Vegetables are healthy, beautiful and delicious, but we can do a lot of things when cooking them that can change all that. There are common mistakes that can happen, and I should know because I think I have made every one of them. Somehow those bright, colorful, crunchy veggies end up dull, gray and mushy. Yuck! Luckily, I have learned from my mistakes (a lot of them anyway) and I am going to share some veggie-cooking tips with you. Hopefully, you can avoid living an episode of When Bad Things Happen to Good Veggies.
While it’s true that many vegetables are healthier in their raw state, it is not true for all of them. Some vegetables such as beets, broccoli, onions and bell peppers have more nutrients when raw, but others actually become more nutritious when heat is applied. Asparagus has cancer-fighting properties that get turned on when steamed. Mushrooms give you more potassium when they are sauteed, grilled or roasted. While raw spinach tastes great in a salad, eating it cooked will let you absorb more calcium, iron and magnesium. Likewise for tomatoes – you absorb more cancer-fighting lycopene when they are cooked. It’s a good idea then, to eat lots of raw veggies but enjoy some cooked in amazing recipes as well. Try this Skillet Asparagus and Tomato Medley, Crispy Gnocchi with Asparagus, Mushrooms and Brussels Sprouts, and these Spinach-Stuffed Mushrooms.
2. Prepping Veggies Too Early
I’m one of those people that likes to get ahead and do tasks in advance rather than at the last minute. While that is a good trait for some things, it doesn’t always work with vegetables. I know a lot of advice is given about prepping all your veggies as soon as you bring them home from the store so you can save time during the week. However, once you wash and cut vegetables, oxidation and nutrient loss begins as does wilting and spoilage. It is better to cut your veggies right before you use them.
If you need to chop veggies in advance, try to do it no earlier than that morning or the night before you plan to use them. The same goes for washing and prepping greens. Once you wash greens, they will begin to wilt, so you should not wash them until the day you plan to use them. If you simply must wash your greens in advance, put them in a bag with a paper towel around them to absorb excess moisture. Read Never Waste Food Again: Your Guide to the Shelf Life of Produce for detailed information.
It’s a sad thing to watch. You put the broccoli florets in the pan and start to cook them. In a little while, they go from pale green to the most beautiful, verdant, bright green you have ever seen. Then, as you keep cooking them, the florets fade before your eyes, turning limp and gray. You transfer the broccoli to a bowl and wonder why they are mushy, sad and tasteless. You have overcooked them. The best thing to do with overcooked vegetables is puree them and turn them into soup or put them in the fridge for tomorrow’s salad.
When you cook vegetables, be aware of their cooking times. Some vegetables, like carrots and potatoes, take a lot longer to cook than other veggies, such as peas or greens. If you are making a medley of veggies, start cooking the ones that take longer first and don’t add the quick-cooking ones until the end. No matter what cooking method you use, only cook veggies until they are crisp-tender and bright. That’s when they will look and taste the best. As for the broccoli, check out 12 Yummy Ways to Enjoy Broccoli for delicious recipes and ideas.
When I blanch vegetables, I figure I have already gone through all of the trouble of boiling the pot of water, I can’t be expected to make an ice bath too. Right? On TV cooking shows, chefs always have that giant bowl of ice water sitting there waiting for them next to their giant pot of already-boiled water. Since I have no one getting my props ready for me, I often skip the step where I am supposed to shock the veggies – and then I have mushy veggies. After cooking vegetables in boiling water or steaming them, they will continue to cook even after you remove them from the heat.
If you don’t “shock” them by tossing them in ice water to stop the cooking process, the vegetables will become mushy and lose their beautiful vibrant color. Remove the vegetables from the heat, plunge them in an ice bath for just a moment or two and then let them dry. They will retain their crispness and their verdant colors like the veggies in this Early Summer Light Veggie Saute. And as long as we are being totally honest here: I often place the vegetables in a colander and just let cold water run over them to stop the cooking process. It works and I don’t keep expecting a giant ice bath to materialize on the counter.
Whenever someone tells me the story of how they hated vegetables when they were growing up, it turns out those poor veggies were boiled. It doesn’t matter whether it was carrots, cabbage or Brussels sprouts, they were always boiled. It’s almost as if there were no other cooking methods available. Boiling may be a quick way to prepare veggies, but it’s also a quick way to rid them of nutrients and flavor. When you boil veggies, the water soluble nutrients leech out of the veggies and into the cooking water. Boiling can also lead to overcooking the veggies, which will make them soft, gray and mushy.
The only time veggies should swim in boiling water is when you are making soup and even then, only for a short time. If you blanch vegetables in boiling water to soften them, do it only for a few minutes and transfer them to an ice bath before they lose their bright color. Use other methods of cooking vegetables such as steaming, sautéing, stir-frying or grilling. Not only will the veggies be exposed to heat for a shorter period of time, but also these methods allow ample opportunities to add flavor and seasoning. Try my Steamed Vegetables With Garlic Sauce, Stir-Fried Brussels Sprouts With Ginger and Curry Leaves and this Curry With Tofu and Grilled Vegetables.
Vegetables each have their own unique flavor, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t add more flavor to them. Salt and pepper are great, but they are not enough. Vegetables can be marinated in flavorful combinations of tamari, liquid aminos, broth, vinegar and spices. They can be tossed in a mix of your favorite herbs and spices. One of my favorite ways to eat potatoes is to pan-fry them and then drizzle a lemon-thyme vinaigrette over them before serving. It’s amazing. A similar technique is used in my Snap Pea Salad with Almonds in an Herbed Vinaigrette.
By changing the flavor profile of the seasoning, you can take one vegetable such as spinach and cook it a dozen different ways and each dish will taste unique as well as amazing. Check out my article “How to Add Ethnic Flavors to Dishes” for inspiration.
Good things come to those who wait and that is certainly true when it comes to caramelized onions. Caramelized onions should be sweet, rich and creamy. To get them that way, it could take anywhere from 30 to 60 minutes as they slowly cook over a low heat. If you try to rush it by cranking the heat up, what you will get will be delicious but it won’t be caramelized onions. You will end up with sauteed onions which are browned and tender.
Plan your cooking time knowing that you will need about an hour to get those creamy, melt-in-your-mouth caramelized onions you want on top of your burger. Read “How to Caramelize Onions” and then indulge in this Whole Wheat Vegan Pizza with Caramelized Onions, Figs and Arugula.
There are so many ways to mess up mashed potatoes, the topic could have its own article. The most common mistake is overworking the potatoes. When you boil potatoes, the starch cells become swollen and mashing causes those cells to rupture, releasing the starch. The more you mash, beat or whip the potatoes, the more starch that gets released. All that starch leads to gummy mashed potatoes.
To get the lightest, fluffiest mashed potatoes, start with russet potatoes which require less mashing and then use a potato masher instead of an electric mixer. You could also use a ricer or food mill. One last tip: if you are adding non-dairy milk or vegan butter to your potatoes, make sure they are warm to prevent lumps. Try this Mashed Potato and Celery Root dish or use your creamy mashed potatoes for this vegan Shepherd’s Pie.
I write this direction in my recipes all the time: “Depending on the size of your pan, you may need to cook in batches.” Sadly, I don’t always practice what I preach. Usually, it’s because I’m in a hurry or just being impatient that I put way too much food in the pan. Crowding the pan results in the food steaming rather than caramelizing, searing or getting crisp. Plus, when you add food into the oil, it drops the temperature of the oil, so it isn’t even cooking at its optimal temperature. So when I put the entire bunch of string beans in the pan or wok at once, they are going to be soggy.
Only put as many veggies as you can fit in a single layer with some room to spare around the pieces. If you have more veggies than that to cook, do it in several batches or use the largest pan or wok you have. Use this technique to make this Spicy Mushroom Stir-Fry With Garlic, Black Pepper and Chives and these Green Beans With Toasted Mustard Seeds and Garlic.
It is one thing to have a favorite way of cooking spinach and it’s a whole other thing to never, ever try eating it any other way. So many veggies taste good when cooked in a multitude of ways and with a variety of flavor profiles. Roasted Brussels sprouts are amazing and so is shaving the sprouts for a salad. Perhaps you usually eat collard greens sauteed or braised so they are hot and tender. Try them raw or quickly blanched in a salad or as a wrap instead of bread. See more ideas in 5 Flavorful Ways to Cook Collard Greens. Spinach can be sauteed, fried, raw or steamed. Read more in my article 10 Flavorful Ways to Cook with Spinach. Learn different ethnic flavor profiles and explore the world when you make dinner. You will see that the possibilities are endless.
I hope these tips are helpful to you so you can enjoy vegetables at their best. When these mistakes are avoided, veggies will be so amazing that you will never again have to remind anyone to eat their vegetables.
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