Nobody likes bland food – especially bland vegetables.
This technique will ensure your plant-based meals are satisfying, save dishes from dullness and add a layer of flavour or three to your food.
What is caramelisation?
By its most basic definition: it is something turning a caramel or golden-brown colour.
Most foods have natural sugars. In a nutshell, you’re changing the flavour of food by caramelising these naturally occurring sugars.
The Science Behind Caramelisation
We use the term broadly, but not all browning of food to enhance taste can be called caramelisation. If there is any protein involved, it is actually called the Maillard effect. This happens when the amino acids in any plant or animal protein react with sugar at high temperatures and result in complex flavours in your food. Caramelisation occurs when sugar in food undergoes decomposition from heat in a process called pyrolysis. The difference is whether there is a protein present.
For the purposes of this article, we’ll use the umbrella term caramelisation, but if this ever comes up in a pub quiz, consider yourself prepared.
If you would like to know more, head to @truebitenutrition on Instagram to chat with food scientist and nutritionist Martolis Pieters.
How does caramelisation improve the taste of food?
It adds an umami flavour to food. If you caramelise ingredients before using them in a sauce or a bake, they will gain a depth of flavour and add another dimension to your food. For example, caramelise mushrooms before you make a mushroom sauce or before you add them to risotto and your friends will be proclaiming your kitchen prowess.
What is the difference between caramelising and charring?
Charring is actually taking something past the point of caramel to burnt. It is not necessarily the healthiest option, but if done in small quantities and with care, it does add an extra element to food.
How do you caramelise?
You need three elements to do caramelisation right:
An absence of water. Heat. Time.
If there is water present, it won’t happen. If you are too scared to turn up the heat, you won’t get the nice golden colour. If you rush it, it’s unlikely to get the desired effect.
Use a tiny bit of oil to help you out but avoid butter or margarine as they burn too quickly.
Here is a step-by-step guide on how to caramelise 4 vegan ingredients:
How to Caramelise Tofu
Hot Tip: Tofu often comes in brine, so you need to remove some moisture. Cover it in a tea towel and compress it for 30 mins to overnight. The longer you compress it, the drier it will become and the quicker it will crisp up.
- Season the tofu with salt and pepper and slice it, cut it into cubes or leave it as a block.
- Heat your oil of choice in a pan until it’s very hot.
- Place the tofu in the pan and leave it. Only turn it when you see it starting to colour.
- Don’t keep turning it or it will take ages to brown (if it ever does). Remove from the pan when crisp.
Serving suggestion: Top with caramelised onions and herb oil and serve with steamed greens, use in a wrap or a stirfry, with a dip on a platter, or as a filling in sushi.
How to Caramelise Mushrooms
Hot Tip: The key with mushrooms is a nice high heat and not overcrowding the pan. If they are crowded, they will sweat and take ages to brown because they let off so much water.
- Slice or chop or blitz the mushrooms.
- Heat your oil of choice in a pan until it’s very hot.
- Add the mushrooms, stir or toss them to coat them in the oil and leave them alone.
- You want to hear a sizzle and start to see the golden colour and smell the mushroomy smell.
- Toss it. Let it sit for a few minutes. Repeat.
- If the pan gets too dry, add a dash more oil.
- When it’s done, add in garlic, salt and pepper, lemon, thyme, pesto, spices or whatever else depending on how you use it. E.g. if you are making a mushroom sauce, add your coconut cream/oat milk.
Serving suggestion: On toast, a burger, in risotto, in a salad, sandwich or wrap.
How to Caramelise Onions
Unlike mushrooms, rather go for a smaller pan or pot so that the onions are crowded and sweat. This allows the water to sweat out of the onions and soften them before the sugars start to caramelise. They have much less water than mushrooms, so this won't take too long.
- Slice the onions to expose as much surface area as possible. The thinner the slices, the faster they will caramelise.
- Place your oil of choice, onions and a pinch of salt into a pan.
- Start at a medium heat to let the onions sweat and soften and at the end, turn up the heat to get the colour and caramelise the sugars.
- Toss it. Let it sit. Repeat.
- Store in a sterilised jar for later or to give as a gift. Or even freeze in small batches to use as needed.
Serving suggestion: In a quiche, on a burger, as a dip for a platter, on a cracker with thyme and cheese for a canapé, stirred into a pie filling, as a base of a soup, or tossed over roasted baby potatoes or steamed green beans.
How to Caramelise Root Vegetables
Hot Tip: A mistake people often make is to overcrowd the pan, roast on too low a heat in the oven, put the veg into a cold oven or not use oil or seasoning.
- The best way to caramelise these is to roast them in the oven.
- Preheat the oven to anywhere from 180–220°C.
- Lightly toss the veg in an olive oil blend or canola oil, add salt and pepper and any hard herbs, like rosemary or thyme.
- Make sure your veg are all similar sizes to ensure even cooking.
- Add any green veg you may want in the mix in the last 10 minutes of cooking to avoid bitter greens.
- Roast until golden brown and soft. Stir every 10 minutes.
Serving suggestion: Serve with your favourite protein, you can blend baked root veggies into your hummus, use them on a sandwich with pesto, in a wrap with leaves and hummus, as a part of a veg snack platter, or with your braai. You can also bake a pastry base with puff or phyllo pastry and fill it with your root veg mixed with caramelised onion.
You might already be caramelising things without knowing it, but very often people try to do it in a rush and it just doesn’t work. If you take the time to do it right though, it will taste so much better. To make a nice jar of caramelised onions will take 40 minutes to 1 hour. You do need a little oil unless you have a very good non-stick pan but we reckon the ratio of oil to veg, for those who watch their oil intake, is worth it for the value it adds to the taste.
If you are in the Port Elizabeth area and would like to try a prepared meal using caramelised elements, pop into our store at 25 Westbourne Road, order online or check your local Spar in the Eastern Cape and try our delicious, nutritious, made-with-love plant-based Butternut and Phyllo Pie frozen meal.