Since leeks are in the same family as onions, it's reasonable to think they can be
cooked in a similar fashion. Not true. Onions are usually sauteed or stir-fried
over medium-high to high heat, browning them to one degree or another. Leeks wouldn’t
tolerate such extreme cooking methods. Their tender pale green hearts and thin
white layers would toughen, char and end up tasting like burnt sugar.
So when a recipe calls for sauteing leeks, remember that in leek cooking, "things
are not what they seem." As likely as not, “sweating” is what’s really being called
for. Confusing these techniques is understandable, because sweating starts out like
sauteing, with the leeks being cooked in a little oil. But the process continues
with the leeks essentially simmering over 1) lower heat 2) in their own juices and
3) for a longish time until they are soft and tender rather than browned. In other
words, they are cooked right in line with the Patience Principle: low, slow and
The two previous “frying” techniques produce leeks that are lovely and sweet, but
also soft and tender. Frizzling is a way to fry leeks so they actually look and
taste more like a fried food, i.e., crispy and browned.
Of course care must be taken to just crisp and brown, not burn and char. Chef Andrew
Zimmern accomplishes this with a “cold fry” technique demonstrated on HGTV: Julienned
leeks are added to 4 cups cold canola oil, then the oil is slowly warmed to 350 (F)
at which point the leeks will have been gradually browned to a rich golden color.
Interestingly, this technique goes directly against conventional wisdom that foods
should never be added to cold oil. While, I don’t doubt that Zimmern’s approach,
I still shied away from it, for economic reasons: 4 cups of oil is pretty costly!
If the oil could be reused, it might be a different story, but oil used for frying
should not be reused. This is likely not a problem in a restaurant, where a chef
could make several batches in the same oil all in the same night. But in a home
setting, that 4 cups of oil would have to be pitched after only one batch of frizzled
So here is an “economical frizzling” adaptation that uses a lot less oil but still
produces lightly crisped and browned leek strips that make a tasty and attractive
addition to practically any dish, from soups to fish and chicken (and they also taste
just great by themselves.)
Step 4: Turn heat on medium low and then be patient. Leeks will take 20-30 minutes
to cook, depending on their size and how “frizzled” you want them.
Continue cooking and stirring until most of the leeks are browned and crisped. Being
so small, it’s difficult to get them all browned to exactly the same point, but they
will all taste great.
Frizzled leeks are an attractive topping for Squash or Carrot Soups.
Cooking Leeks: The Frying Pan Methods
Sweating, Aromatic Sauteing, Frizzling
Step 4 Don't go overboard,though! While it's good to cook leeks slowly and gradually,
that isn’t license to forget about them. That would render them mushy and tasteless.
So as the cooking time draws to a close, be sure to monitor every couple minutes
and remove promptly when done.
Step 1Heat cooking oil over medium to medium-low heat, rather than the medium to
medium high heat required for sauteing
Step 2 Add leeks when the oil is just warm enough to sizzle leeks gently--not when
it is just about to smoke and make them "jump," as with sautéing. At the proper
temperature, tiny bubbles will sputter around the leek pieces, and the cooking leeks
will make a soothing, gurgling sound, a lot like a babbling brook.
Step 3 Cook slowly and gradually, stirring occasionally, until leeks soften and
mellow (10 to 20 minutes, depending upon piece size and quantity.) Leeks are done
when sweet---and tasting is the best way to gauge this. They will also be tender,
but still have a little firmness. If they brown at all, it will be only lightly.
Optional Step 5:Covering Try covering the saute pan after a few minutes of cooking
and stirring. While not critical, covering keeps more moisture in the pan, lessening
the chance that the leeks will dry out and toughen. It also seems to mellow them
more fully and evenly.
Sometimes leeks are used as an aromatic, i.e., as one of several vegetables (like
onions, carrots, celery and bell peppers) that form the background flavor in a dish.
In these cases, a recipe may call for sauteing the leeks along with the other aromatics.
While most aromatics are “tough enough” to handle the higher heat of real sauteing,
the recipe instructions should be modified to account for leeks’ more tender constitution.
Add them after all the other aromatics, at which point the pan heat will be lower
and the other aromatics will have begun to give off some moisture to cushion the
leeks. Likely as not, the main ingredients will be added to the dish shortly after
the leeks, further protecting them. If not, then consider lowering the pan heat
to medium or medium-low and stir to prevent leeks from burning.
Step 1: Julienne the white and light green parts of 2 large leeks to make 4 cups.
Step 2: Pour 2 Tbsp. oil into a heavy-bottomed saute pan large enough to hold leeks
in a single layer (i.e., at least 11-12”.) Flared sides are also an advantage.
Step 3: Put julienned leeks into cold oil, sprinkle with salt and pepper and then
toss lightly with fingers to coat evenly.
1/4” to 3/8” thick
Step 5: Flip leeks when one side turns golden brown and then re-spread across pan.
Here, leek greens are being frizzled, since they take to this cooking method as
well as the white and light green parts.