Which Way of Cooking Preserve Both Nutrients and Flavor?

How you prepare and cook your food can be as important as the food you select to eat. Even the most nutritious foods will not meet their potential for nourishment if improperly cooked. It has been found that foods cooked the traditional way could lose 50–80% of their nutrients because they were overcooked. Which way of cooking preserves both nutrients and flavor?

Cooking itself is science-based because it involves the chemical and structural changes that occur in our food when we transform it from its raw form into its cooked form. We cook foods for four reasons:

  • make it easier to digest
  • increase the availability of nutrients for assimilation
  • enhance flavor
  • preserve food safety

Which Way of Cooking Preserve Both Nutrients and Flavor?-CookingEggs

The Problem with Traditional Cooking

Traditional cooking methods oftentimes involve long cooking times. This results in overcooked foods that are soft, mushy, and devoid of much of their natural flavor. It was once believed that cooking for long periods of time helped to develop the flavor of food. Although this may be good practice for root vegetables used in soups and stews, it is not good for leafy greens and other vegetables. For example, many people boil broccoli until it's soft. No wonder broccoli doesn’t rank high on their list of favorites—waterlogged, bland food wouldn't be a favorite for anyone. The long cooking times frequently used in traditional cooking methods have another drawback. Not only does overcooking take the enjoyment out of food, it destroys vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, and many other nutrients as well. For example,  boiling certain vegetables can deplete water-soluble vitamins, such as vitamin C and B vitamins, as well as flavonoid phytonutrients.

Many nutrients provide antioxidant protection against free radical activity, that can negatively affect cellular structures and DNA. These include vitamins such as A, C and E as well as phytonutrients such as the carotenoids, betacarotene and lycopene, and flavonoids such as phenols, quercetin and rutin. Studies have found that cooking in general, the length of cooking time and the amount of water used during cooking can impact the concentration of antioxidants found in your vegetables.

According to research some vegetables, such as carrots and tomatoes, actually offer greater availability of antioxidants after they have been cooked. Carotenoids are usually hooked together with proteins or locked into their own crystallike structure when found in their natural state. Heating helps break down these structures and free carotenoids for digestion and absorption into our cells. The release of carotenoids through cooking can be measured. In carrots, for example, about 40% more carotenoids are released and made available through cooking.

How to Preserve Nutrients When Cooking

Science tells us that nutrient loss and retention are almost always predictable and that a very well defined group of factors can help you minimize nutrient loss:

  • minimizing degree of heat
  • minimizing duration of cooking
  • minimizing degree of surface area contact with water
  • minimizing size of food (chopping, slicing)
  • consideration of the ratio of surface area to the interior of food

Healthiest Way of Cooking Methods

1. Steaming

Steaming is one of the best cooking methods for preserve flavor and nutrients in foods. It's a gentle cooking method that helps retain the natural vitamins and minerals present in the ingredients, and since you're not submerging the food in water, there's less loss of water-soluble nutrients. Plus, the flavors tend to stay more intact compared to methods that involve boiling or frying.

Foods simply steamed and flavored with fresh herbs, lemon and olive oil can be very satisfying and delicious, especially when the vegetables themselves have so much taste. It is also a way to cook that can be done in one pot on the stove, so there is very little mess and cleanup required.

A study published in the Journal of the Science of Food and Agriculture found that light steaming was the clear winner when comparing different types of cooking methods and their effects on the retention of phytonutrients, such as carotenoids and flavonoids that act as powerful antioxidants. Light steaming resulted in almost no loss of these health-promoting minerals nutrients.

What I have gleaned from many scientific studies is that if you cook your vegetables al denté, you will maximize nutrient retention, losing only around 5–10% of vitamins, while the loss of minerals and other nutrients is even less. Overcooking can destroy more than 50% of some vegetables’ nutrients. Even small variations in cooking techniques can affect how many nutrients you preserve. When you steam or boil vegetables, look at the color of the cooking water to see the difference in nutrient loss. The color of the water used to steam vegetables changes very little; this indicates very little nutrient loss. However, if you steam for a long time, the color of the water will deepen, reflecting the loss of a large number of nutrients.

When steaming vegetables, one method for preserving water-soluble nutrients such as vitamin C is to ensure that the water is fast boiling and the steam is very hot (rolling) before placing the veggies in the steamer. The rolling steam's heat neutralizes enzymes that can damage vitamin C, which otherwise can not withstand heat, as well as other nutrients. If you're not careful, you could lose up to 20% of your vitamin C in the first two minutes of cooking!

How to steaming food

Put 2 inches of water at the bottom of the pot. This will ensure that you will have enough water to avoid burning the pot. It just takes a few seconds more with the extra amount of water.

You want to make sure the water is at a rapid boil before adding your vegetables to the steamer basket. This is so the heat will be consistent throughout the cooking time. Steaming cooks the vegetables with even, moist heat. Once the water is at a rapid boil, turn the heat to medium and place the vegetables in the steamer basket. You want to make sure the steamer has a tight-fitting lid.

If you are steaming more than one vegetable at a time, place the vegetables in the steamer basket in layers. There are two ways of doing this:

• Place all the vegetables in the steamer basket at once, putting the denser vegetables that need more heat on the bottom. Layer the vegetables, putting the lighter ones, such as greens, on top.

• Place the denser vegetables that take longer in the steamer basket and cook with the lid on for 2–4 minutes. Then add another layer of vegetables that take a little less time to cook and continue to steam. This can be done in several layers, ending up with all of your vegetables done to perfection at the end of cooking time.

You can also steam vegetables and fish together by steaming a variety of vegetables with a nice piece of salmon or other fish on top. You can make a simple Mediterranean dressing and drizzle it over everything when done. It is a perfect way to make a simple, healthy meal in one pot in a very short amount of time.

more about steaming cooking, see this 8 Benefits of steaming cooking method

2. Quick Boil

Although very short cooking at 212°F (100°C) in boiling water produces relatively little nutrient loss, once boiling goes on for anything more than a few minutes, the nutrient loss becomes significant. Up to 80% of the folic acid in carrots, for example, can be lost from boiling. The same is true for the amount of vitamin B1 lost in boiled soybeans.

There are only three vegetables I recommend boiling: Swiss chard, spinach and beet greens. The reason boil these vegetables is to help reduce their oxalic acid content. Spinach is boiled for only 1 minute, and Swiss chard and beet greens are boiled for only 3 minutes.

How to Quick Boil

Use a large pot (3 quart) and fill it three-quarters full of water. Make sure the water is at a rapid boil before adding the greens. When the water is at full boil, place the greens into the pot. Do not cover. Cooking uncovered helps the acids escape into the air. Cook for the recommended time; begin timing as soon as you drop the greens into the boiling water. When vegetables are done, place a mesh strainer in the sink. Empty the contents of the pot into the strainer to drain the water from the vegetables.

3. Sautéing

Sautéing is a very special way of preparing foods because it has the benefits of three methods in one. It is a sauté that uses vegetable or chicken broth in place of heated oils. I am particularly conscious of creating recipes that do not use heated oils because they can potentially have negative effects on your health.

It is like stir-fry because it brings out the robust flavor of foods but cooks them at a lower temperature. It is like steaming because there is enough moisture to soften the cellulose and hemicellulose, which aids digestibility. Sautéing requires just a small amount of liquid to make vegetables moist and tender.

Vegetables such as cauliflower and asparagus, which only require a small amount of liquid to tenderize them, are especially good candidates for sauté because steaming and boiling dilute their flavor.

How to saute food

Heat broth in a stainless steel skillet. When the broth begins to steam, add vegetables and cover. Sauté for the recommended amount of time. Some vegetables require cooking uncovered for several minutes before serving. Sautéing will concentrate both the flavor and nutrition of your vegetables.

4. Roasting

When it comes to preserving flavor, techniques like grilling and roasting can work well. The direct heat in these methods enhances the natural flavors of many foods, especially vegetables and meats. Just be mindful not to overcook to maintain optimal taste and nutrient content.

Roasting is done with dry heat in an open pan in a hot oven, about 450°F (232°C) or higher. It crisps up the exterior of the meat or vegetables while slow-cooking the inside.

How to Roast

Roast root vegetables at 450°F (232°C) for about 30 minutes without oil; stir once in a while to distribute natural juices. The temperature for roasting nuts is much lower—use a 160–170°F (70–75°C) oven for 15–20 minutes—to preserve the heart-healthy oils in nuts.

Another method worth considering is microwaving. Believe it or not, microwaving can help preserve nutrients because it cooks food quickly and with minimal water usage. Also, it's quite handy when you're short on time.

Tips for Nutrient-rich Cooking

Nutrient-rich cooking involves preparing meals that are not only delicious but also packed with essential nutrients that support your overall health and well-being. Here are some tips for cooking in a way that maximizes the nutritional value of your meals:

Choose Whole Foods: Base your meals on whole, unprocessed foods like fruits, vegetables, whole grains, lean proteins, and legumes. These foods are rich in vitamins, minerals, and fiber.

Steam or Bake: Steaming or baking foods instead of frying can help preserve their nutritional content. These methods often require less added fats, which can be healthier.

Use Healthy Fats: When cooking with fats, opt for healthier options like olive oil, avocado oil, or canola oil instead of saturated fats like butter or lard. These oils contain heart-healthy monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats.

Limit Added Sugars: Reducing the amount of added sugars in your recipes can help lower the overall calorie content and improve the nutritional value of your dishes. Use natural sweeteners like honey or maple syrup sparingly.

Experiment with Herbs and Spices: Flavor your dishes with a variety of herbs and spices to enhance taste without adding excess salt or sugar. This can make your food more interesting and flavorful.

Opt for Lean Proteins: Choose lean sources of protein like skinless poultry, fish, beans, and tofu. These options are lower in saturated fat and high in essential nutrients.

Don't Overcook: Overcooking vegetables can cause them to lose some of their nutritional value. Aim to cook them until they are tender but still vibrant in color.

Include a Variety of Colors: A colorful plate is often an indicator of a nutrient-rich meal. Different colors often signify different vitamins and minerals, so try to include a variety of colorful fruits and vegetables in your dishes.

Plan Balanced Meals: Aim for a balance of carbohydrates, proteins, and fats in each meal. This can help provide sustained energy and promote overall nutrition.

Remember that nutrient-rich cooking is about making choices that prioritize your health without sacrificing taste. Experiment with different ingredients and cooking methods to find what works best for you and your dietary preferences.

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