Sofrito is used in cooking throughout the Caribbean and especially in Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic. It's a fragrant blend of herbs and spices used to season countless dishes, such as stews, beans, rice, and occasionally meat. In most cases, sofrito is the foundation upon which the rest of a recipe is built. It's integral to Latin cuisine, but sofrito didn't originate there, and it's not exclusive to Caribbean or Latin American cookery.
Origins and Historical Background
The word "sofrito" is Spanish and means to lightly fry something, such as by sauteing or stir-frying. It’s a technique that the Spanish colonists brought with them when they settled in the Caribbean and Latin America beginning in the late 1400s.
Sofrito is much older than that. The first known mention of the technique is referenced as "sofregit" in the “Libre de Sent Soví,” circa 1324. This cookbook from the Catalan region of Spain is one of the oldest in Europe, so it's safe to say that sofrito has been an ingredient and a technique in Catalan cuisine since medieval times.
We can also see a correlation to sofrito in the derivation of the Catalan word "sofregit," which comes from the verb sofrefir, which means to under-fry or fry lightly. The Catalan idea of frying lightly meant to fry slowly over a low flame.
The first sofregit was simply a confit of onions and/or leeks with bacon or salt pork added if they were available. Eventually, herbs and other vegetables were added to the mix. Tomatoes didn’t become a part of sofregit until Columbus brought them back from the Americas in the early 16th century. Today's Spanish sofrito includes tomatoes, peppers, onions, garlic, paprika, and olive oil.
Sofrito mixtures range in color from green to orange to bright red. They also range in flavor from mild to pungent to spicy.
Technically speaking, sofrito isn’t even a recipe or dish; it’s a method of cooking. This explains why there are so many variations based on social and cultural factors. Flavor and ingredient preferences differ based on country or island, as well as other socio-cultural differences.
- Sofrito is called recaito in Puerto Rico. The pungent herb culantro and ajies dulces (sweet chili peppers) are the contributing flavor profiles.
- Dominican sofrito, called sazon, uses vinegar for a flavor punch and annatto for color.
- Cuban sofrito uses tomatoes and red bell peppers for sweetness and added color, and it also includes diced ham.
- The Yucatan area of Mexico, which borders the Caribbean, has its own version of sofrito that uses habaneros for a spicy kick.
Sofrito is eaten in as many different ways as there are methods of making it. Since it's usually the first thing to go into a cooking pot, it can be lightly sauteed to bring out the flavors of the aromatics. Sometimes in other recipes, the sofrito isn’t added until the end of the cooking time, and it's also sometimes used as a topping sauce for grilled meats and fish.
The “Libre de Sent Soví” had a great influence on French and Italian cuisines. It's common to find similar sofrito techniques in France, called mirepoix, and in Italy, called soffrito or battuto. Portugal has a version called refogado. The Spanish took the technique to their colonies throughout Latin America, where it's still called sofrito, and to the Philippines, where it is called ginisa.