My Goals

  • Easy-to clean heads

  • Crisp-tender stems and tender leaves

A member of the cabbage family, bok choy is an appealing twofer. Its crisp, mild-tasting stalks retain some of their texture when cooked, while the leaves wilt and soften. But how do you cook a vegetable with two such disparate parts?

When it comes to the larger heads of mature bok choy, cooking the leaves and stems separately is one solution. But with baby bok choy, it’s really a shame to separate the two parts since one of this smaller version’s assets is that it offers a lot of visual appeal on the plate when served whole or halved. The stalks of the younger variety are slightly more tender, but it’s still not a cinch to deliver perfect crisp-tender stalks and wilted but not mushy leaves. I decided to see what I could do.

I started with a pound of baby bok choy, which meant eight small heads. I considered cooking whole heads but changed my mind when grit remained in the nooks and crannies even after cleaning. I settled on halving the heads, which would also allow for faster cooking.

First, I tried a simple pan-seared approach—cooking the bok choy in a skillet until the leaves had wilted—but the stems didn’t fully cook through by the time the leaves were tender. I also found that I didn’t love the browning the bok choy picked up, as it muddied the vegetable’s clean flavor.

I suspected that a stint of steaming at the start might ensure more even, thorough cooking of the stems with no browning. The vegetables were a tight fit in the pan at first, but after a few minutes of covered cooking (with some water thrown in to provide enough steam), the leaves began to wilt and cook down. I removed the lid and cooked the bok choy a bit longer; by the time the liquid had evaporated, the stems had just the right texture. Adding minced garlic gave me a simple version perfect for any meal.

For a few variations showcasing flavorful sauces, I came up with some combinations for the base flavors (soy sauce with chili-garlic sauce, oyster sauce with sesame oil, mirin with miso, or fish sauce with pepper flakes) and varied the aromatics (ginger or shallot instead of garlic). A little sugar helped balance the salty flavors of the miso and fish sauce variations, and a mere ½ teaspoon of cornstarch gave all of the sauces just the right consistency. I now had a clutch of sautéed baby bok choy options that were easy to prepare, full of flavor, and an attractive addition to any plate.

Keys to Success

  • Easy-to-clean heads

    Bok choy is notorious for trapping grit between its tightly packed stems. For baby bok choy that looks nice on the plate but is easier to clean than whole heads, we halve them, swish them in a few changes of water, and then spin them dry in a salad spinner, which ensures that we don’t add too much water to the pan.
  • Crisp-tender stems and tender leaves

    We start by steaming the heads in a covered skillet with a little water, and then we remove the lid and cook off the excess liquid.