Brussels sprouts are a divisive vegetable — you either hate them or love them.
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When prepared properly, Brussels sprouts recipes are full of flavor. They can be sweet, spicy, salty or whatever taste you prefer. Not to mention they're full of nutrients and provide health benefits.
You don't have to be an expert to learn how to make a side of Brussels sprouts in a tasty way. We sought the advice of professional chefs on how to reduce the bitterness in Brussels sprouts to settle the debate once and for all.
1. Choose the Best Possible Produce
The first step to reducing the bitterness in Brussels sprouts begins before you even step foot in the kitchen. Though they're naturally bitter, choosing the freshest ones can set your recipe up for success.
"As with any vegetables, I'd recommend buying the freshest Brussels sprouts you can, but they do naturally have a slightly bitter taste, which is why they divide opinion," says Steven Edwards, a professional chef and restaurant owner.
Choosing and storing produce can be just as intimidating as cooking it. If you're not sure how to choose Brussels sprouts, there are some signs to look out for.
"Look for smaller sprouts that are more dense and heavy than they look," says Natalia Levey, a professional chef and restaurateur. "Make sure they are bright green with no yellow leaves, and that they have a tight leaf structure."
2. Remove the Outer Leaves
The outer leaves are where a lot of the bitterness in Brussels sprouts lives. An easy way to reduce the overall bitterness is by removing these leaves, which tend to fall off on their own.
"Start any recipe by removing the thicker outer leaves of the Brussels sprouts," says professional Saul Montiel.
He also recommends washing them in a mixture of water and white vinegar to remove any debris or dirt.
3. Blanch Them in Salt Water
Montiel recommends this method for reducing the bitterness in Brussels sprouts. "Cut the Brussels Sprouts in half and blanch them in salt water for about 2 minutes," he says.
To blanch Brussels sprouts, cook them in boiling water for a couple of minutes to soften them and then shock them with an ice bath to rapidly stop the cooking process. Then, you can season them and use another cooking method to fully prepare them.
4. Choose Your Cooking Method Carefully
You have many options to cook your Brussels sprouts: boiling, roasting, searing, deep-frying, air-frying, stir-frying and so on.
"The best methods for maximizing the flavor of Brussels sprouts include searing, roasting or deep-frying," says Levey. "These methods will encourage maximum caramelization and will lead to deeper, more nutty flavors. Always make sure there is enough fat when cooking Brussels, so they are completely lubricated and don't burn."
She also loves using the air fryer to make Brussels sprouts.
5. Roast Them at High Temperatures
Roasting Brussels sprouts is Montiel's preferred method.
"You can roast Brussels sprouts at high temperatures," he says. "The dry heat is perfect because it caramelizes the vegetables, making them sweeter."
Roast Brussels sprouts on a cast iron pan in the broiler for about 8 to 10 minutes, per the Cleveland Clinic.
6. Avoid Boiling Brussels Sprouts
You can cook Brussels sprouts by boiling them, but Edwards recommends against this if your goal is to reduce the bitter taste.
"The best way to reduce the bitterness is not to boil them in the first place," Edwards says.
This method doesn't help the sprouts to caramelize or bring out their sweetness, which can mask the bitter flavor. Boiling may also lead to overcooking the Brussels sprouts, which intensifies the bitterness, according to the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.
7. Add Sweetness to Balance Bitterness
Of all the possible ingredients you can add to Brussels sprouts, sweet ingredients will likely be the best received.
"To reduce the bitterness in Brussels sprouts, add a touch of brown sugar while sautéing them in healthy extra-virgin olive oil, garlic and a touch of chili," says Susy Massetti, a professional chef and restaurateur.
"Use up to ½ cup of brown sugar per 1 pound of Brussels sprouts and remember to remove them from heat as soon as the sugar starts caramelizing."
If you're trying to reduce your sugar intake, you can sweeten Brussels sprouts in other ways. Aspartame is one option, and it's a non-nutritive sweetener that doesn't change the nutritional value of your meals, says dietitian Marie Spano, RD, CSSD.
One study found a very small amount of aspartame helped decrease the bitterness of Brussels sprouts and increased their acceptability. In fact, aspartame was the most effective bitter blocker in the study, though it increased the perception of sweetness too much for those who were supertasters, per a March 2013 study in Chemosensory Perception.
“I recommend adding a quality sea salt, which helps add more flavor and bring out the caramel flavor of the maple syrup,” says Sarah Schlichter, MPH, RDN. “Drizzling maple syrup (even just a tablespoon) adds micronutrients like antioxidants, calcium, phosphorus, iron and potassium.”
8. Add Elements of Spiciness, Fat and Acid
Reducing the bitterness in Brussels sprouts is all about what you use to flavor them. If you serve a plate of plain vegetables, they will get a bad reputation. Vegetables are like tofu — in order for them to taste delicious, you need to dress them up with ingredients, spices, seasonings and condiments that complement their natural flavors.
"Add a pinch of sugar, pepper flakes, olive oil and lemon to reduce the bitter taste," Montiel says. He recommends this as a way of incorporating elements of sweetness, spiciness, fat and acidity, which all help to balance the bitterness in the sprouts.
Cooking Brussels sprouts with a source of healthy fat can be a game-changer. "Brussels sprouts take on a whole new flavor when you cook them with a type of fat like olive oil or avocado oil," says registered dietitian Mackenzie Burgess, RDN.
"This fat helps promote that delicious caramelization that takes place when sautéing or roasting Brussels. Adding this fat will also help you feel fuller longer. If you're worried about calories, just be sure to keep the amount of fat you're using to a moderate amount — about 1 to 2 teaspoons of oil per cup of sprouts as a rule of thumb."
“Brussels sprouts can go from simple to spectacular with the addition of delicious sauces (like teriyaki sauce or maple syrup) or ingredients like bacon, pancetta or fresh herbs,” Levey says. “The most favorable flavor combinations for Brussels sprouts include bacon and garlic, apple cider vinegar as well as garlic and cream and nutmeg.”
- American Heart Association: “How to Blanch Vegetables Video”
- Cleveland Clinic: “Recipe: Roasted Brussels Sprouts”
- Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health :”Brussels Sprouts”
- Chemosensory Perception: “Masking Vegetable Bitterness to Improve Palatability Depends on Vegetable Type and Taste Phenotype”