Roasted Spaghetti Squash recipe.
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Treat the most sugary vegetable (besides beets) with a royal roast and then a coating of tangy mustard-herb butter. Get our Roasted Baby Carrots recipe.
How to get the much maligned and poorly cooked Brussels sprouts the attention it deserves? Add nuts and cheese. And roast those little mini cabbage heads until they’re browned and sweet. (Not smelling like dirty socks!) Get our Roasted Brussels Sprouts recipe.
Roasted until soft and sweet, fall’s ideal vegetable for forming a bowl is filled with wild rice, pecans, and dried cranberries, for a nutty, sweet, earthy flavor profile that mixes textures as well. Get our Roasted Acorn Squash with Wild Rice Stuffing recipe.
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