Brow Beat

The Absolute Best Way to Cook Broccoli, According to So Many Tests

Nine labeled pieces of broccoli: Stovetop, roast, microwave, slow roast, grill, blanch, boil, cook forever, steam.
Ella Quittner

The year is approximately 25 B.C., and the world’s primordial broccoli is about to be presented to a human for possible consumption. “Aspetti!” hisses the emperor’s chef, his eyes wide as the tiny treelike structures make their way to the grand dining table of Domus Augusti. “Wait! Is there any way to make it look any less…limp? Or any more…green?” But it’s too late—the florets are already in motion. And the emperor, never one to mince words, takes a single bite before pronouncing it “fine but kinda boring,” thereby relegating it to side dish status, at best, for thousands of years.

I’m fairly certain that none of the above actually happened, unless you count as fact a wild quarantine dream I had on Advil PM, which also involved Billie Eilish and, at one point, a boy I barely knew in high school.

But consider the gist: Bad broccoli is a bummer. The green stuff, which does in fact have origins in ancient Rome, is said to have been engineered by the Etruscans, as an offshoot of cabbage. And some of its many modern iterations—looking at you, cafeteria steam tables, salad bars, and my late grandmother’s “casserole surprise”—are a stark reminder of that cabbagey connection, with brocc that’s soft and grassy, lacking in notable character. (No disrespect to properly prepared cabbage, which is a separate topic.)

Good broccoli is, however, a revelation. We’ve all had it. Maybe you even make it at home, and are just reading this article as a favor to my mom. Good broccoli is the stuff not of quarantine nightmares, but of year-round daydreams, with tender, savory stalks and, optionally, crispy browned tops. Sometimes it’s encased in a delightful tempura crust, or blended into a deeply flavored soup. Sometimes it’s the star of a stir-fry, or the best supporting actor in a curry. Sometimes it’s just chilling by itself on a sheet pan and you’re not sure if you’re allowed to eat it, but you suspect your significant other will say it’s for his lunch the next day, so you sneak a floret while he’s just out of sight and burn the roof of your mouth.

In any case, good broccoli is an important cause, and one I happily agreed to research for Absolute Best Tests. (Broccoli’s cousins, broccolini, broccoli rabe, and gai lan or kai lan, aka Chinese broccoli, each have their own cooking nuances, which are not discussed in this article—but please DM me if you want to discuss cruciferous vegetables at any hour.)

Read on for the results of my marathon broccoli trials.

Controls & Fine Print

I prepared nine heads of broccoli—yes, I averted my eyes in the grocery checkout line in lieu of explaining the task at hand—the exact same way:

• Trimmed the very bottom of the stalk
• Peeled the tough outer layer from the stalk
• Cut the stalk into coins, roughly 3/4-inch thick
• Broke the florets apart into roughly even pieces, about 2 to 4 inches long

For cooking methods that involved a fat, I used extra-virgin olive oil, except in the case of the stovetop sauté, for which I used vegetable oil. I seasoned only with kosher salt.

Methods

“Cook Forever”

1.    Set a large, covered pot of water over high heat.
2.    When it reaches a boil, remove the lid and add the broccoli florets and stem coins. Boil the broccoli for 5 minutes, then drain.
3.    In a large sauté pan or skillet, heat a few tablespoons of extra-virgin olive oil over a medium flame. (If you’re following the real recipe, this is where you’d add garlic and anchovies, and sauté a few minutes.) Add the broccoli, season with salt, and turn the heat to the lowest possible setting.
4.    Cover the pan and cook for about 2 hours, until broccoli is extremely tender, gently stirring a few times throughout. Adjust seasoning to taste and serve.

See this Genius recipe by Roy Finamore for full instructions.

Blanch

1.    Set a large, covered pot of water over high heat. Prepare an ice bath.
2.    When the water reaches a boil, remove the lid and add a couple tablespoons of salt. Add the broccoli florets and stem coins, and cook until they reach desired tenderness.
3.    Transfer with a slotted spoon to the ice bath.
4.    Before serving or proceeding with another recipe, drain on towels and season with salt.

Steam

1.    Set a large pot with a few inches of water and a steamer basket over high heat, then cover.
2.    When the water comes to a boil, add the broccoli florets and stem coins to the steamer basket, then cover again. Steam for about 5 minutes, until the broccoli reaches desired tenderness.
3.    Season with salt before serving.

Stovetop (Sauté & Steam)

1.    In a large wok or sauté pan, heat a few tablespoons of vegetable oil over medium-high heat until shimmering.
2.    Add the broccoli florets and stem coins and cook, stirring occasionally, until the broccoli has browned in places and perked up to a bright green, about 4 minutes.
3.    Add a few tablespoons of water and cover the pan to steam the broccoli for about 3 minutes, until it’s fork-tender.
4.    Remove from the heat and season with salt.

Slow-Roast (325°F)

1.    Heat the oven to 325°F.
2.    Toss the broccoli florets, stem coins, and a few tablespoons of extra-virgin olive oil on a rimmed sheet pan. Season with salt.
3.    Roast, stirring occasionally, until tender, about 1 hour.

High Heat–Roast (425°F)

1.    Heat the oven to 425°F.
2.    Toss the broccoli florets, stem coins, and a few tablespoons of extra-virgin olive oil on a rimmed sheet pan. Season with salt.
3.    Roast, stirring occasionally, until tender, 20 to 25 minutes. (If the crispy bits begin to burn before the stalks are tender, you can turn down heat to 350°F or so and continue to cook.)

Boil

1.    Set a large, covered pot of water over high heat.
2.    When it reaches a boil, remove the lid and add a couple tablespoons of salt. Add the broccoli florets and stem coins, and cook until they reach desired tenderness, 3 to 5 minutes.
3.    Drain and season with salt to taste before serving.

Grill

1.    Heat the grill to medium. Toss broccoli florets and stem pieces with a few tablespoons of extra-virgin olive oil and pinches of salt.
2.    Grill until tender and slightly charred, flipping once or twice midway through, about 8 minutes total.

Microwave

1.    Place broccoli florets and stem coins in a microwave-safe bowl and add a few tablespoons of water.
2.    Cover the bowl and microwave on high for 3 to 4 minutes.
3.    Drain and season with salt before serving.

Findings

The Crispies

Slow-Roast (325°F)

I won’t bury the lede here: Slow-roasted broccoli is perfect in almost every way, except for its visage. (Unless you like your broccoli wizened and shrunken, like it’s been wandering through a forest without water for weeks.) But looks be damned, slow-roasted broccoli is tender, with concentrated flavor and lots of crispy bits, almost like French fries.

Roast (425°F)

Roasting at a high heat resulted in deliciously crispy broccoli. That said, it browned so quickly that I had to pull it from the oven before the stalks were fully cooked, which might suit someone looking for more bite.

Stovetop (Sauté & Steam)

The sauté-and-steam method is great for efficiency, and for optimizing both crispiness up top and tenderness down below. Aim for as little water as possible in the steaming step to avoid soaking previously crisped bits.

Charcoal Grill

Should you fire up a charcoal grill solely to cook broccoli? No—you can get similar results at a high temp in the oven, with less prep time. But if you’ve already got the grill going, and you like a bit of char and bite-back, grilled broccoli will have a fair amount to offer you.

The Softies

“Cook Forever”

Roy Finamore’s method for cooking broccoli, which involves blanching then sautéing over a super-low flame for two hours, produces the Cadillac of broccoli. It’s admittedly something of a bummer to look at, devoid of liveliness in color and structure, but it has the texture of broccoli-butter, and that’s more than enough reason to give it a go.

Boil

I so desperately wanted to like boiled broccoli, because I have a thing for underdogs. But despite being exceedingly simple to execute, the method didn’t have much to offer, unless you’re a fan of super-soft brocc. The actual flavor was weaker—as if it’d been leached away by the cooking water—than that of the other methods, besides the blanched batch.

Blanch

Blanching produced broccoli that was nearly identical to the boiled batch in texture, just a few shades brighter, since blanching stops enzyme actions that can cause fading.

Microwave

Microwaving broccoli is certainly efficient, about 5 minutes from start to finish. The end result is similar to boiled broccoli in both texture and flavor.

Steam

Steaming broccoli produces a more deeply flavored, almost earthy specimen than boiling, blanching, or microwaving. If you’re looking for a soft brocc with just a hair of structure, steaming will bode well.

So, What’s The Best Way?

IF YOU’VE GOT AN HOUR
Slow-roast broccoli for the most concentrated flavor, without sacrificing crispy treetops. (Not a technical term but it should be.)

IF YOU DON’T HAVE AN HOUR
Consider grabbing a wok and sautéing broccoli at a high temp for just a few minutes, before finishing with a quick in-pan steam.

IF YOU ARE A SOFT-BROCCOLI LOVER
Break out the steamer.

FOR A REAL TREAT
Consider Roy Finamore’s “cook forever” technique, which really does take forever in broccoli speak (two and a half hours all in). But it’ll be two and a half hours well spent.

More from Food52:

10 Ways to Upgrade Boxed Cake Mix, From a Pro Baker
The Foolproof Way to Make Homemade Apple Cider
3 No-Cook Dinners for When You Want to Turn off the Stove
From Walnut to Avocado, Here Are 6 Specialty Oils to Add to Your Pantry
25 Crusty, Chewy, Buttery Bread Recipes
A Very Serious Guide on How to Make Quesadillas