Hold the olive oil, says chef Nick Balla of San Francisco restaurants Duna and Smokebread.

Jacqueline Raposo
September 17, 2018

Chef Nick Balla isn’t entirely against roasting vegetables in oil.

Sure. Many scientific studies conclude that polyunsaturated cooking oils heated high temperatures oxidize and increase our odds of getting cancers and inflammatory illnesses. That’s scary stuff. But olive oil (a monounsaturated oil) has repeatedly not yielded such extreme dangers. Plus, Balla reminds us, when oil permeates a vegetable’s cells, it transforms every nook into sweet, crisp, caramelized deliciousness.

So, no. Balla is not against roasting vegetables in oil.

He just thinks dry-roasting is even better.

The chef of San Francisco restaurants Duna and Smokebread, formerly of Bar Tartine, Balla first observed the idea at home, not at work. His father’s cooking style embodied a practical, clean route. “He hated when I cooked at his house because I'd be sautéing and deep-frying and exploding stuff on the stove, and he wasn't feeling that,” Balla says.

Yeah. We all know water and oil don’t mix. So when vegetables cook in oil, eventually the water content hits a steaming point. It reacts with the oil. It splatters. It makes the kitchen stink. It’s a mess to clean up. His father’s preference to dry roast—to cook vegetables or meat entirely naked and then immediately adding oil and seasonings afterward—eliminates that mess. “I hate to say it, but he's right,” Balla concedes.

 

Smokebread

But the process doesn't just make for clean kitchens; it makes for tastier vegetables, too.

Yes, some oils may be safe for temperatures at and above 350°. But they also mask flavor. With dry roasting, each vegetable’s subtlety comes through in entirely different ways. “Summer squash gets this incredible tropical aroma, like really ripe mango or papaya but more vegetal” Balla describes.

Dry roasting allows fat and flavor added afterward to absorb better, too. Unlike oil-roasting, which minimizes the release of liquid and the expansion of cells, “dry roasted vegetables are like a sponge because they’ve lost so much liquid,” Balla says. Toss olive oil, compound butter, vinaigrette, pickling brine, or seasoned aioli onto roasted vegetables, and those crevices drink it in.

The basics are simple. Preheat the oven to 350°F. To prevent sticking, use glass and cast iron. Without fat, some stick is bound to happen. But Balla reminds us that, like when searing steak or chicken, eventually vegetables release and leave a touch of caramelization. (For wetter vegetables, he heats the pan first to speed along the process.) Shy away from too-wet tomatoes or those with particularly thick skins, like late-summer beans.

Otherwise, anything goes.

Remake classic side dishes with roughly diced mushrooms, Brussels sprouts, parsnips, sweet potatoes, or whatever else you haul from the farmer’s market. Barely roast turnips before tossing them into your escabeche recipe. Dry roast onion, garlic, and chilies until they “get a little bit of black caramelization and extra smokiness.” Then add to dips, spreads, and blended soup bases that need a punch of depth.

 

Eric Wolfinger

Save time during holiday preparations by par-roasting string beans for casserole, pumpkin for pie, onions for caramelized application, and side dish vegetables, rather than boiling, baking, and roasting in scattered steps.

Make intense, earthy mashed potatoes that boiling or oil-roasting can’t match. But move quickly—potatoes get gummy quickly as they cool. “Stirring as little as possible, dry roast Russets until perfectly cooked through, peel them fast, and then immediately pass them through a food mill with fat—I like sour cream and butter, personally,” Balla says. Add salt, and whisk together. “It's an experience you can't really beat.”

For winter squash, Balla roasts until 80 percent cooked and then adds compound butter. “It sizzles into the squash and caramelizes the outside a little bit. Then whatever drips down in the bottom of the pan you just pour it back over it again,” he says. So halve, remove seeds, and lay skin-side down. Then let the heat, sugar and eventually fat do their magic.

After having fun with the basic, take things further.

At Duna, Balla uses the gumminess of those dry-roasted potatoes to his benefit, making a sort of “potato glue.” Purée the hot, peeled potatoes with oil until they’re entirely overcooked, sticky, and cool. The starchy thickening agent then helps stabilize pastry cream, thickens aioli, and adds creaminess to sauces, desserts, and dips like tzatziki, “adding a creamy texture that mimics fat really well.”

Use those roasted winter squashes and pumpkins in sweet applications like pie and soufflé. “Everything is going to retain more aroma with a dry technique,” Balla says. “Your pie has a little bit more of the aroma of actual fruit or vegetable that you are roasting. It's almost always going to yield a better product.”

Use the roasted vegetables in a warm salad, coupled with raw ingredients like fresh herbs, fruit, and pomegranate seeds. Button or cremini mushrooms roasted until their liquid releases and caramelized, tossed with other vegetables like brussels sprouts and charred onions make for a particularly great combination. “Dry roasting makes for a more natural pairing because you retain a lot of freshness and brightness, and they absorb the fat anyway. It's delicious—it's perfect for salads,” he says.

No matter how you use them, Balla just wants you to play with the trick that makes vegetables cook cleaner, feel healthier, and taste far more flavorful.

“Why not just experiment? Every time, you learn. Just go to the market, buy a bunch of stuff, and throw in the oven. It's not rocket science. Be confident and trusting. Go out and play with it. It's a fun thing.”