When Preparing Traditional Puerto Rican Food, Embrace Savory Sofrito

Many cuisines reach for a consistent aromatic base to build flavor. In Chinese cooking, it's a trio of garlic, ginger, and green onion fried over high heat. Or French chefs build a mirepoix from carrots, onions, and celery. Yet, the most geographically widespread aromatic combination is sofrito.

Originating in Spain, the paste comprised of peppers, garlic, herbs, and tomatoes exists in distinct renditions across Latin America. Puerto Rico has its own version, too — crafted with unique additions like extra-aromatic culantro and the sweet-tasting ají dulce. When blended with onions, garlic, cilantro, bell peppers, and oftentimes tomatoes, it forms a wondrously aromatic base. Savory, herbal, and with an earthy pungency, Puerto Rican recipes won't be the same without it. Plus, it's easy to craft the paste in bulk and then freeze, making it seamless to integrate — and you'll often want to add a small spoonful. Let's dive into how to utilize sofrito when cooking.

Sofrito forms an aromatic backbone in Puerto Rican cuisine

Puerto Rican foods fuse a medley of cultures — indigenous, African, Spanish, and American, into an array of dishes that are distinct to the island. Such a fusion applies to Puerto Rican sofrito, too. Although it came by way of Spanish colonization, its use of native culantro — known locally as recao — even lends it the distinct name of recaito.

This more herbal rendition of sofrito is used as a foundation for classic Puerto Rican stews, rice, and bean dishes. It's the base for fragrant arroz con gandules, a national dish made with rice, pigeon peas, and pork. Alternatively, sofrito can be mixed with additional spices like oregano and annatto to form an aromatic base for stewed beans. Or it's matched with adobo seasonings and sazón in pastelón, a plantain-based casserole. Sofrito also adds an aromatic tinge to pork, functioning as a rub for slow-cooked pernil. Whether meat or plant-based, if a Puerto Rican dish has an herbal note, it's likely sofrito is in the mix.