Burnt Eggplant and Bell Pepper Dip

This roasted eggplant and red bell pepper dip is rich and bright with distinct smoky notes. It’s a party-pleaser that vegetarians, vegans, and meat eaters will love.

Overhead view of burnt eggplant and roasted red pepper dip
Serious Eats / Amanda Suarez

Eggplant is one of my favorite vegetables due to its silky texture and its ability to take on smoky flavors with ease. It’s both my go-to vegetable when I’m cooking a special meal for guests and also a dinnertime staple that I make at least once a week. 

Eggplant is a popular vegetable throughout Asia and the Middle East: Not only are they used in main courses like stuffed eggplants and bhaingan bharta (roasted eggplant with tomatoes and onions), they are often used to prepare appetizers and dips like baba ganoush and pakoras. Eggplants are often described as meaty in texture, but I hate describing vegetables in terms of meat so I prefer to think of them as full-bodied. Although they are sometimes described as bitter-tasting, most plant breeders over the years have selected varieties that have little to no detectable bitterness in them. Luckily for us, that means we can spend less time worrying about trying to rid them of bitterness and more time figuring out what flavors we want to infuse them with—because eggplant sucks up flavors with ease.

One flavor that's particularly well-matched with eggplant is smoke, which is developed through high-heat methods like charring, grilling, or roasting. Of those options, roasting is arguably one of the easiest: The high heat helps the sugars caramelize and also helps the amino acids and sugars participate in the Maillard reaction. The result of these two food reactions builds bittersweet flavors and a smoky profile.

Close up of the dip
Serious Eats / Amanda Suarez

I like to add cumin and coriander seeds to the vegetables during roasting, which allows the spices to toast and release their flavors directly into the vegetables while eliminating the extra step of toasting the spices separately. Once the vegetables are lightly charred, they carry a lovely smoky flavor. I then remove them from the oven and let them rest until they’re cool enough to handle. 

To add body to this dip, I turn to red lentils and cashews. This recipe uses red lentils but other options like black lentils and split pigeon peas will also work here. Once the lentils are tender and cooked, it's important to drain them right away. If left to sit in the water too long, the lentils run the risk of becoming mushy. As for the cashews, I soak whole roasted and salted cashews in boiling water to soften them, which makes it easier for them to break down during blending. 

Rinsing lentils
Serious Eats / Amanda Suarez

While this dip can be made in a blender, a food processor offers better control of the final texture with less risk of over-pureeing. The dip should not be perfectly smooth but instead resemble a coarse paste, which can be accomplished by pulsing the processor in short intervals for a few seconds at a time until the paste comes together. 

This dip is a party-pleaser that both vegetarians, vegans, and meat eaters will love. It goes well with any kind of warm flatbread, buttered slices of crusty toasted sourdough, and I daresay a wonderful spread inside sandwiches too. 

Adjust oven rack to middle position and preheat the oven to 425°F (220°C). On a rimmed baking sheet, spread eggplant, bell pepper, shallot, and jalapeño in an even layer. Sprinkle cumin and coriander seeds on top, season lightly with salt, and drizzle with 2 tablespoons olive oil. Using your hands, toss to coat vegetables well, then cook until lightly charred, about 45 minutes. Let cool completely. Once vegetables are cool, remove and discard some (but not all) of the charred skin. Transfer vegetables to a medium bowl.

Four image collage of raw vegetables on a baking sheet, being drizzled with oil and covered with seasoning, after being roasted in the oven, and mashed in a bowl with some skins removed.
Serious Eats / Amanda Suarez

Meanwhile, combine lentils with 2 cups (480ml) water and 1/4 teaspoon salt in a small saucepan. Bring to a boil over medium-high heat. Lower the heat to maintain a simmer and cook until lentils are completely tender but not falling apart, about 15 minutes. Drain lentils through a fine-mesh strainer, discarding the cooking water, and let cool to room temperature.

Cooked lentils being lifted out of a pot with a slotted spoon
Serious Eats / Amanda Suarez

Meanwhile, place cashews in a small heatproof bowl, cover by at least 2 inches of boiling water, and let soak for 30 minutes. Drain cashews through a fine-mesh strainer, discarding the soaking water, and add to the bowl of a food processor fitted with a metal blade.

Cashews soaking in water
Serious Eats / Amanda Suarez

Add roasted vegetables, lentils, garlic, and lemon or lime juice to the food processor bowl. Pulse until a coarse paste forms, 2 to 3 5-second pulses. Season with salt to taste. Transfer to a serving bowl, garnish with parsley or cilantro, drizzle remaining oil on top, and serve with warm crackers, flatbread, or buttered slices of toasted sourdough bread.

All ingredients for the dip added to a food processor
Serious Eats / Amanda Suarez

Special Equipment

Food processor

Make-Ahead and Storage

Dip can be refrigerated in an airtight container for up to 4 days. To serve, bring dip to room temperature or warm in a microwave.

Cookbook Author Nik Sharma’s Favorite Way to Prepare Leeks

Draped in a fragrant sauce of Sichuan peppercorns, doubanjiang, garlic, and soy sauce, these tender leeks are spicy, savory, and oh-so-satisfying.

Overhead view of braised leaks
Serious Eats / Amanda Suarez

I’m always on the hunt for new ways to cook vegetables, and this leek recipe has quickly become a favorite at home. It combines two cooking styles: The leeks are cooked using a method similar to European braised leeks, in which they are seared in a skillet and then gently cooked in the oven until tender. But the flavor profile of the sauce borrows heavily from Sichuan cooking. I think it's clear that this leek recipe isn’t a traditional Sichuan dish, but it is strongly inspired by what I’ve learned about the cuisine. Served with bowls of warm fried rice or plain rice, it makes for a light but filling vegetarian dinner.

Technique Breakdown: The Braise

The recipe starts by trimming and halving the leeks lengthwise. Leeks must always be washed very carefully to remove sand and grit hidden in their compact layers; there is almost always more there than one might suspect, and it will ruin the dish if you don't wash it out fully.

Overhead view of leeks
Serious Eats / Amanda Suarez

After a careful rinsing, dry the leeks well, then sear them in a skillet of hot oil on their cut sides until well browned. This builds flavor and allows us to deglaze the pan to pick up even more of the flavor of the browned sugars from the leeks. You can use water, vegetable stock, or, if a strictly vegetarian recipe isn't a requirement, chicken stock to do this. This liquid then gets combined with the leeks in a baking dish before they're slowly braised in the oven until meltingly tender.

While this happens, it's time to make the sauce.

The Sauce

The sauce for the leeks is remarkably simple, and relies on several ingredients to deliver bold flavor. Doubanjiang (Sichuan chile bean paste) brings an earthy savoriness and mild heat, while Chinkiang vinegar provides a fruity tang. Soy sauce and garlic, meanwhile, add extra savoriness and depth. Together, they make a punchy and intensely savory sauce with gentle heat that complements the delicate sweetness of the leeks.  

Overhead view of pouring sauce on leeks
Serious Eats / Amanda Suarez

Since Fuchsia Dunlop’s book The Food of Sichuan introduced me to doubanjiang, it has become one of my pantry staples. Doubanjiang is an essential ingredient in many Sichuan dishes, including fish-fragrant eggplant and braised fish; it packs so much flavor that it functions as something like a super-ingredient, requiring little extra to build a deeply flavorful recipe (it is, without a doubt, the main reason mapo tofu is such a deeply satisfying dish to eat). 

Hailing from Pixian in the Chinese province of Chengdu, the paste is made from split fava beans and wheat flour that have been mixed together, allowed to mold, then fermented with er jing tiao chiles. Salty and savory, doubanjiang is available to purchase at various stages of maturity. According to Dunlop, doubanjiang is most frequently used when it’s been fermented for two to three years, when it has a rich mahogany color. Its rich color might hint at a high degree of heat, but doubanjiang itself isn’t particularly hot.

Once the leeks are braised and the sauce is whipped up, you can simply pour the sauce on top of the leeks and serve. Easy peasy…or leaksy?

For the Leeks: Trim leeks to remove root ends, tough or damaged outer layers, and dark green top parts; reserve trimmings for stock if desired. Cut leeks in half lengthwise, then rinse each leek half under cold, running water, gently fanning layers open while being careful to keep leek halves intact, to wash away any sand or grit. Pat dry.

Overhead view of cleaned leeks
Serious Eats / Amanda Suarez

Preheat oven to 325°F (160°C) and adjust oven rack to middle position. Heat 2 tablespoons (30ml) oil in a 12-inch heavy-bottomed skillet over medium-high heat until shimmering. Working in 2 batches, add as many leeks as you can fit in a single layer cut side down. Cook, pressing down gently with a spatula and shaking occasionally, until well browned, about 3 minutes. Transfer leeks to a 9- by 13-inch baking dish, arranging them in a single layer, cut-side up; sprinkle lightly with salt. Repeat with remaining leeks and oil until all leeks are browned, transfer to baking dish and lightly season once more with salt.

Overhead view of cooking leeks
Serious Eats / Amanda Suarez

Pour water into the skillet; bring to a simmer, scraping up any browned bits, then pour into baking dish with leeks. Cover tightly with aluminum foil and bake for 30 minutes. Remove foil and continue to cook until leeks are completely tender and translucent, about 20 to 30 minutes longer, depending on thickness of the leeks.

Side view of pouring skillet water over leeks
Serious Eats / Amanda Suarez

Meanwhile, for the Sauce: In a dry wok, toast sichuan peppercorns over medium heat, stirring and tossing often, until fragrant and lightly toasted, about 2 minutes. Transfer to a spice grinder or small mortar and pestle and grind to a powder. Set aside.

Two image collage of toasted peppercorns and grinding them in mortar
Serious Eats / Amanda Suarez

Wipe out wok. Add oil along with the doubanjiang and cook over medium-high heat, stirring, until doubanjiang is toasted and fragrant, 2 to 3 minutes. Add garlic and cook, stirring, until very lightly browned, about 1 minute. Add water, sugar, soy sauce, and vinegar, and bring to a boil.

Four image collage of cooking sauce ingredients in wok
Serious Eats / Amanda Suarez

Stir the cornstarch slurry to mix well, then pour into the wok and stir to combine. Return to a boil and cook sauce, stirring occasionally, until thickened to a lightly glaze-like consistency, 4 to 5 minutes.

Overhead view of finished glaze
Serious Eats / Amanda Suarez

When leeks are ready, ladle sauce on top of leeks, then sprinkle with a couple generous pinches of toasted Sichuan peppercorn powder. Serve.

Overhead view of topping with toasted peanuts
Serious Eats / Amanda Suarez

Special Equipment

Large skillet, wok, baking dish

Notes

Doubanjiang (Chinese fermented broad bean-chile paste) can often be found at Chinese or Asian grocery stores and online. When possible, look for Pixian doubanjiang.

If you can’t find Chinkiang vinegar, you can substitute with malt vinegar.

The omission of salt in this recipe is not an error, as both soy sauce and Doubanjiang are quite salty and obviate the need for extra salt.

Make-Ahead and Storage

Leftovers can be kept in an airtight container in the refrigerator for up to 4 days. Rewarm before serving.

Warm Pigeon Pea Salad With Roasted Butternut Squash and Spiced Onions

This filling pigeon pea salad is rich with sweet morsels of roasted butternut squash, gently cooked spiced onions, and a simple dressing made from lemon juice, olive oil, and a bit of Dijon mustard and honey.

Overhead view of piegon peas and squash
Serious Eats / Amanda Suarez

Split pigeon peas, or toor dal, are traditionally used to make dals and South Indian sambhar, a lentil and vegetable stew served with dosas. But their ability to retain their structure well during cooking makes them an excellent legume to use in salads. One example is this hearty and filling pigeon pea salad that's rich with sweet morsels of roasted butternut squash, gently cooked spiced onions, and a simple dressing made from lemon juice, olive oil, and a bit of Dijon mustard and honey. It pairs wonderfully with thin slices of grilled steak, roast lamb, or chicken, but can also be eaten alone as a one-bowl vegetarian meal.

Close up of a spoon of pigeon peas and squash
Serious Eats / Amanda Suarez

Preparing the Pigeon Peas

Pigeon peas, like other beans, contain pectin, a fiber that contributes to their firmness. The key to cooking pigeons peas so that they're tender but not falling apart is to salt both the soaking and cooking water. As I’ve written previously, beans harden when they undergo two enzymatic reactions: first, when calcium and magnesium attach themselves to pectin, and second, when an enzyme called pectin esterase modifies the pectin and makes it even more difficult to dissolve. When salt comes into contact with the calcium and magnesium attached to the pectin inside the peas, it takes the place of calcium and magnesium and makes the pectin more soluble, resulting in a more tender bean.

Though you may be tempted to add the baking soda I also recommend in my bean-brining article, this is one case where I'd suggest avoiding it, as the peas may become mushy and no longer retain their distinct texture in the final salad. The salt alone is enough.

Roasting the Butternut Squash

Roasting butternut squash caramelizes the gourd’s sugars, bringing out its natural sweetness. I dice the squash fairly small here—about 1/4-inch—so that it melds nicely with the peas and onions in the salad. Because it's so small, we want to brown it as quickly as possible to avoid overcooking the squash to the point of being mush. I accomplish this two ways. First, I use a relatively high oven temperature of about 425ºF. On top of that, I preheat the baking sheet so that the squash starts to sizzle as soon as it hits the pan.

Roasted butternut squash
Serious Eats / Amanda Suarez

For the Onions and Dressing

To infuse the salad with sweet and warm spices, I gently sauté diced onion until very tender, then add a medley of spices for the last minute, just long enough to bloom their flavor in the oil. Red chile flakes add a baseline heat, while allspice adds a well-rounded warm-spice profile, and turmeric infuses the onions with both a beautiful yellow color and earthy notes that pair well with both the squash and the pigeon peas.

Adding dressing to dish
Serious Eats / Amanda Suarez

The dressing for this dish is very simple—just fresh lemon juice, olive oil, Dijon mustard, and a bit of honey to round out the sharp flavors of lemon and mustard. I prefer the smoothness of Dijon over grainy varieties of mustard, as I find that the more coarse texture doesn’t work as well here.

For the Pigeon Peas: In a medium bowl, cover pigeon peas with at least 2 inches water and add a large pinch salt. Let soak at room temperature for at least 8 and up to 24 hours. Drain.

Overhead view of pigeon peas in a pot
Serious Eats / Amanda Suarez

In a medium saucepan, bring the split pigeon peas, 4 cups (950ml) water, and 1 1/2 tablespoons salt to a boil over high heat. Reduce heat to low and simmer until peas are tender but not falling apart, about 2 to 3 hours; add boiling water as needed to maintain liquid level during cooking. Keep warm.

Overhead view of cooked pigeon peas
Serious Eats / Amanda Suarez

For the Squash: Preheat oven and an empty rimmed baking sheet to 425ºF (220ºC). Toss squash with olive oil and a large pinch salt, then arrange in an even layer on the preheated baking sheet and roast, turning pieces 2 or 3 times with a thin metal spatula during cooking, until squash is tender and golden brown, about 25 minutes.

Two image collage of pouring oil on squash and placing on tray into oven
Serious Eats / Amanda Suarez

For the Onions and Dressing: In a small saucepan, heat 2 tablespoons (30ml) olive oil over medium heat until shimmering. Add onion and garlic along with a pinch of salt and cook, stirring often, until onions are very tender but not browned, about 8 minutes. Srir in red pepper flakes, allspice, and turmeric and cook for 1 minute longer. Season with additional salt, if needed, then remove from heat. 

Two image collage of onions cooking
Serious Eats / Amanda Suarez

Meanwhile, in a small bowl, whisk together lemon juice, Dijon mustard, honey, and a pinch of salt. Whisk in remaining 6 tablespoons (90ml) olive oil.

Side view of adding oil to dressing
Serious Eats / Amanda Suarez

Drain pigeon peas. In a large bowl, combine pigeon peas with butternut squash, onions, and scallions. Stir gently to combine, then serve warm or at room temperature.

Four image collage of dish being made
Serious Eats / Amanda Suarez

Make-Ahead and Storage

The pigeon peas, squash, and onions can all be prepared up to 2 days ahead and then combined and refrigerated in an airtight-container until ready to serve. Rewarm and fold in scallions just before serving. Note that cooked beans will often become more firm once refrigerated, and won't fully soften again upon rewarming; therefore, if making the pigeon peas ahead, be sure to cook them until fully softened throughout (but not falling apart).

Should You Wash Chicken?

Studies have shown that it is more likely to spread harmful bacteria than wash it away. Whether you wash your chicken or not, the most important thing is to apply good food safety practices at home to avoid cross-contamination and the spread of illness-causing bacteria; here, we walk through all of these best practices.

Overhead view of washing a chicken in the sink
Serious Eats / Amanda Suarez

Where I grew up in India, it was common practice to wash ingredients before cooking, including all types of meats and chicken. Only when I moved to America did I learn that washing meat, especially chicken, was discouraged by food safety authorities like the FDA, USDA, and CDC. Given the official stance of these federal agencies, and the scientific studies that support their advice, this article could start and end with a simple statement: Do not wash your chicken because science and the US government say so.

But chicken washing remains a common practice around the world (90 percent of respondents in one 2013 study claimed they still do it), and so the question lingers. Even in the 1990s, Julia Child and Jacques Pépin had a friendly back-and-forth about it on an episode of their TV show Julia and Jacques Cooking at Home—Julia told Jacques that she washed her chicken with hot water, and then Jacques very pointedly made clear that did not. Whom to trust? 

Let's get right to the point: While we have some lingering questions about the don't-wash-chicken edict and believe the subject can be approached with a bit more nuance, overall we think the evidence is clear that washing raw chicken is not generally a great thing to do.

Let's now take a closer look, because it's worth digging into the science and the studies that have contributed to our understanding about the relative risks and merits of chicken washing.

Why Do People Wash Their Chicken?

To state the obvious, people wash chicken out of a perceived need to clean it. In modern times, this can be driven by the desire to remove microorganisms like bacteria, but even before people knew of the existence of these invisible germs, it often made sense to wash meats to remove debris, traces of blood, and other unwanted or inedible matter. Just as one example, the chicken I used to buy in India went through fewer steps from slaughter to sale than most of the more industrial chicken I see here in the United States: The butcher killed the bird and then cleaned, cut, and packaged it right there, and I’d take it home to be cooked. It often had some remnant matter on it that we at home wanted to rinse off.

The cultural and agricultural contexts influencing chicken washing is something that has been pointed out by journalist and YouTuber Adam Ragusea in his insightful video on chicken washing. Ragusea hypothesizes that in parts of the world where more of the population remains more directly connected to agriculture, there could arguably be a greater need to wash a chicken of things like feathers and clotted blood that are less likely to be found in a shrink-wrapped supermarket chicken that gets thoroughly washed as part of its industrial processing. Plus, Ragusea links the frequency of the practice to parts of the world that tend to be hotter, where, especially in pre-refrigeration times, spoilage would happen more quickly.

This gets us to the other reason people often say they wash chicken: to remove an unappealing flavor, often described as "raw," from the bird prior to cooking. The editors at Serious Eats have heard this explanation frequently, often from contributors who come from countries where chicken washing is more common. In these cases, the washing often involves more than simply rinsing the bird with water—rubdowns with citrus, salt, and other seemingly cleansing ingredients are part of the process. Ragusea, in his video, wonders whether this "raw" flavor is really just the first signs of spoilage that might be more common in hotter climes, though we're not so sure that's it. Rinsing meat to remove unwanted flavors is something Serious Eats editors have heard from recipe writers from many countries around the world, some hot, some not.

Why Do Scientists Say Not to Wash Chicken?

The argument against washing chickens is all about harmful bacteria, specifically Salmonella, and it goes like this: When you wash chicken, you risk spreading those pathogens all over your kitchen via splashes and droplets of contaminated water as they land on surrounding surfaces, counterintuitively increasing the chances of foodborne illness instead of decreasing it. You're not cleaning your chicken, you're contaminating your kitchen!

A quick internet search reveals multiple studies that have looked at this phenomenon, and they tend to come to the same conclusion that washing chicken doesn't do much to help, and very possibly can hurt. Based on estimates from the CDC, every year one in six Americans gets a foodborne illness, 128,000 Americans are hospitalized, and 3,000 die. Salmonella specifically, which is the one we're most concerned about with chicken (though not the only one), is estimated to cause more than one million illnesses annually, 19,000 hospitalizations, and nearly 400 deaths.

In 2003, scientists at Campden BRI, an organization that works with the food industry on scientific, technical, and safety matters, published a detailed report on how bacterial contamination can occur during the handling of meat. This study examined various types of meat like chicken, beef, lamb, and pork and how bacteria transferred to two types of common kitchen surfaces—laminate surfaces and stainless steel. Not only did they find that wet meat transferred higher levels of bacteria, but they also noted that stainless steel surfaces had more bacteria transferred to them than laminate surfaces, and the bacteria persisted on these surfaces for 48 hours.

Since washing chicken doesn't seem to remove enough bacteria to make raw chicken safe, and since it seems to spread that bacteria around, it's therefore not recommended as a practice.

The Data: A Closer Look

Several of the chicken-washing studies I read sought to determine and understand the risk of spreading bacteria. Most of these studies involved applying a dye to the chicken (which could then be seen if spread elsewhere) or dosing the surface of the chicken with cultures of bacteria (which could then be detected by taking cultures of different nearby surfaces to see how much germ spread had occurred). The studies routinely reported finding the dye or bacteria on the surfaces surrounding the sink, indicating that washing chicken is highly likely to spread bacterial contamination. 

While there is no denying that washing raw chicken and meat can spread bacteria in the surrounding areas, I had several unanswered questions after reading the published literature. They include: 

  1. How do we know if the manner in which the raw chicken in the studies was artificially loaded with dye or bacteria accurately replicated the bacterial load on raw chicken obtained from stores? The answer to this wouldn't change the basic finding that, yes, washing can spread bacteria in harmful ways, but it might have implications for the level of risk in real-world scenarios (that risk might be less or more, depending on the answer to this question).
  2. How did each study account for the shape and dimensions of the sink where the raw chicken was washed? In this study, for example, the chicken and the trays used to collect the "projecta" (the potentially contaminated spray droplets) were placed at the same height. In reality, most sinks are deep basins so it makes interpreting the results from this study a little tricky. Other studies were done in actual sinks, though not all sinks are the same size, depth, or shape, which may also have some bearing on risk levels. 
  3. Faucet height and design matter, as they can impact the flow rate and force of water hitting the chicken, assuming one is washing the chicken under running water and not in a basin of water. All of this can influence the way the water droplets fly off the surface of the chicken, with lower faucet heights and lower water flow rates in theory causing less splashing. 
  4. What are the relative risk levels between washing chicken in prefilled bowls of water versus under running water? We know that washing chicken under running water is the riskiest of all, but by how much? It's possible that the advice should really be to avoid washing chicken under running water; maybe gently lowering a raw chicken into a prefilled bowl of water and then carefully discarding that water down the drain is much less of a concern.

These questions aside, I also wonder about the basic fact that these studies were carried out in such controlled conditions in the first place. Of course scientific studies need to be carefully controlled, there's no way around that, but it could have some implications for the conclusions we draw. For example, in most home kitchens, the sink is almost never a clean place. It's the place where dishes linger with standing water and remnants of food waste, where hands that have touched raw chicken get washed, and where raw chicken itself is often removed from its packaging—specifically because there's often excess raw chicken liquid (called "purge" in the poultry industry) that also can carry pathogens, and that comes sloshing out as soon as you unwrap the chicken. This stuff is going to get all over your sink too, whether you wash the chicken or not.

In a laboratory setting where the sink starts out sterile, then gets exposed to raw chicken splatter via washing, and then is swabbed to detect that splatter—sure, we're gonna find the germs from that splatter and declare all chicken washing bad. But any kitchen where raw chicken has to be handled is going to have exposures as well, it's simply unavoidable. The sink is not a clean place, and shouldn't be considered as such. 

This, of course, wouldn't change the fact that splatter caused by running water hitting the chicken has been found to extend outside the sink—that still seems like a pretty big problem we'd want to avoid—but it might make some of the other findings, in the context of a real kitchen where real raw meat is being handled no matter what, a little less alarming.

Conclusions

While I agree that water splashing on raw meat can transfer bacteria in the kitchen, there are broader implications to consider, and both details and context are very important. The findings from the studies on chicken washing and the resulting recommendations are good as far as they go, but they make me wonder if home cooks wouldn't be better served by a more general emphasis and education on basic cleaning best-practices and food safety.

Some actions that we might want to pay closer attention to include:

  • washing/cleaning our hands, food-prep tools, and kitchen surfaces regularly, especially before and after touching raw meat, but also before and after cooking; 
  • reserving separate cutting boards for working with raw meat; 
  • and being mindful of how we store and prepare fresh produce that isn't going to be cooked to avoid cross-contamination with raw meats.

If you do decide to wash chicken, avoid doing it under running water from the faucet, and take care to avoid and/or contain any and all spatter or other transfer of wet matter that has been in contact with the raw bird. 

How to Most Effectively Tenderize Steak

We studied the primary physical, chemical, to biological methods of meat tenderization so you can choose the technique that best fits your needs.

A piece of medium-rare steak sliced into thin pieces on a wooden cutting board.
Serious Eats / Amanda Suarez

The idea of earning your keep is nothing new. Paul the Apostle said as much in his letter to the Thessalonians: If anyone is not will­ing to work, neither should he eat. But it's one thing to work for our food, and another for our food to make us work, which is to say—no one wants to gnaw on a hunk of un-chewable meat.

There are many cuts of steak and other meats that are prized for their inherent tenderness, the aptly named tenderloin chief among them. But even tougher cuts can produce high-quality results, if you know how to transform them. And here's the shocker of shockers: There are many ways to do that. We're going to look at the major methods of meat tenderization so you can choose the technique that best fits your needs.

Why Is Some Meat Tough?

To understand why meat needs to be tenderized, let’s first take a closer look at what makes meat, well, meat. There are many definitions for meat and what it could include, but for this article, meat will refer to the skeletal muscle tissue of warm-blooded animals that contains little to no fat attached to it (a definition like this is what you get when you come to a science-focused food site!).

Skeletal muscle is a type of animal tissue that specifically describes muscles that attach to bone and allow them to move (as opposed to the smooth muscles found in the digestive system and arteries and the cardiac muscle of the heart). Skeletal muscle is composed of thousands of muscle fibers held together as bundles, which are wrapped together by sheaths made up of connective tissue. 

That connective tissue, meanwhile, is rich in proteins like collagen, which plays an important role in meat tenderness. During cooking, the collagen in that connective tissue loses water, causing it to shrink; this in turn squeezes the muscle fibers within like a hand squeezing a sponge, causing the meat to lose even more water. This can lead to a drier and tougher texture. As we'll see, though, the collagen in some cuts of meat can be broken down or transformed, leading to more tender results.

Even within the same animal, tenderness varies by cut. That's why the same cow or pig can offer an incredibly soft cut like the tenderloin alongside a famously chewy one like the shank. Much of the difference in tenderness between cuts comes down to how the muscle is used by the animal during its life. Muscles that are hard-working, especially ones that are used to support the animal or propel it, need to be stronger, and thus are loaded with more toughness-causing collagen. Weaker muscles that aren't used nearly as much, on the other hand, tend to remain lower in collagen, and are thus more tender.

Other factors that can influence meat tenderness include the age of an animal, the specific breed, individual genetics, and sex.

How Meat Tenderness Is Evaluated

Meat tenderness can be evaluated and reported as a sensory measure—how tender it feels, and how easy it is to chew. However, if you want to be more specific, you can determine the tenderness of meat using scientific methods like the Warner-Bratzler shear test. The premise is simple, though a little tricky to execute on a practical level (you need several samples, and the shearing blade dulls quickly with repeated use). First, a steak or a piece of meat is cooked and cooled. The cooled meat is then placed in a device called the Warner-Bratzler Meat Shear Fixture, and the amount of force needed to cut the meat is measured. The greater the force, the tougher the cut of meat.

Since most of us don't have Warner-Bratzler Meat Shear Fixtures sitting next to our food processors, it's easier to list some of the most common cuts that we often want to tenderize.

Three types of raw beef on a wooden cutting board.
Serious Eats / Amanda Suarez

Tough Cuts of Beef and Other Meats

While not an exhaustive list, the following are some of the cuts that are frequently thought to be tough. The reason for toughness can include any combination of the following: Some of these cuts are very hard-working, like the shanks, so they're loaded with strong but chewy collagen; others are very lean, making them prone to toughness and dryness, especially if overcooked; and some, like the flank steak and brisket, have thick and ropey muscle fibers.

  • Shanks
  • Brisket
  • Short ribs
  • Shoulder/chuck
  • Flank steak
  • Top Round Roast
  • Bottom Round Roast/Rump Roast
  • Top Sirloin
  • Bottom Sirloin
  • Oxtail
  • Cheeks

Ways to Tenderize Meat

In general, all methods of meat tenderization manipulate the meat’s texture to improve its palatability. Even if the goal of tenderness is the same, the methods span a wide range of tactics from physical to chemical and biological.

Physical Methods of Meat Tenderization

Force: Pounding, Massaging, Cutting, and More

The simplest and perhaps easiest method to tenderize meat is to manipulate it physically by altering its structure with force—think of it something like pre-chewing, but…way less gross.

Force can be applied by massaging, pounding, puncturing, scoring, slicing, and agitating the meat. Mallets and meat pounders, for example, can be used to hammer steaks and thin slices of meat; the heavy force from banging the meat breaks up the connective tissue and collagen around the muscle fibers, causing the muscle fibers to separate and the meat to be more tender.

In addition to a meat pounder, another popular meat-tenderizing tool is the Jaccard, a device that contains several blades that, when pressed against the surface of the meat, cut through the muscle fibers. In commercial settings, meat is also sometimes "tumbled" (this is also called "massage" or "vacuum" tumbling). In this method, meat is agitated by tossing it around in an enclosed tumbler with a seasoning or marinade. While commercial applications involve applying a vacuum, you can do this at home in an enclosed jar or container using a food vacuum storage device or special tumbler just for meat.

A piece of steak filled with holes during meat tenderization.
Serious Eats / Amanda Suarez

In truth, you don't even always need a device for physical tenderization to work. In Kenji's recipe for dim sum pork ribs, he takes a page from Chinese chefs by very vigorously massaging the ribs with his hands to break up and soften the flesh, so that the ribs come out tender after just a short steaming period.

Shockwave technology is yet another tenderization method you're unlikely to encounter at home, but it is of interest to the food industry. It generates shockwaves via controlled explosions or electrical discharges that exceed the speed of sound in water; as they pass through the meat, they rupture its structure.

Returning to more practical methods, one of the most useful tenderizing tools is a good old knife. By cutting meat across the grain either before or after cooking, long and tough muscle fibers are shortened to much more manageable bits that are far easier to chew. This is one reason roast beef, which is often made from a lean, toughness-prone cut, is sliced so thinly on a deli slicer. 

Overhead view of cutting meat against the grain
Serious Eats / Amanda Suarez

In South Asian cooking, deep gashes are often made across large cuts of meat. These gashes nip the long muscle fibers, allowing meat marinades to penetrate deeper and making the meat tender and less chewy to eat. You might have come across a simpler version of this technique in recipes in which you're instructed to prick the surface of the meat with a fork or knife before cooking. For that matter, grinding meat can also be thought of as a method for making a tough cut of meat more tender—some of the most flavorful burger blends use tough cuts like brisket, short rib, and more for maximum flavor without any risk of toughness thanks to the grind of the meat. The aggressive physical destruction of the meat via grinding produces a juicy and tender texture that wouldn’t otherwise be possible with the whole pieces before they went through a grinder.

 As you can imagine, most of these physical tenderizing methods are harsh and can affect the appearance of the meat, which may or may not be desirable in the final product—no one will complain about the ground meat in a burger patty, but they may not be thrilled with a steak that got hammered to mush with a meat pounder (unless, of course, the recipe was meant to produce a pancake-thin cutlet, in which case, yay!).

Heat: Low-and-Slow or Sped Up With Pressure

Another physical manipulation of meat is with heat itself, which can be enhanced and sped up with the help of a pressure cooker. Given a long enough cooking time, such as in a low-and-slow braise or barbecue, tough collagen melts into tender gelatin, transforming previously difficult-to-chew cuts into a miracle of silkiness and succulence. In the high-pressure environment of a pressure cooker, this conversion of collagen to gelatin happens even faster, reducing something like a three-hour braise to something that cooks in under an hour.

Steak being sliced on a wooden cutting board.
Serious Eats / Amanda Suarez

Chemical Methods of Meat Tenderization: Salts

Salt, both sodium chloride—the salt most of us are talking about when we say "salt" in the kitchen—plus many other salts in the scientific sense of the word, can act as powerful meat tenderizers. When dissolved in water, sodium chloride can dissolve some muscle proteins like actin and myosin; this is true whether the salt is dissolved in a wet brine or in the meat's own juices after the salt has been applied in a dry brine. This not only tenderizes the meat by breaking apart some of the muscle's structure, but it also lessens the degree to which a piece of meat contracts during cooking. Less contraction means less juices being squeezed out, leading to an overall more plump and tender piece of meat.

It's safe to say that of all the tenderization methods out there, applying salt in one form or another is almost always a good choice: It seasons the meat (almost never a bad thing) and improves both texture and juiciness. It's almost entirely pro with very little con.

Diamont Crystal kosher salt compared to another brand

Other salts that can be used as tenderizers include baking soda and salts of phosphoric acid or phosphates that can also dissolve muscle proteins and improve the tenderness and juiciness of the meat. As we found in a series of marinade tests, while baking soda is a tenderizer, it can also produce some unfortunate effects on a piece of meat and should be used with caution. Salts of phosphates are commonly used to tenderize meats like pork, for example—check the ingredient list on the label of pre-brined pork loin from a grocery store, and you’ll notice phosphates included.

At home, you can take advantage of the tenderizing effects of phosphates by using dairy. Dairy in the form of milk or fermented milk products like yogurt, buttermilk, or kefir contains a large number of phosphates that will improve the texture of meat. In addition to the salt and phosphates, fermented dairy contains lactic acid, a wonderful meat tenderizer that my own tests showed is not as prone as other common kitchen acids to turning the meat mushy.

Another common pantry staple that can help tenderize meat is mayonnaise, an emulsification traditionally made from egg yolks, vinegar or lemon juice, and oil. Egg yolks are rich in phospholipids, phosphates, and proteins, all of which help solubilize proteins in meat while amping up and stabilizing the emulsification of protein, fat, and water that forms on the surface of the meat. The meat locks in more water, resulting in a juicier, tender cut.

Biological Methods of Meat Tenderization: Aging, Enzymes, and Bacteria

Enzymes and Aging

One could correctly argue that enzymes are technically chemicals, and therefore belong in the section above on chemical methods of meat tenderization. But I prefer to include them under the biological tenderization umbrella, since they derive from biological sources and processes.

Humans have tenderized meat with enzymes, even if they didn't know they existed, since ancient times. In Korea, pear juice was applied to meat before cooking and in tropical and subtropical countries, papaya leaves and fruit were added to meat to make it more tender. These fruits contain enzymes called proteases that can recognize proteins and snip them up like scissors. 

Besides pears and papayas (the enzyme is called papain), other plant sources of proteases include pineapples (bromelain, the key active ingredient in Adolph’s brand tenderizer), figs (ficin), kiwis (actinidain), melons, ginger (zingibain), and mangoes. These enzymes only work on the surface of the meat they come into contact with, since proteases are large protein molecules and cannot penetrate deeply into the meat.

Cubed papaya and pineapple in a serving tray.
Serious Eats / Amanda Suarez

In addition, the enzymes from these fruits will only work if raw, and some fruits, like papayas, must come from unripe fruits. Canned and cooked fruit won’t work as meat tenderizers because the protease enzymes get inactivated and denatured during heating. Protease enzymes can also be obtained from animal sources, and some of these, like trypsin, pancreatin, and pepsin, are used to tenderize meat.

Keep in mind, though, that enzymes require optimum conditions (temperature, pH, and time) to work efficiently.

When an animal dies, the tissue cells send signals that activate a cascade of biochemical signals to induce destruction. This process is known as apoptosis or "cell death." Enzymes within the muscle cells and the extracellular matrix kick into full gear and start degrading muscle proteins, making the meat more tender.

Under optimal storage conditions, meat can be aged such that we can take advantage of the benefits of cell death without the meat actually going bad. Beef can be aged by dry or wet methods. In dry aging, the beef is stored in a cold refrigerator unwrapped while in wet aging, the meat is vacuum packed before storage.

When meat is aged properly (some like to say it's being "ripened" or "conditioned"), its texture, and sometimes flavor, are noticeably improved. During this period, the muscles undergo various biochemical reactions like proteolysis, lipolysis, and oxidation that produce changes in the muscle's protein and fat content, improving the meat’s flavor, color, and texture.

Bacteria

Bacteria can also be used to “live tenderize” meat. Lactic acid bacteria in fermented dairy like yogurt produce proteases that not only cut the proteins in milk but also in meat, producing new flavors and textures as a result. In some countries, meat is fermented to increase its longevity and change flavor and texture. For example, hákral is prepared in Iceland by fermenting shark for several months. Sausages like Iberian chorizo and nem chua from Vietnamese cuisine are also examples of spiced fermented meats.

20200903-nem-chua-jenny-dorsey-10
Nem Chua (Vietnamese Cured Pork With Garlic and Chiles)Jenny Dorsey

Using biotechnology, protein enzymes can be produced on an industrial scale from bacteria like Bacillus subtilis and fungi like Aspergillus niger. It’s been reported that these commercially produced bacterial and fungal enzymes work on the proteins of the muscle fiber. In contrast, plant, microbial, and animal enzymes work more broadly by cutting both muscle and connective tissue proteins. The latter enzymes produce more tender meat by comparison.

 It's worth noting, though, that both chemical and biological methods of meat tenderizing primarily act on the surface of the meat and don’t always penetrate all the way through to the interior. This can be alleviated by using a combination of physical, chemical, and biological methods to help increase the surface area of the meat, increasing the sites where chemicals and enzymes can come into unimpeded contact with the meat. Tools like meat injectors can also help deliver tenderizers deeper into the muscle for a more even tenderizing effect.

Three cuts of meat resting on a cutting board.
Serious Eats / Amanda Suarez

Conclusions

As you can see, there are many ways to turn a tough piece of meat into a tender one. Among the most practical for home cooks are salt, thoughtful knife cuts to shorten muscle fibers and increase surface area, pounding and massaging to break up tough muscle tissue, and the correct application of heat. Additional tenderization methods like enzymes in marinades, other salts like baking soda, and bacteria (via fermentation) have their place, but can also have more drastic effects on the meat that may not always, or even often, be desirable.

Orecchiette With Broccoli and Toasted Hazelnuts

In this easy weeknight dinner, the classic pairing of orecchiette and broccoli gets a twist with a creamy turmeric sauce and crunchy toasted hazelnuts.

Orecchiette with broccoli and toasted hazelnuts in a black bowl.
Serious Eats / Amanda Suarez

A great pasta dish is all about the successful pairing of textures and flavors. When I'm developing a pasta recipe, I try to focus on one or two main ingredients, with several other components to pull it all together. Such is the story of this easy dinner: It’s based on the classic duo of broccoli and orecchiette, but here, they’re bound together by a creamy sauce that’s tinted with turmeric and finished with the buttery crunch of hazelnuts.

The traditional broccoli-based sauce for orecchiette is simple in preparation and flavor. It is made by first boiling the broccoli, then cooking it further in olive oil with basic aromatics like garlic, until it’s melt-in-your-mouth tender. While this is delicious in its own right, with this recipe I wanted something more complex tasting. Instead of boiling the broccoli, I chose to sear half of it in a Dutch oven, allowing the Maillard reaction—a series of chemical reactions that happen when sugars and proteins are exposed to high heat—to bring out the vegetable’s natural bittersweet flavors. Like most members of the Brassica family, broccoli takes to high heat rather well. A quick sear to crisp and brown the exterior is a simple and foolproof way to develop deeper, sweeter flavor. The broccoli takes on prominent notes of smokiness and bittersweet flavors, making it a natural pairing with just about everything: creamy dairy, spices (like earthy turmeric), and crunchy hazelnuts.

The remaining broccoli goes in after, becoming sweet and tender as it cooks down with the garlic, red pepper flakes, heavy cream, and turmeric, which lends the sauce a pleasant earthiness and vivid hue.

This broccoli pasta is an easy recipe that comes together quickly, and it’s a good candidate for riffing on, too. There’s really no right or wrong way to go about it. I often use it as a vehicle for any leftover ingredients from the pantry or fridge, tossing in a handful of peas, roasted vegetables, or fresh herbs. Use this recipe as a springboard for creativity, and you’ll never have a boring pasta dinner ever again.

Orecchiette with broccoli and toasted hazelnuts in a black bowl.
Serious Eats / Amanda Suarez

In a medium Dutch oven or large sauté pan, heat oil over high heat until just smoking. Add half the broccoli, season lightly with salt, and cook, stirring occasionally, until well browned on at least one side, about 5 minutes. Lower heat to medium-low, stir in remaining broccoli, and season lightly with salt. Stir in garlic and red pepper flakes and cook until garlic is fragrant, about 30 seconds.

Broccoli in a Dutch oven
Serious Eats / Amanda Suarez

Add heavy cream along with 1 cup (240ml) water and the turmeric, bring to a simmer over medium-high heat. Cover and cook until broccoli is very tender, about 10 minutes. Remove from heat.

Broccoli with heavy cream in a Dutch oven
Serious Eats / Amanda Suarez

Meanwhile, bring a large pot of salted water to a boil. Add orecchiette and cook until just shy of al dente (1 to 2 minutes fewer than package directions). Drain pasta, reserving 1/2 cup (120ml) pasta water.

Orecchiette about to go into an orange Dutch oven of boiling water
Serious Eats / Amanda Suarez

Add orecchiette to pasta sauce and cook over medium-high heat, stirring constantly, until pasta is al dente and sauce is thickened and coats noodles, but is still liquid enough to pool in the bottom of the pot, about 2 minutes. Add more water, in 1/4 cup (60ml) increments as needed, to achieve desired consistency (keep in mind, it will thicken even more once cheese is stirred in).

Orecchiette being added to broccoli sauce.
Serious Eats / Amanda Suarez

Remove from heat, add Parmigiano-Reggiano, and stir vigorously to incorporate. Season with salt to taste. Divide between warmed serving bowls, topping each portion with toasted hazelnuts and additional grated cheese. Serve immediately.

Orecchiette with broccoli and toasted hazelnuts in a black bowl.
Serious Eats / Amanda Suarez

Special Equipment

Dutch oven

Notes

Blanched hazelnuts have had their skins removed. Hazelnut skins can lend dishes an unpleasant bitter flavor. If you can’t find blanched nuts, you can toast the hazelnuts in an oven preheated to 325ºF (160ºC) for several minutes, then wrap the nuts in a kitchen towel and rub them together until the skins come off.

Cauliflower Gratin

Draped in a rich, savory mornay sauce and topped with a sprinkling of buttery breadcrumbs, this cauliflower gratin is an easy and comforting dish.

Overhead view of cauliflower gratin
Serious Eats / Amanda Suarez

The bitter cold of a Cincinnati winter brought me to cauliflower gratin. It was my first year away from home; unlike the warm winters in India that I was accustomed to, I was in the Midwest coping with ear-biting wind chills and snowy days. I often sought comfort and warmth in libraries and bookstores and it was during one of my trips to the library that I came across Jane Grigson’s Vegetable Book and its recipe for cauliflower gratin. The cauliflower—draped in a rich, savory mornay sauce and topped with a sprinkling of buttery bread crumbs—quickly became my go-to comfort meal. 

Though I’ve long since left Cincinnati, the dish remains a favorite of mine, so much so that I’ve tweaked it numerous times over the years to my liking. My version builds on the sweet and nutty  flavors of the cheeses. Cauliflower florets are coated in a velvety mornay sauce—a béchamel enriched with semi-firm cheeses like Swiss, Gruyère, or Parmigiano-Reggiano—then topped with breadcrumbs. A touch of miso paste brings a deep, savory flavor to the sauce as well.

Side view of a spoon of cauliflower gratin
Serious Eats / Amanda Suarez

The Best Way to Prepare Cauliflower for Gratin

To ensure that our gratin cooks evenly in the oven, we must first cook the cauliflower until tender. The question is: to blanch or not to blanch? Initially, I was curious to see if steaming the cauliflower in a baking dish tightly covered with foil would achieve the same results as blanching the cauliflower in a pot of salted water. After comparing the two methods side-by-side, I found that the oven-steamed cauliflower wasn’t exponentially more flavorful than the blanched cauliflower, nor was it significantly faster. In fact, the oven-steamed cauliflower took 25-to-30 minutes, while blanching—including the time it took to bring the water to a boil—took just about 10 minutes.

How to Make Mornay Sauce

In order to make a truly stellar mornay sauce, it’s essential to understand how a roux—a blend of fat and flour—works to thicken the soups and sauces it’s used in. To make a roux, you whisk flour into melted fat, cooking the starch for several minutes to cook out its raw flavor. This not only results in a more delicious sauce, but it also coats each starch granule in fat and reduces the risk of the flour clumping when you eventually whisk in the liquid, like stock or milk. 

The kind of starch and fat you use—as well as how long you cook your roux and how dark you want to take it—will determine the flavor and thickness of your sauce. (You can read more here in Daniel’s deep-dive.) Because we don’t want a particularly dark sauce—the darker the roux, the thinner the sauce—we’re going to cook the flour just until it loses its raw flavor before we add the milk. And while we do want a sauce with body, we also need to keep in mind that the addition of Gruyère and Parmigiano-Reggiano will substantially enrich the sauce. Here, a 1:1 ratio of flour to butter makes a thick but pourable sauce that doesn’t become too heavy once the cheeses are added.

Making an Umami-Packed Sauce

To highlight the savory notes of the sauce, I added white miso paste, which intensifies the flavor of the cheeses and also lends a slightly nutty flavor. As former Serious Eats editor Sho Spaeth wrote in his profile of Rich Shih, a mechanical engineer and koji authority, miso is made by fermenting soybeans with a koji mold called Aspergillus oryzae, transforming proteins into flavorful amino acids that our taste buds interpret as umami. Together with other glutamate-rich seasonings like onion powder and garlic powder, the sauce is savory and complex, highlighting the cauliflower’s natural sweetness.

Seasoning the Breadcrumbs

It’s possible to serve a gratin without a crunchy topping of toasted breadcrumbs, but what fun would that be? Here, I’ve chosen to season my breadcrumbs with za’atar, an essential ingredient in many Arab pantries. Za’atar refers to a specific plant that belongs to the oregano family and is indigenous to the Levant, though the term also, somewhat confusingly, is used to describe a spice blend made with the leaves of the plant. As Palestinian writer and Serious Eats contributor Reem Kassis mentioned in her za’atar recipe, it’s difficult to source fresh za’atar in the United States. While oregano is a suitable substitute if you’re making your own blend, it’s also possible to purchase mixes from companies like Burlap & Barrel and Milk Street. Earthy and herbaceous, za’atar adds a bright note that complements and offsets the richness of the cheese and cream in the gratin.

Adjust oven rack to middle position and preheat the oven to 375ºF (190ºC).

In a large pot of salted boiling water, cook cauliflower until just tender, about 4 minutes. Drain the cauliflower into a colander. Transfer the cauliflower to a rimmed baking sheet lined with a clean kitchen towel or paper towels and set aside to dry.

Side angle view of dumping cauliflower onto wire tray
Serious Eats / Amanda Suarez

For the Mornay Sauce: In a medium bowl, whisk together 2 tablespoons whole milk with the miso paste until thoroughly mixed. Set aside.

Overhead view of whisking miso and milk together
Serious Eats / Amanda Suarez

In a medium saucepan set over medium heat, melt 4 1/2 tablespoons butter. Add flour and whisk to form a paste. Continue to cook, stirring, until raw flour scent is gone, about 1 minute. Whisking constantly, add milk and miso mixture in a thin, steady stream, or in increments of a couple of tablespoons at a time, whisking thoroughly and getting into all corners of the pan to maintain a homogeneous texture. (The sauce will initially become very thick, then get very thin once all the milk is added.)

TWo image collage of making base of sauce in pan
Serious Eats / Amanda Suarez

Heat, stirring, until sauce comes to a simmer and begins to thicken slightly. Reduce heat to low and cook, stirring, until sauce is thick enough to coat the back of a wooden spoon, about 3 minutes. Remove from heat, then stir in the onion powder and garlic powder until combined. Add the bay leaves and white pepper, and stir in Gruyère and Parmigiano-Reggiano until well-combined. Season to taste with salt.

Two image collage of adding spices and cheese to sauce
Serious Eats / Amanda Suarez

Transfer cauliflower to a 9- by 13-inch baking dish and season with salt and freshly ground pepper. Pour the béchamel sauce evenly over the cauliflower and bake, rotating dish halfway through, until the sauce is bubbling, about 30 minutes.

Overhead view of cauliflower covered in sauce
Serious Eats / Amanda Suarez

Meanwhile, for the Breadcrumb Topping: In a small bowl, stir together melted butter, breadcrumbs, and za’atar until well combined. Season to taste with salt.

Overhead view of breadcrumbs
Serious Eats / Amanda Suarez

Remove cauliflower from the oven and evenly sprinkle the breadcrumb mixture all over. Turn on oven broiler and return gratin to the oven, cooking until breadcrumbs are golden, about 1 minute. (Watch the breadcrumbs closely as broilers vary greatly in strength and can quickly burn an unattended topping.)

Two image collage of sprinkling breadcrumbs onto cauliflower and sauce and finished gratin after baking
Serious Eats / Amanda Suarez

Special Equipment

Medium saucepan, whisk, 9- by 13-inch baking dish

Notes

I prefer the crunchier texture of panko, but regular breadcrumbs can be used instead.

Using white or yellow miso rather than a saltier red one makes it easier to control the saltiness of the recipe.

Cauliflower Pakoras

Seasoned with Kashmiri chile powder, garam masala, and turmeric, these crisp, tender cauliflower pakoras make a satisfying snack.

Cauliflower Pakoras next to a green chutney sauce
Serious Eats / Amanda Suarez

Snacks are an important part of Indian cuisine. Pakoras and bhajis are popular snacks in India and are eaten hot for breakfast or lunch, with ketchup, generous spoonfuls of fresh green chutneys made from cilantro or mint, and Maggi Hot and Sweet Sauce. Pakoras can be prepared in a variety of ways using different vegetables, meats, and fish, though typically they are made with fresh vegetables like onions, whole green chiles, potatoes, leafy greens, or carrots. The vegetables are grated and chopped, then mixed with dry ingredients—like chickpea flour and salt—to help release their liquid in order to form a batter. 

Because cauliflower is a tough, hearty vegetable that’s more difficult to draw water from, I’ve chosen to make the batter first by whisking water with a mixture of chickpea flour, salt, and Kashmiri chile powder, garam masala, salt, and ground turmeric for a vivid yellow hue. Incorporating the chile powder or a hot dried red pepper will give your pakoras a pleasant kick, but if you don’t have any on hand, you can make a similar seasoning by combining 3/4 teaspoon smoked sweet paprika with 1/4 teaspoon ground cayenne and use it in place of the chile powder. The consistency of the batter should be that of a runny custard. Too thick, and the batter will produce a heavy, bready crust. Too thin, and it won’t stick to the cauliflower well.  

Overhead view of dipping cauliflower Pakora in chutney
Serious Eats / Amanda Suarez

For the crispiest cauliflower, each of its crevices must be coated well, with excess batter shaken off before it’s fried. Keep an eye on the cauliflower as it fries, since smaller florets will take less time to cook than larger pieces. Once the pakoras are golden brown, you’ll use a slotted spoon to transfer them to a baking sheet lined with paper towels. Crunchy and tender, the pakoras make a satisfying snack and should be served warm and eaten as soon as they’re ready.

In a large mixing bowl, whisk the chickpea flour, salt, red chile powder, turmeric, and garam masala together. Whisk in the water until completely smooth. The batter should be runny like a custard and not too thick or thin. Fold the cauliflower florets into the batter to coat evenly.

Four image collage of making the batter and coating cauliflower florets
Serious Eats / Amanda Suarez

In a 6-quart Dutch oven or wok, heat oil over medium heat until it reaches 350ºF (177ºC). Meanwhile, set a wire rack in a rimmed baking sheet or line the baking sheet with paper towels. Working in batches to prevent crowding the oil, use your fingers or tongs to lift cauliflower from batter, allowing excess to drain off, then carefully lower into the oil. Fry, stirring and rotating pieces gently as they cook, until golden brown and crisp, 5 to 6 minutes.  Using a slotted spoon or spider, transfer the fried florets to the prepared baking sheet and season with salt.. Return oil to 350ºF (177ºC) and repeat with remaining cauliflower florets. Serve hot or warm.

Two image collage of frying cauliflower florets and fried parokas resting on a wire rack

Special Equipment

Spider or slotted spoon, rimmed baking sheet, wire rack or paper towels, instant-read thermometer

Notes

Different sizes of florets can create varying cooking times: smaller florets cook faster than larger ones, and pieces with thicker stems may require more time in the fryer.

Make-Ahead and Storage

The pakoras are best enjoyed within an hour of cooking.