I was watching a rerun of “Molto Mario” the other day. As part of his instruction, Mario mentioned a soffritto and one of his guests/friends asked him, “What's a soffritto?” Good question, and one I've been asked a time or two myself.
Literally translated, soffritto is a conjugation of the Italian verb soffriggere, meaning “to lightly fry” or “to lightly brown,” and is a technique in which relatively low heat is used to “lightly fry” diced aromatics in a small amount of liquid, usually fat.
The soffritto is the first step – the culinary cornerstone – in the preparation of many common Italian dishes, especially soups and sauces. The same word with a different spelling (sofrito) applies to the same technique in Spanish cuisine, although using different ingredients. (The Spanish cousin usually consists of garlic, onion, and tomatoes.)
An Italian soffritto starts out as a battuto, the difference being that a battuto refers to the raw, chopped ingredients while a soffritto happens once you start to cook them. I don't see or hear a lot of general reference to the battuto step. Most people just start out straight from the soffritto.
In the same way that there is no standard “Italian cuisine,” there is no standard soffritto. Regional differences dictate the usage of different ingredients. A basic Southern Italian soffritto is prepared with chopped onions or scallions and sometimes with chopped garlic cloves. In Northern Italy the most common soffritto is made with minced celery, carrot and onion. This is also the common combination employed by the French for a mirepoix, although the proportion ratio usually differs.
In a soffritto, most Italian chefs use equal parts of onion, carrot and celery, whereas the French style sometimes dictates a ratio of 2:1:1. (By the way, if you're into Cajun or Creole cooking, you'll drop the carrots and replace them with green bell peppers and call the resultant combination a “trinity” or sometimes a “holy trinity.”) And what would French cooking be without butter, the fat of choice for a mirepoix?
The typical fat used for a soffritto is olive oil, although this, too, varies by region. In Valle d’Aosta or Piemonte, up near the French border, butter is frequently used for a soffritto, while lard, corn oil or other seed oils are the choice in Lombardia and the Veneto, areas more subject to a Germanic influence.
But more than any other factor, what it all comes down to is the quality of the basic ingredients. As Mario Batali often says, the Italians believe they have a God-given right to the finest and freshest produce available, and they exercise this “right” accordingly.
Whereas cooks in other cultures might think little of using produce that's somewhat limp or wilted just for the sake of “using it up,” an Italian cook would rather cut off his hand than use it to dump inferior vegetables into a pan! Okay, a bit of hyperbole there, but it gets the point across. Fresh ingredients are absolutely essential to a good soffritto.
Equally important is the temperature of the pan. The “Goldilocks Principle” applies; the pan can't be too hot and it can't be too cold. It's got to be “just right.” If the pan is too cool, the vegetables will just soak up the oil and become greasy and heavy, resulting in a greasy, heavy soffritto that will adversely affect the flavor and texture of the finished dish. If the pan gets too hot, you'll sear and caramelize the vegetables, likewise destroying the delicate balance of flavors. Heating the pan over medium heat until the oil just begins to bubble a little is a slightly more reliable method than watching for the oil to start smoking, as different oils have different smoking points.
And the order in which the ingredients are added also makes a difference. After bringing the oil or butter to temperature over medium heat, add the onions and sauté them until they become slightly translucent. If you're using garlic, it should be the next ingredient in the mix. If not, add the celery and then the carrots. The rule of thumb here is to add the strongest flavors first, finishing with more delicate tastes and textures. If you just dump everything in at the same time, the intense flavor of the raw onion will be absorbed into the other ingredients, making everything taste like onions. And since garlic cooks a lot faster than onion, if you put the garlic in first, or even at the same time as the onion, the garlic may quickly turn dark brown and become bitter, ruining the dish. All in all, the entire soffritto should cook gently for about ten minutes, or until all the ingredients are tender.
At this point, you can add mushrooms, parsley, pancetta, prosciutto, olives, tomato products or whatever else your recipe calls for. If you've properly prepared your soffritto, your dish will be rich and flavorful in true Italian fashion.