Whether or not you have a liking for veggies, we all know that eating a wide and colourful assortment can help pack your diet with an alphabet’s worth of nutrients -- from vitamins, antioxidants and polyphenols to pretty much all healthful compounds one could think of. But did you know, getting the most of the hidden nutrients from your vegetables actually depends on the way you cook them? Some cooking methods preserve the nutrients while others can, in fact, destroy them. After you get your fresh produce from the market, following these nutritionist-approved cooking strategies will help you get the most nutritional bang for your buck.
But First, Wash
A practice that we all religiously follow – if you don’t, its high time you do. “Washing helps rid your veggies, especially if grown below the ground, of dirt, dust, pesticide residues and other disease-causing pathogens such as Salmonella, Campylobacter, Listeria and strains of E.coli, thereby nulling the risk of food-borne infections,” explains Swati Bhushan, Chief Clinical Nutritionist, Hiranandani Hospital - A Fortis Network Hospital, Vashi. She further explains that doing so will also help remove allergens from the surface of vegetables. “Washing vegetables before cutting prevents the loss of water-soluble vitamins and minerals," informs Kejal Sheth, Nutritionist and Founder of Nutrivity.in. Cutting a vegetable breaks its cell walls so washing it later means allowing nutrients to escape.
Also read: How to slice your veggies and fruits
Larger, the Better
Cooking veggies whole is often the best conscious choice you could make to preserve their nutrients. However, when that's not practical, you could cut them into large uniform pieces. This ensures that the entire vegetable is cooked at the same time, eliminating the chances of under or overcooked pieces. Moreover, large and uniform pieces mean lesser nutrient loss to heat or cooking water. It’s a win-win situation – saves times, energy and helps retain maximum nutrients. Cooking carrots whole and then cutting them helps retain more nutrients.
To Peel or Not To Peel
Are you guilty of throwing away the most nutritious part of your veggies, their peels? Most of the phytonutrients and fibre are hidden right underneath the skin of the vegetable. “When you peel and discard the skin, you are discarding the nutrients,” explains Bhushan. By doing so, there are also chances of losing out on dietary fibre which is hailed for a series of health benefits. According to Bhushan, veggies that are best consumed with their peels on are lauki or doodhi (bottle gourd), turai (ridge gourd), tinda (round gourd), parwal or potol (pointed gourd), kantola or bhat karela (teasle gourd), kaddu or bhopla (pumpkin), karela (bitter gourd), padwal (snake Gourd), potato, kheera or kakdi (cucumber), zucchini and baingan (Eggplant or Brinjal). Instead of throwing out the nutritious peels, you can ignore the recipe instructions and toss in these often discarded parts as well or simply roast them and eat as chips.
Cook Soon After Cutting
Although pre-cut vegetables save a lot of time in the kitchen, it is ideal to cut them close to cooking time to reap nutritional benefits. “Vegetables are high in anti-oxidants. These essential components are destroyed when they come in contact with oxygen in the air,” informs Sheth. Moreover, Bhushan explains that when vegetables are chopped finely, they tend to undergo discolouration and dehydrate in no time, resulting in nutrient loss. “It is also recommended to chop raw vegetables for your salad as close to serving time as possible,” says Bhushan.
Also read: 8 chopping styles every amateur must master
Is Raw Always Healthy?
“There is no black or white answer to this. In some vegetables, vitamins are lost during cooking and in some, they become more bio-available,” says Seth. A mix of both, raw and cooked veggies, can help one get the best range of nutrients whilst keeping your taste buds engaged. “While thorough washing removes most of the unwanted and harmful substances from the surface, some contamination might still remain,” warns Bhushan. "While the ingestion of a negligible amount of these may not be harmful as our immune system is strong enough to fight them off, the problem arises only when the defence system fails, causing these bugs to multiply and cause infections," she explains. While consuming certain vegetables in their raw form is beneficial to one’s health, it’s important to note that not all vegetables should be eaten raw, especially leafy vegetables and a variety of green beans. Besides, Bhushan says that veggies such as cauliflower, broccoli and brinjal among others have the possibility of being infested with worms, therefore it is advisable to cook such vegetables before consumption.
Also read: A fresh raw salad called kosambari
Steam, Don’t Boil
Water is not always a good friend to your veggies when it comes to keeping intact all their nutrients. Agreed, it's quick and convenient, but doing so will only cause further loss of their nutritional value. Apart from leaching out nutrients, boiling can also suck out the flavour. Boiling causes the loss of water-soluble vitamins such as vitamin B1, C and folate. So unless you are going to consume the stock as well, or use it for soups and stews, these vitamins would otherwise go down the drain. Steaming, on the other hand, is a gentler way to cook because the vegetables don't come in contact with the boiling water. Moreover, Bhushan says that while both boiling and steaming help save on cooking time and use little or no oil, steaming helps bring out the flavour in food, along with the retention of valuable nutrients.
Though this method involves boiling water, you are not really boiling the veggies and doing so won’t leech veggies of their nutrients. After bringing a pot of water to boil, drop in your veggies for 30 seconds to one minute, depending on whether you like your veggies soft or crunchy. Then transfer to an ice bath to stop cooking. “By doing this, they retain their nutrients and do not lose colour. Blanching also helps to maintain the texture of the vegetables,” says Rajeswari Shetty, Head of Dietetics, SL Raheja Hospital, Mahim - A Fortis Associate.
Also read: How to blanch your veggies
Fry the Right Way
There’s no arguing here - frying helps enhance the natural taste, colour and texture of all vegetables. However, frying also adds lots of calories to your meals, can destroy essential vitamins and minerals, and produces toxins in your vegetables. But frying vegetables can be done properly to avoid oxidation and retain nutrients. Ditch your kadhai or wok, and sauté or stir-fry your veggies instead. These methods mean cooking them over high heat which will help them cook quickly, thereby minimizing nutrient loss. Nutrients like beta carotene, vitamin D and vitamin K are fat soluble, so they can only pass from our intestine into our bloodstream with some fat to carry them across. Most veggies, including leafy greens, are loaded with heat-loving carotenoids, nutrients which become more absorbable in our bodies when induced to heat. And while at it, Shetty recommends using extra virgin olive oil for medium or low heat cooking. She also suggests using groundnut oil, sunflower oil, sesame oil, rice bran oil or even coconut oil. Good news: Studies claim that cooking veggies in fat not only helps increase the absorption of carotenoids but fat-soluble vitamins such as A, E, K and D. Moreover, vegetable oils are high in monounsaturated fats—the heart-friendly type which can help reduce inflammation and improve your blood cholesterol levels. However, “moderation is the key for any oil,” warns Shetty. While baking in an oven is a hit-or-miss, as it depends on the type of oven, the temperature and the vegetable in question, roasting instead, may be a better option. With roasting, you can use less oil than with sautéing, helping save on calories and making your veggies much more palatable.
Also read: How to not ruin non-stick pans
Microwave to the Rescue
Microwaving uses little to no water and can cook the veggie in the shortest time, preserving nutrients that would otherwise break down when treated with heat. Shetty adds, “If one uses the microwave with a small amount of water, it helps cook veggies from the inside out, retaining all essential nutrients, thereby making it one of the many other healthy ways of cooking veggies." However, exceptions to this method include cauliflower, red chilli peppers, broccoli and leafy greens, informs Shetty.
While the answer mostly depends on the vegetable in use, according to Bhushan the best methods to help retain the most nutrients in your veggies include steaming, microwaving and roasting. When you’re short on time or don’t know what to serve for dinner, simply steam your fresh vegetables in a splash of water and allow them to cook in their own juices. This helps to retain all the nutrients. Note that it’s important to cook your veggies over low heat as this can help break down the food into an easy-to-absorb form, thereby releasing the hidden nutrients. On the other hand, blanching or sautéing veggies lightly until tender-crisp can help retain their colour, nutrition and also taste. When it comes to microwaving, she says that since this method calls for a short cooking time, the result is a minimum loss of nutrients. Roasting uses dry heat to soften vegetables and does not require any fat or oil to be added which means no extra calories are caught up in the cooked veggies.
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