An Italian Soffritto – A Prelude to Cooking
The point of departure for many Italian recipes is a soffritto, a fine chopping of fragrant herbs and earthy vegetables sautéed in a regional fat either olive oil or in some cases olive oil and butter. Soffritto comes from the Italian past participle of soffriggere meaning to brown from the Latin *suffrīgere meaning to fry lightly. Underfrying allows the aromatics to brown and release their flavors and aromas creating a base for a sauce, soup or stew. I have heard it said that one batch of soffritto can easily cook four different meals. The successful soffritto is slowly cooked over low heat, stirring every so often until slightly all the ingredients are slightly caramelized to create a rich depth of flavor. When the soffritto takes on a golden color and homogeneity you are ready to add the other ingredients and proceed with making the main dish.
A classic soffritto of carrots, onions and celery is a critical step in making the ragù for an epic lasagna Bolognese and the most popular base for all kinds of traditional Italian dishes. A variation of the classic Italian soffritto is a mandatory starting point for a creamy risotto, a rustic bowl of ribollita or minestrone or a luscious osso buco. In older Italian cookbooks, you may see the term battuto associated with a soffritto. Aromatics (odori), fragrant bundles of herbs and/or vegetables, are roughly chopped (beaten) on a wooden cutting board with a knife or more traditionally using a mezzaluna (a semicircular blade with a handle at each end). Today it is easier to use a food processor to make a fine battuto but add the onion last, otherwise you will be left with a watery over-onioned paste. An odori can be as simple as a bunch of fresh herbs (parsley or basil), a carrot, a stalk of celery, an onion and a tiny ripe tomato and like all Italian ingredients varies from region to region. Because a soffritto is more a technique of cooking, culinary correctness would sequence the process like this – you have bought your odori from the market and have prepared your battuto. Now it is time to fry it in olive oil or butter to make a rich soffritto and then you can begin to cook.
Many other culinary traditions begin with variations of the Italian soffrttto. The French mirepoix, the German Suppengrün (carrot, celeriac, leek), the famous Holy Trinity of Cajun cooking (onion, celery, green bell pepper) and the Spanish sofrito, a mixture of onion, garlic, and tomatoes come to mind. Almost every cuisine in the world starts with a commonality of a simple, balanced, vegetable base. Whether Mediterranean, Latin American, Spanish, Portuguese, Creole or Cajun, aromatic ingredients cut into small pieces, sautéed or braised in cooking oil is universal.
Odori and sapori (smells and flavors) and the countless iterations and variations created by their combinations account for all the recipes of the world. They are the prelude to great cooking and often begin with a soffritto.