How to cook broccoli for your child (10 ways + bonus cheatsheet)

One of my pet peeves is hearing the same thing over and over again. Until I snap and use the yelling-mommy-voice and say “I KNOW, OK?”. We all have that voice, I think. And in my case, telling me the same words more than 2-3 times in a row really gets me on my toes. With 2 kids in tow, imagine how often I use that voice these days. 

But it’s not the kids that do that to me.

If you just google “how to cook broccoli for baby” for example, you’ll get some fairly similar results along the lines of broccoli puree, how to make it, store it, etc.

Yes, broccoli puree is fine for babies, but it’s not the only way to cook it and serve it. I KNOW, OK?

Especially if you are on the baby led weaning trend, you’ll be happy to know that there are 10 basic techniques (yes, 10!) to cook it as finger food, more or less. I say basic, because, in fact, most of the broccoli dishes start with one of these techniques that everyone uses.

And if you count the fact that you can serve raw broccoli (yes, raw!) that makes it 11 ways that you can start cooking broccoli from scratch for your little one.

But why this sudden pickiness when it comes to broccoli? And why are some people so averse to its taste?

Well, it tastes bitter. And it’s green, which our brains register as a toxic characteristic; evolution-wise, bitter tastes and green colours have protected us from eating what we’re not supposed to.

Or, in the cases of people called “super-tasters”, broccoli aversion is a genetic trait.

Somewhere along those lines, I would also include our lack of knowledge about how to make it taste good. Up until a few months ago, I was avoiding broccoli like the plague. I wasn’t giving it to my kids often enough and when I did, it was always cooked in the same way. You can read more about my beliefs related to feeding kids in this mini blog series that starts with this post.

I decided to invest more time in doing research about it and I have come across all these technique suggestions that I am going to share with you here.

Feel free to save this post for later, pin it on Pinterest, send by email or otherwise show it some love. I would be most grateful to you.

Now, on to the good stuff.

Cooking broccoli: 4 challenges

In order to judge whether broccoli has been carefully cooked or not, we need to make sure we preserve its colour (a dull green means it is overcooked), its texture (again, we don’t want a green mush), its flavour and its nutrients.

But here are the challenges.

1. Cooking reduces the nutritional content of fruits and vegetables.

But at the same time, cooking improves the availability of some nutrients, that we would otherwise have difficulty in extracting just by chewing and swallowing. Examples include starches, antioxidants like beta-carotene, and other carotenoid pigments. These are not soluble in water and by cooking them, we disrupt the plant tissues which allows us to extract much more of them.

The truth is the levels of most antioxidants, vitamins and other beneficial substances are diminished by factors like high temperatures, exposure to oxygen and exposure to light. Not to mention the drawing out of minerals by cooking with water.

So what are we to do?

We minimize these losses by rapid and brief cooking, in order to keep in as much of the good stuff as possible.

Some cooking tips for speeding the process include cutting veggies in smaller pieces and boiling in a large volume of water to maintain its temperature.

However, these techniques can result in leaching of water soluble nutrients like minerals and vitamins B and C.

According to Harold McGee, author of “On food and cooking”, we should cook small batches of veggies and fruits in the microwave, in a minimal amount of added water.

2. Cooking intensifies flavour

By using heat, the flavour is intensified, from mild to prominent. Heating breaks down cell walls, helping the cell contents to escape and reach our taste buds.

Heating also makes the aromas more volatile and noticeable. The longer and intense the heating, the more original aromas are enhanced and supplemented.

So if prolonged cooking is good for the flavours, how do we balance this with challenge number 1?

McGee suggests to combine and layer cooking methods in a dish, to get the best of both flavour and nutrients. You can combine lightly-cooked, well-cooked and even raw batches of veggies in one mouthful.

broccoli florets on white background

3. Heat and water affect colour

Chlorophyll, the molecule that gives green veggies their colour, is very susceptible to change in acidic water and to temperatures higher than 140F/60C.

So the solution would be quick cooking and protecting chlorophyll from acidic conditions. If your tap water is on the acid side, experiment with adding a small pinch of baking soda.

Once the broccoli is cooked, you can serve it right away or plunge it into ice water so that it doesn’t continue to cook and lose its colour.

If you plan on adding lemon juice (an acid), do so at the last minute and consider adding a thin layer of oil or butter first, to protect your broccoli.

4. Cooking with water affects texture

Texture-wise, a well cooked broccoli should be tender, meaning when we take a bite, our teeth can easily tear apart adjacent walls, but without disintegrating the tissue. This tenderness is achieved at boiling point. However, prolonged boiling turns everything into mush.

That’s why it is important to taste and observe and not overcook something that is perfectly cooked already.

So you see, knowing basic techniques really does come in handy, from the point of view of preserving as much of the good stuff in broccoli as possible.

How to cook broccoli for your little one: 10 ways

Here’s how you can cook broccoli from scratch, in 10 different ways. These are basic techniques to get you started, meaning the basic 10 processes that you can apply to broccoli to get it from a hard vegetable into one which is tender enough even for younger babies.

I love the fact that they can hold broccoli from the stem/stalk and eat away at the little tips that look like small flower buds. Great finger food option, don’t you agree?

First, you can microwave broccoli

This is one of the fastest ways to cook it, therefore with minimum water contact and nutrient loss. In fact, Harold McGee believes it’s the best way to cook it if you’re worried about the impact of cooking on the nutrients available in vegetables like broccoli.

It’s necessary I think to know your machine’s wattage, and according to that adjust as necessary. I find for a 1000W microwave, this process can take at least 4 minutes. You need just a couple of centimeters of water in a microwaveable dish and a tight lid to cover your broccoli. Work in 30 seconds intervals and check for tenderness. This is a rather subjective thing when cooking broccoli, as children have different chewing capabilities depending on their age, so you need to experiment. 

What you need to bear in mind is that microwaves penetrate only a limited distance into the food, so even cooking happens if broccoli is cut in similar-sized thin pieces and arranged in one layer or very loose pile.

Microwaving tends to dry foods out, that’s why a steam-tight container is essential to keeping the moisture inside, as well as a small quantity of water to start with. And because broccoli is enclosed in this container, there might be volatile compounds that have nowhere to escape, making the flavour a bit odd and strong. You can opt to include other aromatics (garlic, onion, ginger, celery or carrots) to help with this effect.

Photo by Sam Hojati on Unsplash

Be careful when removing whatever you use to entrap the steam in (for example, a lid), as steam is quite hot and can burn you.

Talking about steaming…

How to steam broccoli and other ways of cooking with water (boiling/blanching and braising)

These are all moist methods of cooking, meaning the heat used to cook broccoli is transferred by means of water.

There are three main ways to cook broccoli with water: boiling/blanching, steaming and braising. Boiling and steaming are the simplest ways because they require no judgement of cooking temperature: water always boils at 212F/100C.

Both hot water and steam carry heat very well, making them efficient in cooking veggies with minimal loss of colour.

Boiling will cook and soften broccoli faster than steaming, because it can deteriorate some cell walls compounds.

For both boiling and blanching the key is to keep the water boiling. You must ensure that there is enough water in your pot so that when you submerge your broccoli in water, the water remains at a rolling boil. Use twice as much as you think will need, in order to prevent the water temperature from coming down and broccoli from cooking unevenly.

You choose boiling when you’re short on time and look for clean flavours. Blanching works when you will cook broccoli in two stages, involving another cooking method. Steaming is also fast cooking, great for preserving more of the water-soluble nutrients.

In the case of boiling and steaming, check that the broccoli is crisp-tender or tender using a sharp knife. Usually, broccoli takes 5 minutes when boiling for example.

Braising is a combination of sauteing and simmering, and allows you to cook veggies until they are fully tender but at the same time enjoy the whole range of flavour and nutrients since you’re also consuming the cooking liquid.

You start by heating up fat (oil or butter) in a pan over medium to high heat. You then add aromatics like onion, garlic etc (optional) then your broccoli and mix to coat evenly in the fat. Then you add liquid (water, stock, milk or juice) to come about halfway up the broccoli. You bring to the boil then reduce the heat to a gentle simmer and cover with a lid. You cook until fully tender, 5 to 10 minutes.

Alternatively, you can braise and glaze, where you cook the broccoli for let’s say almost tender, then uncover the pan, turn up the heat, let the liquid cook out until you have a thick sauce or glaze. The combination of the fat, starches and sugars from the ingredients will create a glossy coating.

How to cook broccoli with fat

You might find stir-frying as a familiar option here. This is similar to sauteing, except you keep moving the food over high heat and encourage browning.

In order to achieve both browning and perfect tenderness, here are some guidelines:

  • Don’t use a wok unless you have a burner that can go up the sides. Instead, use the largest flat bottomed pan you have (stainless steel or cast-iron are best). High heat is essential.
  • Do not overcrowd the pan (can lead to overcooking), instead go for cooking in batches. If combining broccoli with other ingredients to make a complete meal, start with the ones that take longer to cook.
  • Stir less frequently if you want to promote browning.
  • The smaller you cut your food, the quicker it will cook. Go for small bite-size pieces.

The steam-saute method combines steaming (a gentle cooking method) with the browning from intense heat.

A method described by Samin Nosrat in her book Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat this one is for vegetables that are a bit too dense to be just sauteed, like broccoli or green beans for example. By cooking them with water for a few minutes before turning up the heat and letting them brown, you will ensure broccoli is cooked all the way through.

So the way to do it is:

  1. Set a large frying pan over medium-high heat and bring around half an inch/1,25cm of water to a simmer.
  2. Add the broccoli, season and put a lid ajar.
  3. When broccoli is almost tender, drain any remaining water from the pan, return it to a high heat and make a little hole in the center of the pan.
  4. Pour 1-2 tablespoons olive oil in the hole and you should hear the broccoli sizzle.
  5. Toss the broccoli through the oil and let it cook until you see small signs of coloring.
  6. Remove from heat and serve right away.

You can technically use other cooking methods using fat, like pan frying and deep frying, but the amount of fat required for these is quite high and I tend to stay away from serving veggies cooked this way. 

Notice how I don’t give exact timings for most of the cooking methods, and that’s because you need to learn to judge what doneness looks like, tastes like and even smells like and make a judgement based on those. Some people might even prefer broccoli cooked until almost at the point of mushyness, and this next method could very well be exactly that.

Long cooking is also a type of gentle cooking, and I decided to include it in the Fat section, even though technically it is a combination of water and fat that cooks the broccoli.

Long cooked broccoli with pasta and cheese

This method was described by Samin in her book and will give you her guidelines. Long cooked veggies are carefully tended until they grow tender and sweet, even until they start breaking apart, like in the case of broccoli.

  1. Put a large pot of water to boil.
  2. Trim your broccoli florets. If using broccoli stems as well, use a peeler and knife to slice them thinly.
  3. Heat a saucepan over high heat.
  4. Add a good splash of olive oil and when that is heated up, add some chopped onion (start with half a medium one). As it sizzles away, turn the heat down to medium, stir and leave it. 
  5. If using the stalks, add them to the onions. If you see too much burning going on, add a splash of water to the pan. You can also cover with a lid to encourage steaming.
  6. When the water boils, blanch/parboil the florets until not yet quite tender.
  7. Scoop them out and put them straight in your pan with the onion. If it looks too dry, add a bit more water or oil.
  8. You can add some minced garlic for flavour.
  9. The florets will break down, the onion (and the stems if using) will continue to caramelize. Keep cooking, stirring and adding water/oil if needed or put a lid on.
  10. After about 15-20 minutes, the broccoli needs to turn creamy and emulsify with the water and oil in the pan to create something that resembles a sauce.
  11. This goes well with pasta, so feel free to boil some in the water that was left after parboiling the broccoli.

This is slow cooking on the stove. The broccoli will turn sweet and the resulting sauce can also be enhanced with other aromatics as you see fit.

Cooking broccoli from scratch using air (dry heat)

The two methods I am going to mention here are considered dry and intense cooking methods and they are roasting and grilling.

What roasting does is basically cooking the inside of foods while browning its surface. It uses dry heat in a confined environment with good air circulation.

Your roasting pan can’t be too crowded, otherwise the hot air can’t circulate and allow moisture in the food to evaporate. Use a shallow pan, a baking sheet with a lip or a cast iron pan.

If you’re roasting multiple types of vegetables alongside your broccoli, only choose veggies that are cooked in a similar way to it, like cauliflower, artichokes or squash blossoms. If not, you need to divide your pan and remove veggies as they cook.

You must flip, rotate and move roasting foods around in the oven to ensure even browning and cooking throughout. You can even change oven racks if things are happening too slow or too quick.

Roasted veg develop sweetness both on the inside and on the surface due to caramelization, browning and release of internal sugars.

The default temperature for roasting is 400F/200C/180C(fan), but you will need to change according to elements like depth and material of the roasting pan, amount of food on the tray or in the oven and so on.

Before it goes in the oven, take a bowl, put your broccoli in it, then coat in oil and seasonings.

Broccoli takes about 15-20 minutes to cook until tender, but like I said, use your own eyes to judge.

Serve right out of the oven or at room temperature.

As I researched about grilling, most of the recipes mention placing your seasoned broccoli on the grill raw. However, Samin mentions that grilling should be considered as a finishing touch for most starchy and dense vegetables, including broccoli, artichokes, fennel or baby potatoes.

In order to properly grill them, blanch/parboil your broccoli beforehand until just tender when pierced with a sharp knife. Then remove it from the water and place on a baking sheet lined with baking paper to cool down in a single layer. 

Drizzle some oil and seasoning and then you have two options.

Either place them as they are on the grill or insert skewers and place those on the grill. The latter makes it easier to turn them. Don’t move them until you see browning happening, then rotate and brown to your desired state.

Serve hot or at room temperature.

I’ve given you the rundown of the 10 basic ways to cook broccoli from scratch. But you’ll be happy to know there are in fact 27 more ways to serve it on a plate (yes, that includes puree).

I have put together Mommy’s Broccoli Cheatsheet, a free resource to help you with identifying all the possible ways to introduce broccoli in your little one’s diet, for even more variety. And that includes serving it raw and working the most out of your leftovers.

If you’re interested in having a look, all you need to do is put your email address in the form below, confirm your subscription and you will receive the download in maximum 3 minutes.

Find out how to cook broccoli for your baby, toddler or older kid with 10 techniques and basic recipe ideas that you can use over and over again when you want something quick and easy. Boiling or steaming broccoli are not the only ways to cook it.

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