While I visit restaurant almost every day, it worries me to see pasta and vegetables defy all norms of the word al dente and tender-crisp. Is it so difficult to get this basic step of cookery right? Absolutely not!
Blanching is a two-step process in which foods are plunged into boiling water, usually for only a minute or two and then put into ice water to rapidly stop the cooking process.You can also blanch in fat, but this technique is, more than often, not called for and lesser used. Blanching is one of those techniques that home cooks do not often employ, but it is a useful technique to know. It is easy to do, it doesn’t take much time, and it can make life in the kitchen easier.
Why to blanch:
- loosen the skin from fruits and vegetables
- brighten and/or fix colour
- achieve “crisp-tender/al dente” texture as required, in case of vegetables and pasta respectively.
- parboil vegetables for mise en place or use later in recipes.
- prepare fruits and vegetables for long-term freezer storage
How to blanch:
- Prepare an ice bath: put water and ice into a large bowl or into a clean sink.
- Heat a large pot of water to a rolling boil, roughly about 1 litre of liquid to 100 grams of food to be blanched.
- Add salt to the water; the water should be salty. A quick taste must remind you of sea water.
- Immerse the food into the boiling water for the specified amount of time.
- Remove food to the ice bath to cool quickly.
- Once cool, remove food from ice bath and pat dry.
If you are cooking short shaped pasta, such as penne, tortellini, or shells, add it all at once and stir it immediately. Bring the water back to the boil and start your timing. If you are cooking long strands of pasta, such as spaghetti, linguine, or lasagna, take a handful of pasta and dip one end in the water.
As the pasta softens, coil it until submerged, then start your timing. Cook,uncovered, at a rolling boil,until the pasta is al dente, which means “firm to the bite.” Stir the pasta occasionally to prevent sticking.
Just before the end of the recommended cooking time, lift a piece of the pasta out of the water with a fork and test it by biting into it. Be careful, it’s hot! The pasta should feel tender with a little resistance to the bite. The firmness of dried pasta is different from that of fresh pasta but neither should be allowed to become too soft or it will loose its ability to carry the flavor of the sauce that will be added.
Role of Salt
First of all, salty water is denser than unsalted water–it’s why we’re so much more buoyant at the beach. The salty water on the outside of the food is denser than the water inside the food, so it helps prevent nutrients from leaching out of the food into the water. Since blanching is such a quick cooking technique, though, it is not of particular concern.Another good reason to use well-salted water is that the salt helps brighten the colour and add more flavour.
There is a scientific reason for this having to do with the magnesium at the heart of chlorophyll molecules. Suffice to say that salting your blanching water helps keep the magnesium in the chlorophyll where it belongs, keeping things nice and green.A third, though arguably less important reason to use very salty water for blanching is that, since the process is so short, there is not enough time for the food to absorb much flavor.
Easier to peel vegetables
When you boil any type of fruit or vegetable, it cooks from the outside (the part closest to the boiling water) in. By putting fruits or vegetables in boiling water for just a minute or two before putting them into ice water allows just the very outer part of the fruit, the part just under the skin, to become soft.
Brightens and fixes color
When we talk about brightening and fixing color, we’re talking about the color green in vegetables. If you’ve over boiled green vegetables too long, you know that they turn from a bright, vibrant green to a dull olive green. To prevent this from happening, remove the food you are blanching to an ice bath when it is still bright green. For tender greens like basil or spinach, this can be as little as 30 seconds. For little tougher green vegetables such as broccoli or green beans, expect to blanch for up to two to three minutes.
After blanching, vegetables are often placed in an ice bath or bowl filled with water and ice to stop them from continuing to cook and preserve their color. This is also called shocking the vegetables. Once you have cooled down the ingredient in an ice bath, you need to remove them right away so they don’t get waterlogged.
How often will you have to use this technique at home? Probably not very often, but it is a useful technique to have in your arsenal for holiday gatherings or parties where it pays to get as much preparation out of the way as possible so you don’t find yourself chained into the kitchen when your guests arrive.
Saying that, I recommend you experiment with blanching and see if it helps you save a little time.