I’d never thought much about glazed vegetables until I started working with superstar chef Thomas Keller on his Bouchon cookbook. Our editor suggested we do a short essay on the subject, so I got a lesson in glazing from the master himself in the French laundry kitchen. (How lucky is that?) Like most things that come out of his pristine kitchen, Thomas’s glazed vegetables were amazing—glossy, tender, and sweet but not cloying. They were an eye-opener. I’m sure I learned how to glaze vegetables in cooking school, but until my lesson with Thomas I had mostly experienced the dish as vegetables boiled with a heaping handful of sugar or sautéed in butter and sugar. At the French laundry, I realized that when glazed vegetables are done right, much of the sweetness comes from the vegetables themselves. As the vegetables cook, the liquid draws out their sugar and reduces to form a delicate glaze (with the aid of butter and just a touch of additional sweetener). That’s the alchemy Thomas showed me, and the method I still use.
Use the right pan and enough water to cover
Making glazed vegetables come out well starts with choosing a saucepan that’s wide enough to hold all of the vegetables snugly in one or more layers. You don’t want them spread out in a huge pot. For 1 pound of vegetables, a pan that’s about 8 inches wide at the base usually does the trick. I use one with sloped sides because it makes it easier to toss the vegetables in the glaze, but straight-sided is fine, too.
While the right pan makes a difference, the real secret to making glazed vegetables turn out well is learning how much water to use. Adding too much can cause your vegetables to overcook by the time your glaze is formed. Adding too little, while less of a problem, can result in unevenly cooked vegetables. A good guideline for finding that middle ground is to add just enough water to cover the vegetables.
I’ve found that if I get all of the above right, the vegetables will finish cooking at the same time the glaze is formed, which is ideal. But sometimes things don’t work out that way, and that’s OK, too, because there’s some flexibility with this method. I always taste the vegetables after they’ve been boiling for about 10 minutes. If they’re cooked through but there’s still a lot of liquid in the pan, I remove them and let the liquid continue cooking until it’s syrupy, then add the vegetables back to the pan. If the glaze forms before the vegetables are cooked through, I just add a little more water and let them cook longer.
Listen for the crackle
The other great trick I’ve learned for cooking glazed vegetables is to let the glaze tell me when it’s done. A sharp, frenetic bubbling sound, almost a crackle, means that the liquid is nearly gone. That’s the signal to lower the heat.
Audio: Listen to the telltale sound of perfectly glazed vegetables in an audio slideshow.
Knowing what to listen for makes it easy to have vegetables glazing on a back burner while I direct my attention to whatever else I’m cooking.
And that might be the most important lesson I got from Thomas—this isn’t some fussy technique reserved for special occasions. In fact, glazed vegetables are a great weeknight side because they’re so easy to make. You can pretty much leave the vegetables alone and just let them boil, with an occasional shake of the pan. Once they’re cooked and the glaze is formed, you’re ready to season as you please and serve.
With this method in hand, you’ll find it’s simple to make shimmery, delicious, elegant glazed vegetables—even without Thomas Keller by your side.
Experiment with your favorite flavors
There’s a whole world of vegetables to be glazed, types of sweeteners to glaze them in, and flavors to add. Carrots are classic, but the technique works with any number of root vegetables (think beets, radishes, turnips, celery root, onions—the list goes on). Using honey, maple syrup, or brown sugar in place of granulated sugar is one way to change things up. Herbs, spices, and other flavorings add even more variation—curry, miso, cayenne, and balsamic vinegar are a few of my favorites, but there’s plenty of room to get creative.