Why Brussels Sprouts Are the Best of All Possible Vegetables

In Depth

Of all the members of the vegetable kingdom, none are more maligned than the Brussels sprout. Here’s the thing, though: if you actually prepare them correctly, they’re the most goddamned delicious vegetable in existence.

“No!” you shout in response to my eminently reasonable lede, possibly stamping your feet and shaking your fists in an excellent impression of my three-year-old cousin. “Sprouts smell like farts and I DON’T LIKE THEM! NO NO NO NO! I DON’T WANT TO BEDTIME!” To this I say: first, if you don’t go to sleep like a good boy/girl, Lovecraftian monsters that hunt in the halls outside your bedroom at night will steal you and gift you unto the maw of madness,* and second, if you think sprouts smell like farts, you have only ever seen them prepared exactly the wrong way.

I realize in asserting this that I’m doing the thing I frequently decry in commenters: stating that if someone does not like a thing, they must not have had it prepared the right way. This is a fair objection! In the vast majority of cases, making this statement about food is wrong and dumb. The first reason it is not wrong and dumb when it comes to Brussels sprouts is that they only ever smell like farts if you boil them, an action whose lack of consideration as a war crime is a defining flaw of the Geneva Conventions. The second and just as important reason is that I’ve never in my life encountered another foodstuff with as great a potential variance between best-case scenario (delicious crunchy mini-cabbages) and worst (soggy fart ovoids), nor as much of a razor-thin line separating the two.

As noted, if they fall on the less ideal side of that line, it’s usually thanks to their traditional method of preparation: sticking them in a pot and then boiling them until they’ve been murdered past the point of recognition. A lot of the blame here can be laid on the Greatest Generation, who certainly possessed many fine qualities (Nazi-killing, perseverance at Nazi-killing, a tireless work ethic particularly as concerned Nazi-killing), but culinary excellence was not among them, and Baby Boomers took a lot of their cuisine sensibilities from their parents. Our grandparents are not to be blamed for this; these were people who grew up in an era when for many people, Christmas meant you got two boiled, unsalted potatoes instead of one, or maybe an orange if you were really lucky. You can’t expect victims of the Great Depression to have been able to overcome their horribly atrophied taste buds (this also explains the staggering preponderance of aspics in old-timey cookbooks). Contrast that with the time of plenty that was the 90’s, when Millennials (or as I now prefer to refer to us, snake people) were children. Viewed through that lens, it’s not surprising that when it comes to food, we’re way more likely to know what the fuck we’re doing.

Regardless of what the British will tell you, however,** boiling is rarely an ideal method of turning good ingredients into anything other than a future repressed memory. Luckily, there are a couple ways to make Brussels sprouts into something magical (both require you to cut them in half first; I’ve yet to personally see a Brussels sprout cooked whole that wasn’t some kind of disaster). The easiest requires access to a deep-fryer: you just throw them right the fuck in there (not breaded, obviously, this isn’t some South Carolina shit) and flash fry them for about 45 seconds. If you don’t have a deep-fryer, sauteeing (or pan-frying) them in a big-ass pan is a just as good—albeit much more time-consuming—process. You can roast them, too, although for me personally, the texture gets a little wonky when you do. Regardless of which of these methods you just used, hey, look at that! That overpowering flatulent smell you always hated about them? Gone. Marvel at your own culinary wizardry, for in this moment, you are as a God!***

Thanks to the fact that they sit in a flavor sweet spot (enough that you always know they’re there, not so much that they’ll overpower anything you put them with), Brussels sprouts also pair very, very well with a ton of different things. A laughably incomplete list of ingredients that go hand-in-hand with Brussels sprouts:

  • Bacon (this is probably the single best pairing; there’s a reason I used this particular lede image)
  • Pancetta
  • Enough balsamic vinegar to fell an elk
  • Sauteed mushrooms
  • Toasted walnuts
  • Gorgonzola
  • Parmesan
  • Steak
  • Currants
  • Pretty much any pasta
  • Scallops
  • Flash-fried parsley (flash-frying whole big pieces of parsley turns it from a garnish into a delicious ingredient in its own right)
  • Grilled or baked chicken
  • Pretty much fucking anything

I was lucky with Brussels sprouts: I was 26 when I first ate them, and they were professionally prepared. We never had them growing up, because despite my mother’s many crimes against vegetables, my father had been so scarred by Brussels sprouts as a child by his own mother**** that Mom never, ever made them. I dodged the pre-conceived notions bullet on that one.

Clearly, none of this is a universal truism. If you don’t like brassicas in general, sure, you’re going to hate Brussels sprouts no matter the form in which they appear. That’s fine, and totally understandable! Not everyone has to—or should—like the same thing. But if someone claims they’re cool with broccoli, kale, or especially cabbage but can’t stand sprouts, there’s a 90% chance they’ve only ever had them ruthlessly victimized by the Boiling Pot of Doom. I’ve seen first-hand too many examples of people who claimed they hated Brussels sprouts until they actually had them prepared by a chef ready and able to not fuck them up for me to believe otherwise.

The other problem with Brussels sprouts is that their freshness and quality can be all over the place depending on the form in which they’re sold. Smaller sprouts (which tend to be sweeter) are better than bigger ones, and if possible, you should be prepared to fight other grocery store customers to the death to get them still on the stalk rather than bagged (fortunately, those stalks have enough heft to turn them into an excellent bludgeoning weapon). Loose ones are fine, but more and more stores are selling them in their ideal be-stalked condition, and that should always be what you look for first. There’s also the fact that they can be finicky little bastards to cook; a little under isn’t too bad (they just wind up crunchier than usual and not quite as flavorful), but cook them too long and you’ll straight murder everything joyful in their natural texture. You don’t want that.

Given both their history and their fickle quality, it’s really not surprising their popularity ebbed as hard as it did for decades. Brussels sprouts are making somewhat of a comeback lately, though—and for a lot of us, it’s tempting to point to the people that tend to eat them and dismiss them as trendy hipster food. The problem with this line of thinking is that hipsters, for all their insufferable pretension, are more often than not very, very on point with food (food, not drinks); hipsters are largely responsible for the resurgence of anchovies and the rise of taco trucks and maple bacon donuts, so the track record here is more good than bad (sriracha notwithstanding). Moreover, not everything popular is Nickelback; sometimes popular things are popular because they are actually good (no matter what fans of indie music would like you to believe)! In the case of Brussels sprouts, their reputation is finally catching up to their quality.

Now, there’s nothing to say you or anyone else has to like Brussels sprouts. No one has to like anything. There are even non-vegetarians who think bacon tastes bad, and while I tend to view these people as clinically insane, they are certainly entitled to their feelings. But if you think you hate Brussels sprouts because you’ve only had their fart-smelling boiled iteration or some that weren’t fresh off the stalk, do yourself a favor and at least give them a shot. If it doesn’t work out for you, cool—at least you tried. Gold star! For most of you, however, I suspect you’ll be surprised to find that Brussels sprouts are the new undisputed King of All Veggies.

* I’m going to make an awesome parent someday, clearly.

** Is everyone on board with adding the prevalence of boiling things to the already-steep pile of historical charges we can levy at the British? ‘K, cool.

*** Well, gone until about an hour after you’ve eaten them, at least. It’s doubtful there’s a force in the universe capable of mitigating the spoot poots.

**** A woman whose signature dish at family gatherings was and is pearl onions floating in something as creamy as it is unspeakable. There are no great—or even particularly good—cooks on either side of my family. I thought the words “home-cooked meal” were some sort of nefarious curse until I started regularly eating at the house of my friend Jason (whose mother makes a pasta sauce that would reduce a Florentine food critic to tears and whose father may actually be an X-Men-style mutant with the superpower of unfailingly grilling things to perfection) in high school. If you’ve been wondering why I have such a weird-ass relationship with food, my family history is Exhibit A.

Image via HandmadePictures/Shutterstock.

Contact the author at [email protected].

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