Last updated on November 20th, 2023
How many times have you chopped onion, carrots and celery for a recipe? Probably countless times yet did you know exactly how important this is to Italian cooking? Usually if you smell something delicious coming from the kitchen around dinner time it’s the smell of Italian soffritto wafting throughout the entire house.
In Italy we call it soffritto, and it’s the start to many Italian recipes, particularly soups, stews and sauces. If you can master Italian soffritto, you are on the right path to some of the best Italian dishes out there. With my step-by-step instructions, you will be amazed at how easy it is to nail down this Italian technique.
And yes, it can go awry. There is nothing worse than burning the onion and ending up with slightly crunchy bits of Italian soffritto in your silky, buttery sauce.
Nail down this simple Italian soffritto – actually more of a technique and flavor combination than an actual recipe – and you have just learned to add A TON of flavor to any recipe!
In this article I will also cover:
- What Italian soffritto means and how to pronounce it
- How to use an Italian soffritto
- Italian soffritto Variations
- Italian soffritto Substitutions
- The difference between Italian soffritto and mirepoix
- Tips for quickly preparing and storing Italian soffritto for easy meal prep
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Italian Soffritto Pronunciation
Soffritto means “slightly fried”, referring to the gentle process of sauteing carrots, onion and celery until fragrant and translucent.
Soffritto is pronounced sohf-freet-toh in Italian.
Listen how to pronounce soffritto:
What is Italian Soffritto
Italian soffritto is a mixture of onion, carrot and celery, chopped finely and sautéed in either butter or more commonly, olive oil, until fragrant, translucent, soft and gold in color.
Italian soffritto is the base to most Italian sauces, stews and soups and is considered to be where all the magic starts in an Italian dish. It’s here where flavors start to unfold and build upon one another, which is why you will also see other ingredients such as garlic, herbs and wine added to the mix.
Fact: The longer you cook Italian soffritto, the richer the flavor will be. If you only have 10 minutes, it’s better than skipping the soffritto but if you have 25 minutes, use all the time to really develop the flavor base for your recipe.
How To Use and Italian Soffritto
Italian soffritto is the base for many Italian dishes and if you crack open any Italian cookbook you will immediately notice it’s often the first step in stews, various sauces and hearty soups. Here are some of the most common ways I use soffritto on an almost daily basis:
- Bean and legume based soups
- Minestrone – vegetable soup
- Ribollita – vegetable and bread soup
- Pappa al pomodoro – tomato and bread soup
- salsa di pomodoro – tomato sauce (for pasta)
- Ragù di carne – meat sauce (for pasta)
- Spezzatino – beef stew
Learn More: Read about My Italian Family’s Top 5 Uses for Soffritto.
Cook Like An Italian: Check out our comprehensive glossary 60+ Italian Cooking Terms To Know – A Comprehensive Glossary of All Cooking Vocab from a Local for a full list of common cooking vocabulary that you may come across in your Italian culinary adventures.
Traditional Ingredients for Italian Soffritto
- Olive oil, extra virgin olive oil, or butter
The three main ingredients – onion, carrots and celery – are combined in a ratio of 2-1-1 meaning 2 parts onion to 1 part carrot and 1 part celery.
Note: The 2-1-1 ratio is a general rule of thumb. Don’t worry if you don’t get it exactly if you are in a pinch. After all, Italian cooking is born from the concept of waste-not and using what is on hand and in season.
For example, if you are using one medium onion, you might get about 1 cup of chopped onion. You are then going to want to use about 1 medium carrot and 1 medium celery stalk to get about half of the onion yield, so about ½ cup each.
I personally prefer to use extra virgin olive oil instead of butter but you can use whatever you like.
Buying Olive Oil: Don’t miss Best Italian Olive Oil Brands in America – Where to Buy Them and How to Store Them
How To Cut The Vegetables For Italian Soffritto
Italian soffritto is made by finely chopping the vegetables. The trick is to get them all the same size, more or less. This will help everything cook evenly. When all the vegetables are cut and ready to be cooked, they are known as a battuto in Italian
Tip: Don’t obsess about the vegetables being the same size. Just roughly the same, in a small dice.
Many Italians use a mezzaluna, which is an Italian half circle-shaped knife used for these types of things, but I prefer a good, solid, knife and cutting board.
Save Time: If you are in a rush, just add your onion, carrot and celery to the food processor and use the ‘pulse’ function to quickly chop the vegetables. Be careful not to over pulse them into a pulpy juice that will easily stick to the pan.
How To Cook Italian Soffritto
Ideally, you should use a large, wide-bottomed sautee pan (or better yet a heavy bottomed one such as my favorite here) but it’s not necessary.
Don’t Fret: Don’t worry about owning fancy or high-end pans or equiptment to make Italian soffritto. Just use whatever you have and keep an eye on the heat so the vegetables don’t burn, which can happen more easily with a thin pan.
Over medium-low heat, add 2 tablespoons of olive oil or butter. I like the flavor of olive oil as I live in Tuscany and that is what is locally produced but in northern Italy, most people use butter.
Good To Know: Use butter and oil interchangeably. Use what you prefer from either an economic, flavor, accessibility or convenience point of view.
Add the chopped celery, onion and carrot and gently saute, stirring from time to time, anywhere from 10-25 minutes, being careful the vegetables don’t burn or turn brown. Turn the heat down to low should you notice the vegetables burning around the edges. They should just turn translucent or gold, depending on how long you cook them.
Tip: Many Italian recipes will have you season your Italian soffritto as you continue on with the recipe instructions. If you are cooking off the cusp, then season for salt and continue on.
Optional Italian Soffritto Aromatics and Variations
Here are some commonly added herbs, ingredients and other aromatics that you may see in Italian recipes for Italian soffritto:
- Wine: just a splash of either white or red wine will add lots of flavor, especially in sauces
- Bay leaves: often added in stews and hearty soups
- Fresh rosemary: popular with chicken and pork
- Fresh thyme: added to stewed meats
- Fresh oregano: ideal for dishes with tomato
- Fresh sage: used with pork and beans
- Garlic: often used with fish and in vegetable dishes
- Red chili pepper flakes: sometimes just a couple of flakes or sometimes a large pinch to pack a punch, especially in southern Italian dishes
- Cured meats: such as guanciale or pancetta is sometimes added for extra flavor
Good To Know: Garlic burns easily. Add it at the end of the cooking time, for just a minute or two. You can also just peel the garlic and add it whole and remove it to add a delicate flavor.
You can also substitute dried herbs for fresh but only use about half the amount, as they are much more potent. Learn more about cooking with fresh and dried herbs in Italian recipes.
Italian Soffritto Substitutions
One of the biggest questions I get is what type of onion to use.
You can really use whatever onion you have on hand, just as the Italians do. If you have red, great. White is perfect and leeks are commonly used in the winter. Don’t forget about shallots too! Just keep the 2-1-1 ratio in mind!
What’s The Difference Between Italian Soffritto and Mirepoix?
Let’s start with the similarities: carrot, onion and celery. That’s about it.
The real difference lies in the fact that the french mirepoix is usually chopped into larger pieces, cooked exclusively in butter and then removed from the final dish before being served.
Soffritto is never cut into larger chunks like mirepoix and never removed from the dish. Oftentimes, the Italian soffritto melts away into the final sauce if cooked for longer periods in an Italian stew or soup. In mirepoix, the vegetables are not caramelized.
- 1 onion medium-sized
- 1 carrot medium-sized
- 1 stalk celery
- 1-2 Tbsp extra virgin olive oil or butter
- Peel and cut the ends off of the carrot and celery. Remove the skin from the onion.
- With a large, sharp knife, finely dice the onion, carrots, and celery, all to about the same size.
- Heat the olive oil in a wide skillet or in a heavy bottomed pot over medium-low heat.
- Add the vegetables and cook until translucent or even golden in color, anywhere from 10-25 minutes. Lower the heat if you notice the vegetables are starting to burn.
- If you are adding additional aromatics such as garlic, herbs, spices or wine, add in the last minute or two of cooking.
Soffritto Recipe FAQ
Yes, you can either freeze cooked soffritto or the cut up vegetables, known as battuto, ready to be pulled out and cooked at a moment’s notice. Freeze soffritto in ice cup trays for even easier defrosting! Read my Guide to Freezing Soffritto.
Once the soffritto is cooked, keep it in the refrigerator for up to 4 days and add to various stews, sauces and soups.
Soffritto can be frozen in small amounts such as in an ice cube tray for easy defrosting or labeled in zip lock bags.
The main difference lies in the fact that the french mirepoix is usually chopped into larger pieces, cooked exclusively in butter and then removed from the final dish before being served. Soffritto is never cut into larger chunks like mirepoix and never removed from the dish.
Yes, you can use any kind of onion you like such as red, white, leeks or even shallots.
Soffritto is the base for many Italian stews, soups and sauces such as beef stew, ribollita, pappa al pomdoro, tomato sauce, bolognese sauce and lasagne.