Sofrito: the soul of Puerto Rican Cuisine

If there is one thing that unites all of the Puerto Rican cooking is Sofrito. At 5 pm in any given neighborhood, especially in the countryside, the aroma of sofrito is abundant.

Whether you are cooking rice, beans, meats or any guisado or fricassée, sofrito is the soul of it all. It is a mixture of aromatic herbs, vegetables, and spices used in home kitchens, fondas and relatively recently, in sophisticated restaurant kitchens.

It is commonly bought in stores all over the Island, but lots of people still make it from scratch and everybody have little secret ingredients and ratios to a recipe, that the final product is different from the other.

I still remember my mom peeling the garlic and dicing onions, collecting herbs and slicing peppers, then mixing it in in the blender, the house smelled delicious. As I got older my parents owned a small diner in Utuado, and my dad started making it also. A few months before my dad passed, he had given us a jar full of Sofrito, as he always did. Both variations were delicious but different.

Although it is an ingredient or a sauce, in this case, that is used in most of Europe and Latin America, in Puerto Rico as in everywhere else has its peculiarities.

Some Sofritos range in color from a deep orange to dark green, depending on the ingredients used. If it’s orange or reddish, it has more pimentos, red peppers, and red sweet peppers. More cilantro, recao and green pepper varieties are going to be more green.

The texture is usually thick, but it can be a bit more liquidy.

Like great part of Puerto Rican cooking, sofrito made its way to the Island through Spain and like all ways of cooking, ingredients, and dishes that arrived from Europe, once in the Island it evolved into something different as it encountered other ingredients and the lack of others. Sofrito itself may have its root in Catalonia, known there as sofregit, and one of the five fundamental sauces in that autonomous region of Spain.

In Catalonia, sofrito is made by mixing olive oil, onions, fresh tomatoes and sometimes sugar.

That original sauce mixed in Puerto Rico with cilantro, recao, ajíes dulces, achiote, red and green peppers, and even oregano, came to be the Sofrito we know, love and can’t live without today.

Although Sofrito has been a part of Puerto Rican kitchens since pretty much the beginning, it is not until the 1930s when its first recipe appeared in cooking books. Maybe because Sofrito was just so rooted in everyday cooking and passed down from mothers to daughters, nobody felt the need to actually write it down.


439 years to our first Sofrito Recipe

According to Cruz Miguel Ortiz Cuadra, a Puerto Rican food historian and author, the first written recipe of Sofrito appeared in 1931 in a pamphlet published by Elsi Mae Wilsey and Carmen Janer Vilá, both professors in the School of Home Economics of the University of Puerto Rico.

First Sofrito Recipe ever published

By Else Mae Wilsey & Carmen Janer (1931)

¼ Cup ham

¼ Cup fatback

2 Spoonfuls of lard, colored and seasoned with annatto seeds (Achiote)

2 Teaspoons of salt

1 Spoonful of capers

½ Cup onions

½ Cup of tomatoes

¼ Clove of garlic

1 Spoonful of herbs: wild merjoram, coriander, and parsley.

Chop and measure out the ham, fatback, onions, tomatoes, and capsicum. Sauté de ham and fatback. Add the remaining ingredients and cook for five minutes.

This recipe is very different from what I remember as being Sofrito. But of course, you ask anybody and the recipes will be similar but different. Some might say and really believe that Sofrito without reacao is not Sofrito. The use of ajíes dulces (a small sweet pepper native to the Island) is a most in most Sofritos nowadays, at least that is how I know Sofrito form Utuado, the town I was raised in.

Sofrito is not just an essential ingredient, Sofrito is a full sensorial experience right from the bright colors that illuminate your eyes, the aromas that fill your nose, the heat in the pan when it mixes with the oil to the revolution of flavors that transform your taste buds. Sofrito is to Puerto Rican cuisine what oxygen is to humans.

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