Back to basics: The soffritto
I remember my mother telling me when I was a young teenager in the kitchen that the key to a good soup or ragu is the way that the onion is cooked – softly, gently, sweating in butter or olive oil until transparent. I’ve followed that advice ever since.
The gently cooked onion is a foundation for flavour in the dish. It’s something magical and this is also what it behind the Italian soffritto and the French mirepoix. The soffritto, which comes from the Italian verb, soffriggere, to saute, is the base of practically any sauce, soup, ragu, risotto, and more (certain roasts and braises come to mind), in Italian cooking. And a good soffritto can make or break a dish. It’s the little details that make a difference, and knowing how to prepare a soffritto well is like knowing how to make your own stock.
Rather than give you a recipe for something that can differ from kitchen to kitchen and recipe to recipe, I’ll describe the general gist of the soffritto. The classic and most common soffritto is made up of onion, celery and carrot. Depending on the dish you’re preparing and the region you’re preparing it in, the soffritto ingredients can change, but the procedure is the same – finely chopped vegetables are cooked over the gentlest heat (start with a cold pan) in olive oil until they become soft, not browned, and are practically melting. The onion turns transparent, the celery fragrant and the carrot seeps its colour into the whole mixture. Often, the cook will add just a touch of white wine or water to the mixture to prevent it from colouring too much and to help the vegetables soften.
Proportions are at the discretion of the cook. Perhaps it’s half a celery stalk to one carrot to one medium brown onion. Perhaps the cook prefers less celery, which tends to have a flavour that can often stand out too much. Sometimes parsley – both leaves and stalks – or whole or chopped garlic make up part of the soffritto. Perhaps an anchovy, a chopped chilli or some pancetta is added. Elizabeth David describes a Roman foundation consisting of an onion, a carrot, some celery leaves, parsley and garlic, browned in fat, sometimes with the addition of bacon (here she no doubt means pancetta or guanciale) or ham.
There seems to be some confusion about the term battuto – a word which is often interchanged with soffritto (indeed, Elizabeth David writes in Italian Food that soffritto is another word for battuto and Gillian Riley in the Oxford Companion to Italian Food says they’re not quite the same but describes battuto as “creamed cured pork fat with a similar mixture of finely chopped aromatics.”). Battuto means ‘minced’ and usually refers to the procedure used for preparing the raw vegetables for the soffritto – as in preparare il battuto per il soffritto, prepare the minced vegetables for the soffritto.
Looking at older cookbooks such as Pellegrino Artusi‘s 1891 opus, the term soffritto may not be used to describe this all important cooking technique, but it’s still there. Artusi, in fact, does use the word battuto often, to describe a procedure.
In his recipe for salsa di pomodoro, tomato sauce, for example, he instructs to make a “battuto” of a quarter of an onion, a garlic clove, a piece of celery as long as your finger, some basil leaves and parsley as necessary. But it’s not what we now would call a classic soffritto. He goes on, asking you to season the battuto with olive oil, salt, pepper and then to break up seven or eight tomatoes into it. Put it all over heat together and cook, stirring, until you get a dense, creamy liquid. Pass it through a sieve and serve on pasta with cheese and butter.