What’s in a name?
The French call it “mirepoix“, the Spanish call it “sofrito“. Italians refer to “soffritto“, as indeed they would, since the term comes from their verb “soffriggere” meaning “to fry lightly“.
Somewhat unromantically, the English call it “sweating“. No surprises there.
Whatever the term, sweating your veg matters. This really simple, but important process, which softens the vegetables to prepare them for use in a variety of recipes, is the basis to getting flavour into your cooking by applying gentle heat and seasoning to release the natural moisture and sugars in the vegetable so that it softens but doesn’t brown.
The Holy Trinity
You can sweat any veg, but the classic combination, known as the “holy trinity”, is a mixture of 2 parts carrot, 1 part onion and 1 part celery and is a basis for a variety of sauces, soups, stews and stocks. Garlic is frequently involved.
Depending on what the recipe calls for, typically you will finely dice the veg, cut it into larger dice, or chop it into small chunks, before sauteing it in wide-ish lidded saute/frypan with a little olive oil and butter and seasoning it with salt (to draw out moisture and so prevent browning) and pepper. It’s crucial to season the veg from the outset, so that it really gets into the “body” of the veg, rather than sitting on the surface.
You then cover everything with a “cartouche” and the pan lid and cook it over a gentle heat until softened and translucent. There’s nothing clever about a “cartouche” – it’s a French term which refers to a circle of greaseproof paper cut to fit directly over your vegetables, before you put the lid on the pan.
What’s the point?
The whole purpose is retain maximum flavour by preventing natural moisture loss – add additional liquids and ingredients only after the veg is properly softened.
Et voila! Y listo! E voila! There you go! Get sweating!