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Last updated: February 3, 2023
Broccoli and broccolini look very similar, they almost have the same name, and there are also similarities in taste. So what’s the difference between these two produce aisle staples?
In this article, I am going to dive deep to discover the differences between broccoli and broccolini and why they matter.
I will also look at some other similar vegetables, Chinese broccoli (gai lan), Romanesco broccoli, and broccoli rabe (rapini), and find out which of these you can interchange and which you can’t.
Differences Between Broccoli and Broccolini
Broccolini and broccoli are both members of the species Brassica oleracea.
But before you decide that this makes them the same thing, know that cabbage, kale, brussels sprouts, and collards also fall under this species designation.
So, while these two green vegetables are the same species, they are also different in many fundamental ways.
What Is Broccoli?
Broccoli, Brassica oleracea variety italica, first came into existence in the 6th century BC. The Romans are credited with creating it by breeding common varieties of wild cabbage.
Today’s broccoli, which is technically Calabrese broccoli, has thick stalks and many tightly bunched florets. The stalks are somewhat woody and can grow as thick as a child’s arm. Like most cabbage descendants, broccoli florets give way to yellow, four-leafed flowers if not harvested earlier enough.
Raw broccoli has a bitter, slightly spicy flavor that is too intense for many. When steamed, much of the bitterness goes away, and an earthy flavor and sulfur odor take its place. By roasting broccoli, you can elevate the subtle sweetness of the veggie to make it more appealing.
Nutritionally, broccoli is loaded with vitamins and minerals and impressively low in calories. It is a good source of vitamin C and K1, potassium, manganese, and iron. Broccoli is also chock full of fiber and pretty high in protein for a vegetable.
Because of its thick stalks and compact nature, broccoli takes longer to cook than broccolini. And its more intense flavor makes it harder to love than some of its close cousins. But broccoli, which has been with us for thousands of years, will always be a dinner table staple.
What Is Broccolini?
Broccolini, also known as baby broccoli, shares a similar look to broccoli, but with stalks that are much thinner. The florets aren’t as compact, and there are fewer on each stalk. Broccolini bunches also typically contain a number of thin, long leaves growing off the stalks that you don’t see on broccoli.
The flavor is also much mellower. It is still earthy and slightly bitter, but it is much sweeter than broccoli, even when eaten raw. And when roasted or steamed, it mellows out even more.
This difference in flavor is no accident. In fact, nothing about broccolini is. This variety of Brassica oleracea was intentionally created by Sakata Seed Company in Japan in 1996. The creators wanted to breed a variety of broccoli with a more widely appealing flavor that would also grow easier in warmer climates. They accomplished this by crossing broccoli with Chinese broccoli.
Nutritionally, broccolini has more protein than broccoli and about twice as much fiber. It also has more vitamins C and A. Because of its nutritional value, I love making this broccolini smoothie.
In the kitchen, broccolini takes less time to prepare and less time to cook. Both vegetables can be used interchangeably in most recipes. Broccolini will add an extra touch of sweetness and some added texture thanks to the thinner, yet more fibrous stalks.
What About Chinese Broccoli (Gai Lan)?
Chinese broccoli, also known as gai lan, jei lan, or kai-lan, is another member of the Brassica oleracea species. This variety, alboglabra, looks more like broccolini, but with some noticeable differences.
Most obvious are the numerous wide leaves that surround the little florets. These florets are less compact, and there tend to be fewer per stalk. The stalks are thicker at the base than broccolini but still much thinner than traditional broccoli.
The stalks of gai lan are tender and sweet. The leaves are far more bitter and filled with earthy flavors. The florets tend to fall somewhere in between. Gai lan can be eaten raw, but it is much more commonly cooked. In traditional Chinese cooking, the leaves and stalks are added to stir-fries and soups. They can also be steamed or roasted.
Nutritionally, gai lan is lower in calories than both broccoli and broccolini. But it also has less protein and slightly less fiber. It is high in vitamins C, K, and A, but these amounts are lower than the other two. It is also lower in many minerals but is still loaded with antioxidants.
This wild cabbage ancestor has been cultivated in China since ancient times, and is included in my list of most popular Chinese vegetables. It has a bluish tint but turns bright green when heated.
Chinese broccoli can be used in place of broccoli or broccolini in most recipes. However, these bunches are made up largely of leaves and stalks with few florets. This means substituting with gai lan will give you a different texture profile, but the flavor will be similar.
What About Romanesco Broccoli?
Without a doubt, the neatest looking of the broccoli relatives is Romanesco broccoli. This strange vegetable looks like what cauliflower would be if it had to adhere to the rule of fractals. In fact, Romanesco broccoli is actually a cultivator in the cauliflower group; the Botrytis group of Brassica oleracea.
Like cauliflower, the heads of this veggie are highly compact and paler in color than the surrounding leaves. But unlike this more common vegetable, Romanesco has pointy, pyramid-like florets that grow in an odd spiraling pattern. Indeed, each small floret is a natural fractal of the large floret it’s attached to, which is a fractal of the entire head.
Believe it or not, this pattern came about naturally. Or, at least, mostly naturally. Romanesco, also known as broccoflower, has been cultivated in Lazio, Italy, since the 15th century. Most likely, the strange growth pattern appeared after a natural mutation. Selective breeding by farmers likely further exaggerated it over time.
Like traditional cauliflower, this chartreuse-colored head has a mild flavor with nutty undertones. It is a little sweeter, though, and is more like broccolini in this regard. Romanesco is higher in calories than true broccoli but has more protein. It is also an excellent source of vitamin C. It has a good amount of vitamin A, calcium, and iron.
In the kitchen, broccoflower is used and prepared much like cauliflower. It is an especially good choice for dishes like baked cauliflower that would benefit from the added visual. However, it does not make a good substitute for broccoli in most recipes.
What About Broccoli Rabe (Rapini)?
Broccoli rabe (pronounced “rob”) is another veggie that is frequently lumped in with traditional broccoli. But this unique green has some essential differences that separate it from the others on this list.
For one, this “broccoli” does not fall into the wild cabbage species distinction. Instead, it is part of the Brassica rapa species (cultivator group: ruvo). Close relatives include turnips, napa cabbage, and bok choy. All are closely related to mustard greens and have a similar flavor.
Broccoli rabe, also known as rapini or broccoli “raab”, looks somewhat like Chinese broccoli but with thinner, ruffled leaves. It is easy to confuse with baby kale, but rapini bunches include floret heads very similar to those on broccolini.
But that’s about where the similarities stop between sweet broccolini and rapini. The leaves on this green are intensely bitter and pungent with notes of almond or nuttiness. Nutritionally, rapini is similar to broccoli. It is high in fiber and protein and an excellent source of vitamins K and A. It is a good source of vitamin C, folate, and manganese.
In the kitchen, broccoli rabe is typically prepared like a green. It is often blanched and then sauteed with olive oil and spices, lemon, or parmesan cheese. Blanching is important to tame the bitter flavor.
Rapini is typically prepared alone as a side dish. It does not make a good substitute for other items on this list. However, if you want something less bitter, you can easily substitute broccolini or gai lan for rapini in most recipes.