What is sofrito, and why do I talk about it so much as a Latina dietitian?
Sofrito is a vegetable base added to a lot of Latin American (particularly Caribbean) and Mediterranean cooking. It gives Caribbean food its signature flavor, and also adds a lot of interesting nutrition benefits to the dish!
In today’s blog post I’m breaking down the history of sofrito, how different Latin American countries use it, as well as the unique nutrition benefits of this cooking staple.
Whether you’ve never heard of sofrito, or you’ve been cooking with it your whole life, you’ll learn something new today. So let’s get started!
Disclaimer: This post contains some affiliate links. This means if you click the link and make a purchase, I’ll earn a small commission. This is one small way you can help support my blog!
What is it
Sofrito–meaning “lightly fried” in Spanish–is a blend of aromatic vegetables sauteed in olive oil. It is used as a base for many Latin American and Mediterranean dishes.
What is it used for
You’ll find sofrito as the base flavor for beans, rice, meat dishes, stews, and more in Latin American cuisine. It’s essential in Dominican, Puerto Rican, and Cuban food. But you’ll also see sofrito in Brazilian food and certain regions of Mexican food.
In addition to adding flavor, it adds an extra dose of veggies and nutrition to dishes.
To use sofrito, heat up oil and then lightly sauté the sofrito in the oil. Then, proceed to your bean, rice, or stew recipe.
In Latin American food, sofrito demonstrates how Latin American cuisine evolved over time. This sauce combines Spanish cooking techniques with Latin American ingredients.
The oldest known reference to sofrito is in the 1324 Catalan cookbook Libre de sent sovi, under the names sosengat or soffregit. The soffregit described in this book is onion fried in oil (or bacon fat) with herbs and vinegar. This is used to flavor meats like rabbit or goat.
Olive oil was introduced to the Americas by the Spanish. In fact, cooking food in oil was more or less unheard of in the Americas before colonization. So it’s not just the type of oil, but the use of oil at all that is a Spanish import.
However, while the cooking technique and use of oil comes from Spain, Latin American sofritos use distinctly Latin American ingredients.
The exact recipe will vary depending on the region (more on that below), but the most common ingredients include tomato, peppers, onion, garlic, and herbs.
Tomato and peppers, in particular, are vegetables that are native to the Americas. So as you can see, sofrito itself is an almost 50/50 split of Spanish and Latin American influences.
Sofrito has become a staple ingredient in Caribbean Latin American food. It’s also common in Italian food, Brazilian food, and Spanish food to this day.
Because I’m a dietitian who focuses on the health benefits of Latin American today, I’ll focus most of today’s article on the Latin American variations of this dish.
Here are some of the regional variations:
- Puerto Rico: Puerto Rican sofrito is also known as recaíto. This is thanks to the heavy use of recao, or culantro, which is an herb native to the Caribbean (1).
Cilantro is also a common substitute in cases where you can’t find culantro.
Aji dulce peppers are the most traditional in this variation. However, if they’re not available cubanelle peppers are a common substitute.
- Cuba: Cuban sofrito is the version I grew up cooking and eating! The Cuban recipe contains tomato, bell peppers, onion, and plenty of garlic. Some versions may feature herbs and spices like cilantro or cumin.
I’ve always used green bell peppers for Cuban sofrito, but in my resesarch for this blog post I saw a few recipes call for red bell peppers.
- Dominican Republic: According to author Vanessa Mota, sofrito in Dominican cooking is frequently called sazón. You’ll find peppers, cilantro, culantro, red onions, oregano and garlic in this variation.
- Brazil: Brazilian sofrito (called refogado) is a more simple recipe–but not less delicious! This version features onion and garlic. Some versions add herbs.
The Caribbean sofritos (Puerto Rican, Cuban, and Dominican) are the most well-known in Latin American food. Yucatán in Mexico also has its own variation!
Since I’m so familiar with the Cuban version, I did a little more reading about the Puerto Rican and Dominican versions. One thing I saw come up was that tomato sauce is sometimes added to recaíto or sazón, depending on the recipe it’s going to be used in.
It just goes to show that even within one country, there are still many different variations on sofrito!
Sharing the nutrition benefits of sofrito is one of my favorite topics! As a Cuban-American, I know Latinos from the Caribbean often feel like our food culture doesn’t have enough vegetable options for us.
But what I tell my clients over and over again is that we absolutely use vegetables in Caribbean-Latino cooking.
It’s just a little less common for vegetables to be their own side dish. We’re more likely to see them cooked into the other dishes, like with sofrito.
Does sofrito count as a vegetable serving?
Most of my clients are surprised to find out I consider sofrito to be a vegetable. They think because it’s not visible while they’re eating it (sofrito blends into the rest of the dish), that they can’t possibly be eating enough for it to “count.”
But here’s the thing–sofrito has unique health benefits above and beyond the nutrition benefits of its individual ingredients. Meaning, there’s something about the process of making sofrito that adds more nutrition benefits to the dish than just the ingredients alone.
From the standpoint of providing vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants, sofrito is just as nutritious as other vegetables, if not more so!
However, from a portions standpoint, it’s true that sofrito probably isn’t going to provide enough vegetables to meet your daily requirements.
I still recommend my clients have 1-2 additional vegetables on their plate when they eat dishes made with sofrito.
A half-cup of sofrito* provides the following nutrients (2):
|Vitamin C||28% daily needs**|
|Folate||11% daily needs|
|Potassium||16% daily needs|
|Magnesium||8% daily needs|
*Keep in mind how many different recipes there are, so there may be variation depending on the sofrito ingredients used
**Daily needs calculated based on requirements for an average adult woman
*** ½ cup is larger than the average serving size
But in this case, just the nutrition facts panel alone doesn’t tell the whole story! Let’s look at some of the unique nutrition benefits that come from how we cook sofrito:
Increased lycopene activity
This mostly applies to versions that use tomato or tomato sauce. Lycopene is a powerful antioxidant found in red-colored fruits and vegetables, like tomato.
Sofrito contains many anti-inflammatory compounds, thanks to the variety of vegetables, olive oil, and how they all interact with each other.
One clinical trial in men demonstrated an improvement in anti-inflammatory biomarkers for 24 hours after eating a single serving of sofrito (8).
Another study suggested sofrito may help protect against oxidative stress, which can lead to inflammation (9).
Overall, the thing to keep in mind is that this recipe is more than just the sum of its parts. It’s not just that it’s made from tomatoes and tomatoes have lycopene, for example.
The way that we cook sofrito and combine ingredients adds extra nutrition benefits that we are only just beginning to understand.
I talk a lot in my work about how our food traditions have nourished us for centuries, in ways we are still learning about. Sofrito is a classic example of our scientific understanding just now catching up to the wide variety of health benefits in our traditional foods.
I’ve compiled a list of my favorite homemade sofrito recipes for you to try!
My personal Cuban sofrito recipe I use for everything from black beans to picadillo. Get my homemade sofrito recipe here.
Other sofrito recipes to try:
Options to Purchase
Of course, you can always buy sofrito pre-made! The pre-made version will be higher in salt than when you make sofrito from scratch.
Store-bought sofrito will also be lower in certain vitamins like vitamin C. But it will still be a good source of fiber, minerals, and lycopene, because these compounds are fairly stable after processing (13).
There are a few good pre-made options out there. I’m a big fan of Loisa’s sofrito! I especially like that they make different varieties of sofrito, including recaíto, so you can choose the one that works best for you.
As you can see, there’s a lot to discuss when it comes to sofrito!
Not only does each variety of sofrito give its cuisine its own signature flavor, but also enhances the nutrition quality of the food it’s added to! How cool is that?!
Many of my clients overlook sofrito when thinking of the vegetable options available in their cultural foods. But you would be missing out if you did this!
I work with Latinas to embrace their cultural foods while building a healthy diet that works for them. Need help planning balanced meals with your favorite Latino foods? Check out my free 5-day Latino meal planning tool. Get your copy below!