It’s in everything from fonds d’artichauts to the most humble bowl of chicken soup. It’s in everything saucy you’ve ever eaten (except that one time in college, but you were “experimenting” so…whatever). Everyone is talking about it–Escoffier, Careme, Child, Beard, Ruhlman, etc. And, while everyone loves it, absolutely loves it, it’s usually presented to you offhand, as a list of ingredients in a recipe. As a given.
What I’m talkin’ ’bout is mirepoix. And before you ask what it is, knowing who it was could be a bit more entertaining: Charles-Pierre-Gaston Francois de Levis, Duke of Mirepoix “…was an incompetent and mediocre individual…” wrote Larousse, “…who owed his vast fortune to the affection Louis XV felt toward his wife.” He also informs us that the cuckold Mirepoix had one other contribution to history‒he gave his name to a sauce. And while Mirepoix may have given his wife to a king and his name to a sauce, sauce is not what I’m here to discuss. Not directly, anyway.
At its most simple, mirepoix is a combination of two parts onion, one part carrot, and one part celery (or a 2:1:1 ratio), which on its face, isn’t all that exciting. So why all the love for for this humble mixture of vegetables? Well, as they sometimes say, its not the size of your ship, but the motion of the ocean that matters here.
Mirepoix is the basis for hundreds and hundreds of recipes, and exists in varying forms in most culinary traditions (Creole cooking has its “Trinity” or a 2:1:1 ratio of onion, celery, and green bell pepper, Italy has soffritto which adds garlic to the mix, Spain offers up sofrito which is a base of tomatoes, cilantro, garlic, onion, and peppers, Asia it’s scallion/ginger/garlic, etc. and so on). It provides a layered, earthy, and depending on how it’s handled, caramelized flavor to innumerable soups, stews, and sauces.
Now for the “ocean’s motion” part: Mirepoix can be manipulated in a multitude of ways, depending on how you want your final dish to look and taste like. There are just a few guidelines that I use, as follows:
Am I leaving the veggies in for any reason?
This generally applies to stews or soups, and if so, then I want to cut them to a size that I would want to put in my mouth. Think about it. What’s more awkward than a big old slice of onion hangin’ off your soup spoon? (OK, all of high school, but that’s in the past). If I have to cut up the cooked carrot and construct a bite of food, then the dish is at its best unbalanced and at its worst, lazily produced and incomplete.
Am I going to puree the final product?
In this case, I’m more concerned with cooking time, as the mixture is going to stay in the dish, all the way through to the plate. The smaller the cut, the faster I can get to the deliciousness, and opt for a 1/2” dice.
Am I straining and/or reducing the sauce for any reason?
Here, I’m thinking cooking time, but I’m also thinking about maximum flavor extraction. I not only want to catch all of any fond (those extra delicious brown bits left on the bottom of your pan after searing short ribs or a pork shoulder) on the bottom of the pan with the onion, but I also want to make sure that I get all the sweetness of the carrot and greenness of the celery. When applying this method, I go for a moderate 1” cut.
What *do* I want the end dish to look like?
Doing a simple chicken stock? Then clarity is definitely a concern, so you’ll want to acknowledge that the finer the cut, the more flavor the mirepoix will release, but they will also break down and reduce clarity, even if you strain it repeatedly. However, chicken ‘n dumplings should have these little bits in there to provide that ultra satisfying quandary of “spoon or fork?”. Make sure you are thinking about the end product all the way back at the beginning of ingredient prep (you really want to be thinking about this at the grocery store, but that’s another discussion).
So, get yourself a sharp knife, a large yellow onion, some celery stalks, a couple of carrots and a measuring device (measuring cup or scale–a scale is preferable‒but the more important thing is to adhere to the 2:1:1 ratio) and start dicing. A base level of measurement that would work for a healthy pot of chicken stock is one pound of mirepoix which looks something like this:
- 8 oz. onion, diced
- 4 oz. carrot, diced
- 4 oz. celery, diced
- 2 cups onion, diced
- 1 cup carrot, diced
- 1 cup celery, diced
And now you know.