Culinary Arts

What Are Leeks? How to Cook Leeks at Home

Written by MasterClass

Jun 10, 2019 • 5 min read

Leeks are an edible plant used in many different cuisines. Closely related to onions, garlic, and scallions, the edible parts of leeks are the tightly bound leaf sheaths that form stalk-like bases, which transition into flat leaves. In the United States, they are most recognized in leek and potato soup, but they can be prepared and cooked in many different ways and are featured in a diverse array of dishes.

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What Are Leeks?

Leeks are an edible vegetable from the genus allium, closely related to onions, garlic, scallions, chives, shallots, and Chinese onions.

  • The edible portion of the plant includes the bundle of leaf sheaths so tightly bound they are often mistaken for stems or stalks. These sheaths are produced during cultivation by trenching, which involves pushing soil around the plant base to bind the sheaths.
  • Extremely hearty once in the ground, leeks have been consumed through much of human history, forming a part of the Egyptian diet from around the second millennium BCE. Leeks are also described in the Hebrew Bible, were favorites of Roman emperor Nero, and were grown in Mesopotamia. In California, leeks are always in season, meaning they can be grown year-round.

What Do Leeks Look Like?

Leeks are white at their base and transition from light green to dark green at the top. With a thick base that moves into flat leaves at the top, leeks look a great deal like green onions though they are thicker.

When choosing leeks at the market, they should be straight and firm with white necks and dark green leaves. Their bulbs should be pristine, neither cracked or bruised, and the leek should not be wilting or yellow. Since thicker leeks tend to be more fibrous, look for leeks with diameters of 1.5 inches or less.

What Do Leeks Taste Like?

Leeks taste like a mild version of an onion, with the same base flavor but far less intensity. They are delicate and sweeter than other members of its cultivar group. Traditionally, the white part and light green middle are eaten, while the green tops are often discarded. This has less to do with flavor—leeks taste the same throughout—and more to do with texture. As they get further from the ground, leeks become tougher and more fibrous.

5 Easy Ways to Cook Leeks

Leeks are versatile and thus used in side dish and main dish varieties from different cultures and cuisines.

  1. They are quite common in French cuisine, served boiled in a vinaigrette or boiled and pureed into a soup called vichyssoise.
  2. In Turkish food leeks are often chopped into thick slices, boiled to separate individual leaves, and then stuffed with different rice-based fillings to produce different dishes.
  3. The Scottish produce a soup made of chicken, chicken broth, and leeks called cock a leekie soup.
  4. The Welsh make a creamy potato and leek soup. Potato-leek soup has become quite popular in the United States.
  5. In China, leeks are made into starchy, savory pancakes.

What Are the Health Benefits of Leeks?

Leeks are regarded as quite healthy based on their calorie count and nutrition facts. Some of the benefits of leeks include:

  • Like their green onion cousin, leeks are low in calories and provide a good amount of our daily value of fiber, meaning they promote regularity and can be part of a low-calorie diet.
  • They are believed to help reduce inflammation in the human body.
  • They promote cardiovascular health with their unique combination of flavonoids and sulfur-containing nutrients.
  • They are high in vitamin K.
  • Leeks contain vitamin B folates, which are important in cell development.
  • The vitamin C in leeks helps boost the body’s immune system.

11 Tips for Preparing and Cooking with Leeks

Leeks are quite simple to store and prepare for cooking. Here are some tips for preparing leeks for cooking:

  • After purchase, fresh leeks should be refrigerated unwashed and untrimmed, and wrapped in plastic to retain moisture.
  • Washing whole leeks before use is extremely important. Because they are grown by compacting soil around their base, they collect a good amount of dirt. Clean leeks by thoroughly rinsing them under running water and drying in a paper towel before preparation. Alternatively, they can be soaked in a bowl of cold water for thirty minutes, repeating the process until the water is free of grit.
  • After chopping, let leeks sit for around five minutes before cooking—this allows them to develop their nutritionally beneficial properties.

Once leeks have been prepared for cooking, there are many choices for how to cook them. Some common ways to cook leeks include:

  • Don’t cook them at all. Though they are quite fibrous, if sliced thinly enough the root end and light green parts of leeks can make an excellent garnish for soups, salads (they pair especially nice with sweet bell peppers and apples), meat, and roasted vegetables. Raw leeks provide a nice crunch with a slightly sweet bite.
  • Roast them whole, sliced lengthwise in half, or sliced into thin strips with a chef’s knife. This will add a unique flavor and texture to a roasted vegetable recipe or can be served alongside or on top of cooked meats.
  • Sauté them in olive oil, much like you would onions. Also, like other members of the onion family, leeks will caramelize if cooked long enough, meaning they can make an interesting topping on a wide range of meal options including hamburgers.

When cooked in different manners, leeks can form an essential ingredient in many common dishes. Some of the most popular leek recipes include:

  • Vichyssoise is a cold soup of French origin. It is made by boiling leeks and potatoes, pureeing them, and combining them with cream and chicken stock.
  • Creamy leek and potato soup is a hot version of vichyssoise, originating from Wales.
  • Cock-a-leekie soup is a Scottish chicken and leek soup made with sautéed leeks.
  • Leeks are made into savory pancakes in Chinese cuisine.
  • Separated into their individual leaves and stuffed with different rice-based fillings, leeks are central to Turkish dishes like sarma.

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