Best Ways to Cook Vegetables
By Peter Jaret
Reviewed By Kathleen M. Zelman, MPH, RD, LD
Nutrition experts may quibble over some things. But there’s one piece of advice they all agree on: Eat your vegetables.
Vegetables are among the healthiest foods. They’re brimming with vitamins, minerals, and other substances our bodies need for optimum performance and robust immunity. The more vegetables people eat on a regular basis, research shows, the lower their risk of many chronic diseases, including heart disease, type 2 diabetes, and some forms of cancer.
Why do so many Americans fall short on even the minimum recommended numbers of servings? One reason may be that preparing and cooking vegetables can seem complicated and intimidating.
It doesn’t need to be, says Amy Myrdal Miller, RD, a dietitian at the Culinary Institute of America at Greystone. “These days, convenience foods such as pre-washed greens and frozen vegetables like spinach and corn make preparation a lot easier.”
As for cooking vegetables, any technique is great, expect for deep frying of course. “I think most nutritionists would agree that any way you cook vegetables is fine, as long you eat plenty of them,” says Jeannie Gazzaniga-Moloo, RD, a national spokesperson for the American Dietetic Association and instructor at California State University, Sacramento.
By experimenting with a variety of techniques, you’ll find fresh ways to entice everyone in the family to come back for seconds.
The word sauté comes from the French verb meaning “to jump.” It refers to the way foods added to a hot, lightly-oiled pan tend to jump. Sautéing is a quick and easy way to cook vegetables with relatively little oil. Sautéed vegetables retain their vitamins and minerals, as well as taste and color. This method is best suited for tender vegetables, such as asparagus, baby artichokes, snow peas, sweet peppers, onions, and mushrooms.
Kitchen Tip: Cut vegetables into bite-sized pieces so they can cook all the way through quickly. Heat the pan first over relatively high heat. Add oil. Wait until the oil begins to shimmer before adding the vegetables. Cooking time depends on the desired tenderness.
Stir-frying is very similar to sautéing, with two important differences. Stir-frying is done over very high heat, and the food is constantly stirred to prevent it from burning on the hot pan. Stir-frying is often done in a wok, the classic utensil of Chinese cooking. But you can also stir in a sauté pan, as long as the bottom is thick enough to distribute the high heat evenly.
Kitchen Tip: Sautéing and stir-frying are best done with a cooking oil that stands up to high heat, such as canola oil. Once vegetables are done, you can toss them with a flavored oil such as olive or sesame oil.
Boiling or Simmering Vegetables
Like sautéing, boiling vegetables is a quick and easy technique. When you want to retain the flavor and crispness of vegetables such as green beans or broccoli, wait until the water is at a full boil. Toss in the vegetables and cook them quickly, a technique called blanching. Simmering also uses water to cook vegetables, but at a lower temperature, before the water begins to boil. This slow-cooking technique is great for dried bean, potatoes, beets and other root vegetables that require longer periods of cooking in order to become tender.
Kitchen Tip: Adding salt to boiling water enhances the flavor of vegetables. Don’t overdo it. Vegetables shouldn’t taste salty. And of course excess salt increases the risk of high blood pressure.
Roasting vegetables such as asparagus, squash, or onions is as simple as putting them on a baking sheet, drizzling them with a little vegetable oil, and popping them in a 400 degree oven. “The high oven temperature of roasting cooks meat and vegetables quickly and caramelizes the sugars on the surface, creating a crunchy and sweet flavor,” says Scott Samuel, a chef and instructor at the Culinary Institute of America at Greystone. Roasting helps to preserve not only vitamins and minerals, but also flavors that can be lost with boiling.
Kitchen Tip: Build a meal around foods that can all be roasted in the oven, such as roasted chicken or fish and roasted vegetables. Seasonings such as bay leaves, garlic, or mixed spices can be added for flavor.
Steamed vegetables are synonymous with healthy eating for good reason. Steaming cooks vegetables without submersing them in water, so they are more likely to retain vitamins and minerals. Unlike sautéing, steaming doesn’t require oil, so it’s a great way to prepare vegetables if you’re watching calories. The best vegetables for steaming include broccoli, carrots, cauliflower, green beans, leafy greens like spinach, and other relatively tender vegetables.
Kitchen Tip: Aromatic spices such as cinnamon sticks, lemongrass, and ginger can be added to the steaming liquid to permeate vegetables with subtle flavor.
When the weather is warm, grill vegetables outside on the barbecue. Like roasting, grilling locks in flavor and caramelizes the surface of vegetables, giving them a crispy sweetness. Grilling is a terrific way to prepare corn, sweet peppers, zucchini and other squash, onions, potatoes, and a variety of other vegetables.
Kitchen Tip: If you have a gas cook top, you can grill vegetables inside all year round. Hold the vegetables with tongs above the flame, turning to cook them evenly. Another option is to place vegetables on a grilling basket over the flame. Bell peppers, available most of the year, are perfect for grilling over a stove top.
Making Vegetable-Based Sauces
Vegetables feature in many classic sauces and spreads. A classic favorite from Spain, romesco sauce, combinesgood food processor,with almonds, hazelnuts, olive oil, and vinegar to create a flavorful sauce that can be used with fish or vegetable dishes. Classic Italian pesto sauce is made with generous handfuls of basil blended with pine nuts, olive oil, and parmesan cheese. To make a rich-tasting vegetarian pate, sauté mushrooms and onions, season with Italian spices or herbs de Provence, and blend in a kitchen blender.
Kitchen Tip: Invest in a good food processor, which makes vegetable-based sauces and spreads much easier.