What Are Cooking Aromatics?

Aromatic vegetables

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In the culinary arts, the word "aromatics" is used to refer to certain vegetables that are traditionally used as the foundational basis for the flavors of recipes within a given type of cuisine. Examples of aromatics are onions, carrots, celery, ginger and peppers.

What Are Cooking Aromatics?

Aromatic vegetables, often simply referred to as aromatics, form the flavor base of a dish, and yes, they add aroma as well as flavor. They work in the background, giving depth and dimension to dishes like soups, stocks, sauces, braises, roasts, curries and stir-frys. The specific flavor or aroma or any one component of the aromatics might not necessarily stand out—in fact, it shouldn't. Instead, the combination of aromatics should merge together to form a sort of wall of flavor and aroma. So while you might not notice the individual components, you'd definitely notice their absence.

Aromatics are often combined with one another in threes, although the specific constituents of a given trio will differ from cuisine to cuisine.

Essential Aromatic Ingredients

Some essential aromatic ingredients include carrots, as well as their cousins the parsnip, along with any number of members of the onion family, including garlic, leeks, shallots and scallions. Carrots and onions both provide a sweetness, while the onions also impart some of their characteristic astringency. Members of the pepper family, including bell peppers and chile peppers with varying degrees of heat, are also commonly used as aromatics, as are fennel, celery and celeriac (which is sometimes known as celery root).

Asian cuisines have their own traditional aromatics as well, which include many of the ones named above, along with ginger, galangal and lemongrass.

You will sometimes see herbs such as bay leaf, cilantro and rosemary, or spices like black pepper, included among lists of aromatics, but this isn't technically correct. Aromatics are vegetables. Herbs and spices, though they certainly impart flavor and aroma to a dish, aren't considered aromatics per se. 

Recipes Using Aromatics

Recipes that use aromatics include stocks, sauces, soups, stews, braises and roasts, as well as stir-frys, curries and rice dishes. Often, a recipe that is prepared in stages, like a classic espagnole sauce, will utilize aromatics at each stage of the process. For instance, when roasting the bones for the stock, aromatics are added. When the stock is simmered, aromatics are added. And when the stock is incorporated with roux to make the sauce, aromatics are added once again. 

Aromatic Combinations

Aromatics are typically used in certain specific combinations within a given cuisine. So for example, in classic

  • French cuisine, the traditional aromatic combo, known as mirepoix, consists of onions, carrots and celery, most often utilized in the ratio of two parts onion, one part carrots and one part celery (by weight).
  • Italian cuisine utilizes the same three vegetables in its classic aromatic trio known as soffritto.
  • Spanish cuisine employs a similarly named sofrito, which consists of garlic, onions, peppers and tomatoes.
  • Cajun and Creole use the "holy trinity" of aromatics consisting of onions, celery and green bell peppers. 
  • Asian cuisines have their own version of the aromatic trinity as well, consisting of ginger, garlic and scallions, which is common throughout Chinese cuisine.
  • Thai curries feature a blend of aromatics made from shallots, garlic, chiles and lemongrass, ground into a paste.
  • Indian cooking likewise employs a blend of ginger, garlic and chiles. 

How Aromatics Are Used

We've talked about the different vegetables that make up aromatic combinations and what types of dishes they're used in. But how exactly are aromatics used? 

In most cases, aromatics are gently heated in some sort of fat to release their flavors, as the first step in preparing a dish. So if you're preparing a soup recipe that asks you to heat finely chopped onions, carrots and celery in a small amount of oil, and then maybe adding a bit of white wine followed by stock, you're using aromatics as the flavor base of the soup. This is in fact a very common technique for making all kinds of soups. The type of fat will also differ according to the culinary tradition of the dish you're preparing. So for instance, in French cuisine, you'd saute your aromatics in butter, while in Italian or Spanish, it's olive oil. 

Preparing and Using Aromatics

To prepare aromatics, you are basically chopping them into a uniform size and shape, and the size will be determined by the dish you're preparing.

  • ROASTING When roasting meat or poultry, aromatics are sometimes added to to the roasting pan, but they aren't actually served. So a rough chop, with pieces up to an inch, is fine.
  • STOCKS & SAUCES In some cases, like with stocks and certain sauces, the aromatics will be removed before serving.
  • SOUPS & STEWS Often in soups, stews, and curries, the aromatics will remain in the final dish, so your recipe will likely direct you to chop the aromatics finely so that the individual pieces blend in with the overall texture of the dish. 

In terms of quantities, there are traditional ratios associated with some aromatic blends. But there aren't hard and fast, and your recipe will guide you. 

A typical technique for heating the aromatics is to "sweat" the chopped veggies, which means to heat them in a small amount of oil or butter, over low heat, with a lid on, to soften but not brown them. But again, let the recipe you're preparing be your guide.