Shallow Roasting 101

There is one major reason I look forward to cooler temps every fall: the return of roasting (and sweaters and boots and scarves and tolerable outdoor temperatures, oh my!).  But today we’re talking roasting!!  Honest to goodness oven roasted food is just awesome, but alas, my oven heats up the apartment so much that I cannot use it all summer (not even for emergency midnight brownies!…well, OK, maybe for that, but only once or twice all season!).

Ah, shallow roasting.  So simple (or elaborate…it’s up to you!), and so tasty.  And relatively hands-off (not slow-cooker-hands-off, but close!).  Shallow roasting is when you roughly chop a bunch of veggies and arrange them (and maybe some meaty bits) in one layer on a large shallow pan.  It’s not for making that 3 pound rump roast lurking in the freezer, but it is perfect for smaller cuts of meat, nothing more than an inch or so thick (so things like bone-in porkchops, chicken parts or butterflied chicken, and sausages). Of course you can skip the meat and just roast veggies, too!  Any way you slice it, it’s (relatively) quick, endlessly variable, and really really easy!  What’s not to love!?  (Plus, if you need a no-fuss fancy meal for company, this is your golden ticket!).

While there are lots of great recipes for making roasty-toasty goodness (three of my favorites are linked right there!), the great thing about it is that you don’t really need a recipe to get great results.  What you do need are a few simple guidelines, and some imagination.  So with roasting season coming hot on the heels of summer (pardon the pun!), I thought I’d throw together some easy guidelines for foolproof shallow roasting!

Rule #1: Pick the proper pan.

The right pan will be large enough to lay all your ingredients out in a single layer, and deep enough to corral any juices that might render out of what you’re roasting.  If the you have more than one layer, you’ll end up braising the lower layers with the juices that run off; if it’s all too crowded, you’ll end up steaming everything because there isn’t room for air to circulate.  Tempting as it may be to throw everything under the sun into one pan, you really need to exercise a bit of restraint to get the best result.  If your pan doesn’t quite hold as much as you’d hoped, split the ingredients into two pans!  On the flip side, if you have tons of extra space between everything, either find a smaller pan, or scoot it closer together into the center of the pan.

Rule #2: Concentrate your flavors.

It can be tempting to roast one of everything, and there’s nothing wrong with a cornucopia of flavors, to be sure!  But I find that being a bit picky keeps the results from becoming monotonous and dull.  It doesn’t take a lot of work, either!  When I do up a roasting pan, I try to have 1-2 different starches, 1-2 different savories, 1-2 sweet things, and some form of meat (though you can easily skip the meat if you like!).  So for example, you could do potatoes (starch), carrots & ‘snips (savories), red onions & dried cherries (sweet), and chicken.  Or sweet potatoes, butternut squash & rutabaga, and sweet italian sausage.  The combinations are endless, and the flavors in each pan are distinct because it’s not the same stuff all of the time!

Rule #3: Prep wisely.

There is a bit of preparation involved up front to make sure everything cooks at the same speed (so you don’t end up with burnt onions and undercooked spuds alongside your perfectly cooked chicken…not that I speak from experience or anything!).  The key here is to make sure everything is approximately the same proportion.

Roughly chopping all your veggies is a good start…You generally want fairly good-sized pieces (so they don’t burn), so I suggest using a “rule of thumb”: cut your veggies into chunks not longer than your thumb, and never more than twice the thickness.  Of course you can vary this as needed (i.e. I’d cut hard root veggies like spuds, swede, turnips, etc., into slightly smaller pieces than say, tomatoes and fresh fruit), but you can’t go wrong if you start with consistency!

If you’re using meat, for Pete’s sake, use bone-in (and skin-on, if poultry) or high-fat cuts to keep the meat from drying out and getting overdone.  Bone-in meats take longer to heat through and cook, which keeps them juicy, and high fat meats take a long time to render all their fat before they dry out.  Since most of the fat will render anyway, unless you drink the pan juices, you’ll never regret starting out a little on the fatty side.  This is not the place for your boneless skinless chicken breasts…they’ll taste like sawdust after an hour’s roasting.

Rule #4: Lubricate judiciously.

There’s really nothing more heart-wrenching than losing your lovely caramelized bottom bits to a sticky roasting pan (except maybe discovering your roasted veggies doing the backstroke in a pool of grease).  A little oil or grease goes a loooooooong way to making a successful roasting session!  Now, sometimes the stuff you’re roasting will render quite a bit of fat (things like pork, sausages, skin-on poultry, etc.), and that will suffice to keep the meat from sticking, but you generally always want to brush your roasting pan with a thin coat of fat (and by “fat” I mean anything from butter to bacon drippings to olive oil to whatever tickles your fancy…this isn’t complicated!) to keep the veggies from sticking.  A thin coat will do just fine.  (And don’t bother tossing your ingredients with oil…that just makes it take longer for the upturned edges to get crispy).

Rule #5: Season appropriately.

Seasoning is not really a tricky bit of roasting, but it’s often overlooked.  A little salt & pepper are par for the course, but try adding things like dried herbs (fresh herbs, with the exception of thyme and rosemary, generally just wilt and look ever so sad, so skip them in the oven and use them as a garnish) or citrus zest (or even sliced citrus fruit AND zest!!).  The trick to seasoning is to keep your seasonings from scorching.  Dried herbs, salt, pepper, etc. don’t scorch easily, but if you’re adding, say, nuts or dried fruit, try to make sure they’re tucked under or near other roasty bits so they don’t burn (or add them about halfway through so they don’t cook as long, though that is a bit fussier).

Rule #6: One hour, 400 degrees.

An hour at 400 degrees (that’s about 200 degrees Celcius) is the perfect amount of time for shallow roasting.  Everything will still be juicy and tender, but fully cooked.  The top edges will have started getting crispy and golden, and the bottoms will be lightly caramelized.  If the top isn’t quite golden enough, you can still give it another 15 minutes and not risk burning anything.  Try it.  You won’t be disappointed!

So there you have some very simple guidelines for shallow roasting!  It’s really flexible and very customizable, so try it out!  And if you need some help getting the creative juices going, try the pick-list approach…pick one or two flavors from each list below (maybe 6 things total per pan) and roast!

Starches: potatoes, sweet potatoes, pre-cooked rice, wild rice, or whole grains like barley, wheat, or rye berries (lay rice & grains down as a bed and nestle everything else on top of it).

Savories: cauliflower/broccoli (large florets), brussels sprouts, cabbage (large wedges), radishes, summer squash, eggplant, whole cherry tomatoes or halved larger tomatoes (de-seed if really juicy).

Sweets: swede/rutabaga, turnips, parsnips, carrots, leeks, onions, shallots, winter squashes, fresh or dried cherries, apricots, mango, or apples (chop up if large).  

Meats:  bone-in, skin-on chicken parts (dark meat is awesome; bone-in pork chops; sausages of any sort: hot, spicy, sweet, seasoned, etc…(cut into 2″ lengths for even cooking); butterflied whole chicken; turkey breast cutlets. 

Seasonings: fresh fruit (diced if large), dried fruit, pine nuts, pecans, walnuts, citrus zest, dried herbs and/or spices, or any spice blend. 

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