Have you ever eaten out of your local bodega or lechonera (pork roasters) or even been treated to eat something your Puerto Rican friend or coworker made? Have you wondered, "wow, this tastes amazing! I want to make it at home." So you ask your friend or coworker, how did they make this dish? Only to get a response that goes like this; "a little bit of this, a little bit of that, some sofrito, and cook it until it's done." My friend, if you ever have gone home and tried a recipe your Puerto Rican friend gave you without adding sofrito, your recipe will never taste as good.
Sofrito is the not-so-secret Puerto Rican secret ingredient to great cooking. Sofrito is almost always present in a compound like the one pictured above or listed out ingredients within the recipe. Like a mirepoix in French cuisine or a trinity in Creole, sofrito is the flavoring agent that ties together all the dishes.
What is Sofrito?
Sofrito is a blended combination of key ingredients to give your food a signature Puerto Rican flavor. At its most basic, it is a mix of onions, garlic, peppers, sweet peppers, chiles, culantro, salt, pepper, vinegar (or lemon juice), and oil. Other ingredients commonly found in sofrito include; ham, salt pork, cilantro, parsley, oregano, cumin, coriander, paprika, and saffron. The individual taste of the person making it means that not all sofrito taste the same. This is where it becomes your signature blend.
How to use sofrito
There are many ways to use sofrito. Add sofrito to sauces, stewed beans, rice pilaf and, soups and stews in the middle of the cooking process. Or use sofrito as a seasoning agent, as a marinade. I have used it on chicken, shrimp, pork, and fish with excellent results. To turn it into a marinade for lighter meats, I will add a liquid, i.e., bitter orange, lemon, or regular orange juice.
Some Ingredients to know
CULANTRO. Nope, that is NOT a typo. Culantro is a much deeper flavored cousin of cilantro. The leaves are long and saw-shaped. I have replaced culantro with cilantro before. But, keep in mind that cilantro has a much sweeter taste than culantro. So, it is not an exact replacement, more like a 1 part culantro for two parts cilantro. Also, both herbs are in the genus of coriander. I like adding coriander to my sofrito, so that is three different uses for a similar herb.
Coriander seeds tend to have a flowery smell mixed with pepper but without the heat. At the same time, the seeds do not taste the same as cilantro or culantro. I live in Florida, where the population is about 23% Hispanic, so I have easy access to typical Puerto Rican ingredients. If you cannot find culantro where you live, no sweat, use cilantro instead, and maybe add a dash of coriander to round up the flavors.
For my sofrito, I like to blend parsley, cilantro, and culantro. I also added dried oregano, coriander, and cumin. So, in other words, I am using the entirety of both plants, stems, leaves, and seeds. I point this out because there are different flavors to different parts of the plant. The leaves tend to have a fresher flavor. The stems have a more pronounced flavor, and seeds have a different taste altogether or an even deeper pronounced flavor. This is what gives your dish depth.
To me, a cubanelle pepper has a healthy mix of spice and sweetness. Long and skinny, the cubanelle pepper has thinner skin than the bell pepper. It reminds me of the Pepperoncini, but bigger and longer. The pungency/spiciness of this pepper is relatively mild but present. The smell of the cubanelle tends to also be in the sweeter end. I do not care much for bell peppers, and neither does my husband. This means I have been cooking without bell peppers for the last few years, and I do not miss them. But I do enjoy the cubanelle in this recipe. When green, cubanelle is not as dark as green bell peppers. They tend to have a slightly more yellow tone but ripen to a beautiful bright red.
This sofrito recipe is mild. Other than cubanelle, raw garlic, and peppercorns, there are no other "spicy" ingredients. Why? Because I like to have a soft base to build flavor. Also, Puerto Rican food is not necessarily spicy, as much as it is flavorful. BUT, if you want to make your sofrito hot, please do so. This is, after all, YOUR flavor signature. Here are a few options to add to the sofrito to spice things up. Note of advice, the longer you cook some chili peppers, to hotter they get.
Red Crushed Pepper. If you want to use crushed red pepper, add this ingredient last and blend all the ingredients.
Jalapeños. Seating at 2,500 to 8,000 Scoville units, it blends well with this mixture. The thicker skin makes it quite substantial for this preparation. Remember to remove all seeds and membranes before blending.
Aji. We have super tiny peppers that grow native to the island. They are called Aji Caballeros
Salt Pork and or Bacon
Puerto Ricans today are still eating some of the same foods that were brought by either the Spaniard colonizers, the African slaves, and the native Taino Indians. However, we do not recognize their nature and or understand the reasons why we use some ingredients. For example, the process of salting meat to preserve them is a process of old due to the lack of refrigeration, same with smoking. But both of these processes of curation and preservation add a unique flavor to the food that gets the treatment and the food that is used along with the processed ingredient.
Salted pork is one of these ingredients that we still hold dear in Puerto Rican cuisine.
Tocino, aka salt pork. If you cannot find it at your local supermarket, look for it at a Latin market or bodega. What I see at my supermarket is a much thicker cut of bacon labeled salt pork. Salt porks are part of the bacon-belly area of the pork, but what Puerto Ricans consider salt pork looks like the picture below.
As you can see, salt pork is the fat just below the skin with the skin still attached. I only use a strip about a quarter-inch thick and score it or partly cut it until I reach the skin. This is added to the frying pan and rendered for fat. Cooked long enough, the fat will shrink considerably, but your pan will have the liquid product that could be used to sweat onions, peppers, and garlic.—giving your final product depth in flavor. Also, I cut down the amount of salt I would typically use because the salt pork has added its own. I can go on and on about this topic, and perhaps it will be another post altogether, so stay tuned.
Why peppercorns and not ground pepper
I am not saying you cannot use ground black pepper. If you do not have peppercorns, then use ground pepper. The peppercorn is that not all the peppercorns will grind evenly, giving the sofrito different notes of flavor, some subtle, some strong. I use a peppercorn mix of black, white, green, and pink to create subtleness in taste.
Why would I make my own instead of buying the already made jar?
Easy. CONTROL OF INGREDIENTS AND PERSONAL TASTE. Since the conveniences of all ready-made food are continuously available at supermarkets, specialty stores, and online, we have grown accustomed to these products and not exploring our tastes. We have all heard the arguments against preservatives and added sugars and salts. As consumers, we keep looking for less fat, low sodium, no added sugar, fewer preservatives. The best answer to these concerns is to make your product at home.
Some people feel that making your sauces, condiments, soups, bread, etc., is more work than it is worth. And at times, it could be more work than expected, especially in this day and age of 24/7, always on the go society. But, the thing is, as much as COVID has put a damper on the way we live, work, and gather, it has allowed us to take a deeper look at what is essential and given us time to get back to lost traditions.
Keep the generations tied with the thread of food
Have you ever noticed the names on some of the products out there? Most of the names are a surname, or the name of someone's mother, or the person/restaurant that created it. Before this technology of mass-producing pantry items began, our mothers taught us how to make a special sauce introduced to her by her mother, who her mother's mother taught. Generational recipes with secret ingredients were passed to the next generation at a certain age. Learning these recipes was a rite of passage. Now, all we do to make a marinara is go to the store and buy a jar. This is another topic I could go on and on with, and perhaps it too will have its post.
The point is, creating your products lends to the opportunity to make any recipe your own and for you to establish your flavor signature to your cooking. This also opens the possibility for you to be known for making "X-recipe" and maybe be able to pass "X-recipe" to the next generation. I do not have daughters I can teach how to cook, although my sons enjoy being in the kitchen, so I teach them a few things. I hope to revive the idea of making our products from scratch and honing the recipes to be passed on. This is a way to keep people's memories and experiences alive.—something you cannot buy at the store.
A Note on the origins of Sofrito
Below I have written a traditional sofrito recipe with salt pork and ham. I do not use this recipe. Instead, I puree the uncooked vegetables and make my sofrito without meat. When I am cooking, I will use the ham or salt pork, depending on the recipe, and then add a tablespoon or two of my raw sofrito just as I get the fat rendered.
Why do I do it this way? Because I like to keep certain dishes vegetarian at times. I don't necessarily want the bacon to flavor everything all the time. Doing it this way gives me more flexibility.
Heat a saute pan or iron skillet and add the salt pork and ham to make the traditional sofrito. Allow the pork to render some fat and become translucent, then add onions and peppers. Cook stirring occasionally and with our burning until vegetables become soft and translucent well. Next, add garlic, herbs, salt, and pepper. Stir continuously, until all ingredients are cooked through. Remove from the heat and set aside to cool. Once cooled, place in an air-tight container like a mason jar and store in the refrigerator for up to a month.
For Traditional Sofrito:
- one ounce salt pork
- two ounces lean cured ham
- one tablespoon lard or vegetable oil
- ½ teaspoon whole dried orégano
- 1 onion, peeled and fine dice
- 1 green pepper, seeded, and fine diced
- 3 sweet chili peppers, seeded, and fine diced
- 3 fresh culantro leaves, fine chopped
- Salt and pepper to taste
Add sofrito to any of these recipes and taste the difference
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- Puerto Rican Keto Cheat Sheet
- Basics of Puerto Rican Cooking Ebook
- Quick and Easy, Guilt-free Puerto Rican Tembleque