This is a picture of Green Gold, my friend. It’s commonly known as sofrito, or sometimes, recaito.
No matter what it’s called, this flavoring blend, used in most Caribbean cuisines, is money. I once knew a family in Brooklyn who got busted in a sting for operating an illegal sofrito supply chain. Word on the street was that a rival was unhappy with the fact that they had the sofrito game locked down and ratted them out to “the man”. But, I ain’t no snitch, so you didn’t hear it from me.
Let’s leave it at this: if you know how to make sofrito, and you live near a few Puerto Ricans, Dominicans, or Cubans, you’re the next Tony Montana.
Now- once I post this recipe- every Puerto Rican and their mother is going to tell me how this is not the way to make sofrito. Truth be told, every sofrito recipe is unique to the family who’s creating it, so, as a result, there’s no right or wrong way. And to keep it totally honest, Hector’s Abuela taught me how to make this sofrito and Abuela was never wrong. So, the most I’m going to have to say any naysayers is, “Thanks for the comment.” That said, there are some general rules for sofrito.
I’m gonna hook you up.
What does Sofrito have in it?
Sofrito is a cooking base that is used to flavor many Caribbean recipes. I use it in my pernil (Roast Pork Shoulder) recipe, my beans, my ground meat- pretty much anything that I cook from the island begins with this flavoring.
The most important ingredient in authentic sofrito is culantro. Back up ingredients are onions, garlic, and ajies dulces (or sweet peppers). Additionally, cilantro- added to bulk up the culantro flavor- and (my secret ingredients) olives and capers to add a bit of umami. The latter two are optional, but you absolutely must try them.
Sofrito does not have tomatoes in it unless you want to add them in. Most people that I know don’t add them because it waters down the sofrito. The other reason we don’t add it because we’re then bound to that tomato-y flavor. Instead, we sauté the sofrito and, later, add tomato sauce to whatever recipe we’re going to be making with it.
What’s the difference between culantro and cilantro?
The main ingredient, and flavor profile, in sofrito is the culantro herb.
That’s not a typo.
Culantro is not the same herb as cilantro. The two have very different tastes; culantro’s being the stronger of the two.
Appearances alone show how different the two are. Culantro, on the left, has a long, broad leaf and a savory flavor. Cilantro, on the right, has smaller leaves and an almost minty flavor. Unless, of course, you’re cursed with the “soap gene”, you know? That gene that makes cilantro taste like soap? If you have the gene, nothing about cilantro tastes good to you.
Funny enough, while doing research for this post, I learned that the word culantro is Latin for “foul smelling thistle”. After reading that, it makes sense because the culantro leaf does have very tiny thorns. Take a close look and you can see them. DOn’t worry, they’re not dangerous. But, I don’t think culantro has a foul smell at all. To each their own, I guess.
Recao is a weed. So, while my uncle’s trying to kill it in his backyard, I’m over here reading my recao bush bedtime stories and playing Bach for it in the hopes I’ll get it to grow.
People use the names “Recao”, “Recaito” and “Sofrito” interchangeably. The word sofrito actually is the process of cooking this flavor base with tomatoes, whereas recaito is just the green base, itself. Since the term sofrito is used by most Puerto Ricans to describe this recipe, I’ll refer to it as such.
Where can I find culantro and how do I store it?
Culantro can be found in most Hispanic grocery stores. Just find the nearest Puerto Rican or Dominican neighborhood and start looking. Shockingly enough, I was able to find it in the Chinese supermarket when we lived in Germany, of all places.
Store culantro the same way you store cilantro: wrap the stems in a damp paper towel and place the leaves in a ziploc bag. Keep the herb in the fridge and use as needed.
Once you’ve prepared your sofrito, though, I highly recommend freezing it in ice cube trays if you won’t use it regularly. Of course, I can’t find the ice cube trays that I use for sofrito, so I’m storing my sofrito in freezer bags. If you think you’ll go through it quickly, just store it in a mason jar in the fridge.
How do I use culantro?
Use culantro in any recipe that calls for cilantro. In fact, if you’re unfortunate enough to have that aversion to the flavor of cilantro, I would suggest trying culantro in its place. Wherever a recipe calls for cilantro, use half of that amount in culantro. Its flavor is more pungent, so you need to use less.
For this recipe, just cut off an inch from the stems of the culantro leaves. Discard the stems and give the leaves a rough chop to prep them for the food processor.
Can you substitute cilantro for culantro?
Yes, you can use cilantro instead of culantro if you can’t find it. It won’t be authentic sofrito, but I know that desperate times call for desperate measures. According to Isaac, one of my readers, 1 part Italian (or flat leaf) parsley and 3 parts cilantro acts as a replacement for culantro. Give Isaac a round of applause!
Remove the leaves from the stems of the cilantro and you’re done. We don’t use the stems in our sofrito because it makes it taste bitter.
What is Aji Dulce? Are Aji Dulce peppers hot?
Let’s discuss the peppers that help flavor this sofrito. Aji dulce (sweet pepper) looks like a green habanero. While they look like a habanero, they taste more like a green bell pepper, just with a milder flavor. So, don’t worry about them adding heat to your sofrito. They’re not hot at all.
If you can find aji dulce, use them to make your sofrito.
What can I substitute for Aji Dulce peppers?
Because I like my sofrito to have some color in it, I add a combination of ajies dulces and mini sweet peppers. I recommend you do the same.
Since mini sweet peppers (pictured on the left) are more widely available, they may be good substitutes for your ajies dulces. If you can’t find ajies dulces in your area, use the mini sweet peppers instead.
If you’re just all out of luck and can’t find mini sweet peppers, use a combination of red, yellow, or orange bell peppers and a green bell pepper. This is a last resort (the green bell pepper, that is). Since it’s a cooking pepper, it’ll make your sofrito taste more bitter. So I encourage you to avoid using it, if at all possible.
How do I use aji dulce peppers?
Once you’ve procured your peppers, cut the tops off and discard the stems. Slice the peppers in half and remove the white rib from inside. Next, shake or pluck out the seeds. Ajies dulces are used the same way as other sweet peppers. Slice them and toss them into salads or use them to flavor stews.
Here, though, once we get rid of the seeds, we’re going to set them in a bowl for processing.
The onions and garlic are pretty straightforward: peel and give each a rough chop.
How do I make Sofrito?
The unconventional addition of olives and capers to my sofrito may cause you to turn up your nose, but I’m okay with that. Not a single person to whom I’ve gifted or served my sofrito has ever had an issue with it. Mainly because they have no idea they’re in there. The brininess of the olives and capers makes the sofrito more flavorful when it’s sauteed. I add it because it adds another layer of umami to my sofrito.
Throw the onions and garlic into the bowl and pulse these together about 10 times.
You don’t want to puree them right now, we’re only just starting and sofrito should be slightly coarse when finished. If we were to puree it now, it would be too soupy when we finish.
Add the peppers to the bowl and repeat the pulsing. Just 8 or 9 pulses this time, though.
The sofrito should look like a salsa by now.
Now’s the time when your food processor may be a little too full to add the culantro and cilantro. Pour half of the sofrito into a separate bowl and add the leaves to the sofrito that remains in the food processor bowl. Pulse this down a bit before adding the rest of the leaves to the processor.
Finish the Sofrito
After the culantro and culantro are pulsed down, you will have enough room to add the reserved sofrito back to the food processor. Pulse 10 times until the mixture is the consistency of chunky applesauce.
How to Store Sofrito
The best way to store sofrito is in ice cube trays. If you can find your trays, unlike me. An ice cube tray makes 1 tablespoon portions of sofrito which is perfect for cooking. Just load up the tray, cover it with plastic wrap and freeze until solid. Once frozen, pop the sofrito cubes into a plastic storage bag and use as needed. This is my preferred method of storing sofrito regardless of how often I’m going to use it. It’s just more efficient.
If, however, you know you’re going to use the sofrito on a regular basis, just store it in mason jars in the fridge. A jarful keeps well for about 2 weeks. The brine from the olives and capers helps with that. Even still, the longer it sits in the fridge the darker the recao will grow.
On the other hand, if you know you won’t use it frequently (and you don’t have ice cube trays), transfer the sofrito to freezer bags and freeze it laying flat. Stand the bags up once the sofrito is frozen solid, and keep them in the freezer for 6 months.
What do I use sofrito in?
I’m so serious. Using it is almost as simple as making it. A cube of sofrito is all you need to flavor a batch of beans or ground beef. Just heat your oil, drop in a tablespoon, or two, and sauté until fragrant.
Recao eliminates the need to use onions and garlic- unless you need to add extra flavoring just because. It’s a quick way to boost the flavor of any recipe you add it to.
Pretty amazing, no? Now you can use this base in all SORTS of amazing Caribbean dishes. You can even try it in some of your favorite non-Hispanic recipes.
Pin this recipe for later and show your friends you’re the new sofrito supplier in town!
Authentic Puerto Rican Sofrito
- food processor or blender
- 1/2 cup olives pitted (optional)
- 1 tablespoon capers (optional)
- 3 large white onions peeled, rough chopped
- 3 heads (about 25 cloves) garlic peeled, rough chopped
- 1 pound aji dulce peppers stems and seeds removed
- 1/2 pound sweet peppers stems and seeds removed, rough chopped
- 6 bunches (about 1/2 pound) culantro leaves ends removed, rough chopped
- 3 bunches (about 1/3 pound) cilantro leaves only (triple if you're not able to find culantro)
- In a food processor (or blender) add the olives, capers, onion, and garlic cloves.Pulse the ingredients together 10 times, or until coarsely chopped. Scrape down the bowl of the food processor with a rubber spatula.
- Add the peppers to the bowl and pulse 8-9 times. Scrape down the bowl once more.
- Pour out half of the pepper and onion mixture into a clean bowl. Add the culantro and cilantro leaves to the food processor and pulse until the leaves are broken down- this can be done in stages if necessary.
- Return the pepper and onion that you reserved back to the food processor and pulse until the sofrito is semi-smooth (the consistency of chunky applesauce).
- Transfer the sofrito into mason jars or into ice cube trays to freeze* for later use.