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.
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: Cut the vegetables into 1-inch chunks and heat the oven to 425 to 450 degrees F. Toss them in olive oil, salt, and pepper and spread them out on a baking sheet. Roast for 30 to 40 minutes, turning them occasionally, and when they’re crispy and a little brown on the outside and soft inside (test one), take it out. You can experiment with seasonings afterward so the seasonings don’t lose flavor during the roasting.
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7 of Our Favorite Roasted Vegetable Recipes
It’s good to have this basic in your repertoire. Toss some Red Bliss, white, or perfect 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.
Related Reading: The Fall Produce You Need to Try (Besides Pumpkin)
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