My Goals

  • Brussels sprouts that are bright green and crisp-tender

  • Substantial, deeply browned crusts

  • Sprouts that are evenly browned from edge to edge and sprout to sprout

It was a memorable kitchen moment: I had been experimenting with cooking Brussels sprouts on the stovetop when I produced a batch unlike any I’d ever had. Over intense, direct heat, the tiny cabbages developed a deeply caramelized crust that was unusually thick and dark, contributing a rich, nutty sweetness. With their attractively browned cut sides juxtaposed against bright green, tender-but-crisp rounded sides, these sprouts were impossible to resist.

Getting there hadn’t been easy: Producing even browning from edge to edge and from sprout to sprout was a challenge, as was getting their dense interiors tender before the exteriors burned. I’d started by halving 1 pound of sprouts to create flat surfaces for browning. I heated a bit of oil in a skillet until smoking and then frantically arranged the sprouts cut sides down, later tossing them about. I had to remove the sprouts from the skillet when they started to burn in spots, but unfortunately, they were still crunchy. Adding a little water to a subsequent batch and covering the pan only made them too soft.

Since a hot skillet wasn’t working, what about starting with a cold one? I set an oiled pan full of sprouts, cut sides down, over medium-high heat, covered, for 5 minutes. I then removed the lid and continued to cook the sprouts, without stirring, until they were just tender, which took only a few minutes more.

This was real progress. The cold start allowed the sprouts to heat slowly and release their moisture, so they steamed without additional liquid. Plus, I’d eliminated the hectic arrangement in a hot, oil-slicked skillet. That said, the sprouts’ bottoms were somewhat dry, and a few burnt patches remained, especially in their very centers.

Avoiding the Bull’s-Eye

When there isn’t enough oil in the skillet for even contact, the sprout browns (or even burns) only in the center instead of browning evenly across the cut side. Adding more oil solves the problem.

I’d been using just a small amount of oil. Would more oil help? Sure enough, a full 5 tablespoons worked wonders. As the sprouts heated, their tightly packed leaves separated and expelled moisture (a requirement for them to get hot enough to brown). This created space for oil to be trapped in the nooks and crannies and to spread from edge to edge for even contact with the skillet. Some oil was also absorbed by pores in the browned leaves rather than just sitting on the surface. The upshot? Gorgeously, evenly browned sprouts that weren’t greasy. Rather, they took on a satisfying richness that sprouts typically lack.

The best way to prevent burnt Brussels? Oil. We found that 5 tablespoons gave us evenly browned, crisp-tender Brussels sprouts.

Another advantage of this approach was that it was easier and less messy to arrange the sprouts in a dry skillet; I just drizzled the oil on top and it seeped underneath. And if any of the sprouts near the edges of the pan didn’t brown as quickly as those in the center, I simply used tongs to reconfigure them.

Here was that unforgettable moment: These sprouts boasted brilliant green rounded sides and crisp-tender interiors contrasted by nutty-sweet, crusty façades. To balance the sweetness, I stirred in lemon juice and sprinkled Pecorino Romano on top.

Several recipe iterations and hundreds of Brussels sprouts later, we finally had a stovetop cooking technique that gave us caramelized crusts and rich, nutty sweetness.

Keys to Success

  • Brussels sprouts that are bright green and crisp-tender

    Starting the sprouts in a cold covered skillet creates a steamy environment so that the sprouts cook through quickly and evenly, maintaining their bright, vibrant appearance, without any added moisture.
  • Substantial, deeply browned crusts

    Cooking the sprouts cut sides down the entire time, without flipping or turning them, ensures that the bottoms have plenty of time to develop substantial, caramelized crusts and an accompanying nutty sweetness.
  • Sprouts that are evenly browned from edge to edge and sprout to sprout

    Cooking the sprouts in a full 5 tablespoons of oil ensures that the bottom of the skillet is completely coated with fat, so the sprouts’ entire surfaces, not just their very centers, make contact.