What Are Aromatics?

Aromatics are a quick and easy way to add a ton of flavor to your cooking.

Have you ever noticed how most recipes start with cooking ingredients like onions and garlic in a little oil before moving on to the next step? How stock and broth recipes always seem to include onions, carrots and celery (also known as mirepoix)? There’s a good reason for this: These vegetables are in a class known as aromatics. When you know how to use them, you can take your cooking to the next level, adding incredible flavor and depth to your dishes.

What Are Aromatics?

Aromatics refer to vegetables and herbs that add flavor and aroma to a dish. When cooked together, these ingredients help create layers of flavor in your food. Some aromatics are sweet, while others are pungent or astringent. Put them together, and they create a rounded flavor base that helps make the finished dish taste more complete. They have an intoxicating aroma while they’re cooking, too. Fire up a pan filled with nothing but chopped onions and garlic, and you’ll get hungry just from the smell!

Commonly-used aromatics include leeks, onions, carrots and celery, but the list goes on. Fennel, garlic, lemongrass, ginger, scallions, spicy chili peppers or bell peppers, bay leaves, thyme, parsley and peppercorns are all aromatic ingredients. Sometimes, tomatoes are also used as an aromatic (as is the case in sofrito). Less common aromatics include parsnips and celeriac, used to make German Suppengrün.

What Recipes Use Aromatics?

Aromatic vegetables and herbs are used in all kinds of recipes. When we make homemade broth or stock, we leave these vegetables in large pieces because they’ll eventually be strained and discarded (that’s why we always put a bay leaf in our soup). More often, we chop them into small, even pieces and saute them in oil as the first step of a recipe. They’re the basis for many sauce, soup and stew recipes, but they’re also used in stir-fries, rice dishes, curries and braises.

Popular Aromatic Combinations

You can combine any aromatics together, but certain combinations are commonly used together. They come together to form the backbone of familiar flavors in international cuisine.

  • French mirepoix: onions, leeks, carrots and celery. Leeks are often omitted and replaced with extra onions. Use it when making dishes like Chicken Noodle Soup or Pot Roast.
  • Cajun/Creole holy trinity: onions, green bell peppers and celery. You’ll find it in Seafood Gumbo and Crawfish Etouffee.
  • Asian trinity: ginger, garlic and scallions. These ingredients are included in most stir-fry recipes.
  • Thai curry: shallots, garlic, chiles and lemongrass. This red paste is the basis of recipes like Thai Red Chicken Curry.
  • Latin American/Spanish sofrito: onions, garlic and tomato (sometimes bell peppers are used). It’s essential for Cuban Black Beans or Arroz con Gandules.
  • Indian: onions, ginger, and spicy chiles, plus spices. You’ll find this base in many of your favorite Indian recipes.
  • German Suppengrün: carrots, leeks and celeriac. Parsley, onions, parsnips and potatoes are often added to create a popular soup.

How Are Aromatics Used?

In classical French cuisine, aromatics were often bundled together in a sachet, which was removed from the dish after the vegetables had imparted their aromatic properties. This is still the case with broth and stock, so you don’t have to worry too much about cutting the aromatics into even-sized pieces there.

When the aromatics are left in the final dish, it’s best to cut them into uniform pieces so they cook evenly. Small pieces like minced garlic will cook more quickly than large-diced onion, so add your aromatic ingredients in stages from large to small when including a mixture of sizes.

Cooking the aromatic ingredients in oil or fat (like butter or lard) gives them an opportunity to soften and release their essential flavors, creating the first layer of flavor in the dish. This step can happen over the course of 10 to 15 minutes, or it goes more quickly, like stir-fry recipes that start with minced aromatics or Thai curries that use curry paste.

How Much Do You Need?

In general, you’ll need about equal parts of each vegetable. That might be one onion, carrot and rib of celery, or one tablespoon each ginger, garlic and scallions. But, don’t stress the ratios too much. If you really like garlic, feel free to double down! Similarly, if the recipe calls for spicy chilis and you don’t care for spice, dial it back to your taste preferences.

Ready to get started? Play around with aromatics in these classic homemade soup recipes.

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Lindsay D. Mattison
After years of working in professional kitchens, Lindsay traded her knives in for the pen. While she spends most of her time writing these days, she still exercises her culinary muscles on the regular, taking any opportunity to turn local, seasonal ingredients into beautiful meals for her family.