Have you seen the episode of “Good Vegetables Gone Bad” about the broccoli that goes wrong? It’s so sad – the broccoli starts out young, fresh, and full of potential. The florets are cooking in the pan and turn the most beautiful, verdant shade of bright green. But then, they keep cooking and before you know it, the florets have turned gray and mushy. The broccoli is dead, tasteless and all its potential is gone. It’s simply tragic.
Vegetables are healthy, beautiful and delicious, but we can do a lot of things when cooking them that can change all that. Besides our bodies, veggies need to nourish our eyes and our taste buds. The better veggies taste, the more we will want to eat them. So let’s stop killing our veggies! Say no more to mushy gray vegetables! Here are tips for cooking veggies the right way.
1. When You Bring Them Home
Keeping veggies fresh and crisp starts as soon as you bring them home from the market. Of course, you want to make sure you buy the freshest-looking vegetables you can. Avoid veggies with bruises, dark spots or wilted leaves. When you get home, put the veggies in the crisper drawers of your refrigerator. The humidity keeps the vegetables from losing too much moisture and shriveling up. You also don’t want the veggies to get too moist so you could store them by wrapping them in damp paper towels and putting them in perforated storage bags. This lets the air circulate and allows moisture to get out. For more storage tips, see How to Store Your Raw Foods for Optimum Lasting Power and How to Properly Store Your Fruit and Vegetables for Maximum Freshness.
2. Before You Cook Them
Prepping veggies in advance may save you time during the week but prepping them too early can cause veggies to lose their crispness. Once vegetables are cut, they begin to lose moisture and oxidize. Then they start to wilt and lose nutrients. Try not to prep your veggies more than a few hours before you will use them. Greens, especially, should not be washed until you’re ready to use them. If you must prep veggies in advance, put them in a bag with a paper towel around them absorb moisture. Read Never Waste Food Again: Your Guide to the Shelf Life of Produce for tips.
3. When You Put Them in Hot Water
Every time someone tells me how they hate a certain vegetable, it turns out it was prepared by boiling it to death. Unless you’re making soup, there is really no reason to boil vegetables. Not only does it make them mushy and tasteless, but boiling leeches all the good stuff out of veggies. Read The Best Way to Cook Your Veggies for the Most Nutrition and you’ll see that boiling is not the best way.
Blanching, on the other hand, is a useful technique that uses boiling water to soften veggies just enough so they are either readily edible or will have shorter cooking times when sauteed. Blanching removes any bitterness from veggies, especially from greens, and is a necessary step if you plan to freeze and store veggies for later use.
To blanch vegetables, bring a large pot of water to a rapid boil and drop the veggies or greens in. Stir them around a bit. In just a few minutes, the veggies or greens will start to soften and become a beautiful, bright color. You don’t want to cook them too long or they will lose that color and get mushy. You can test a piece of vegetable to see if it is the texture you want.
Then transfer the vegetables or greens to an ice bath to shock them. This will stop the cooking process and help the veggies keep that beautiful, bright color. If you don’t want to set up an ice bath, at least transfer the veggies to a colander and run cold water over them for a minute. When they are cool enough to handle, drain any excess water and continue with your recipe. Skipping this step is a common mistake made when cooking veggies.
4. The Flavor You Give Them
No matter what you are cooking, you want to take every chance you have to add flavor. 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. Check out The Ultimate Guide to Making Flavor-Packed Marinades for Plant-Based Dishes. Veggies can be tossed in a mix of your favorite herbs and spices. See our Guide to Matching Herbs and Spices With the Right Veggies.
Veggies should be cooked in aromatics like onion, garlic and leeks. How amazing do these Garlic and Thyme Pan-Seared Mushrooms look! They can be cooked in sauté sauces or have them added after cooking. Try these 10 Simple and Awesome Saute Sauces and then try my Snap Pea Salad with Almonds in an Herbed Vinaigrette, this Early Summer Light Veggie Saute, Sauteed Avocados, and Sauteed Beet Red Greens.
Balance is important in cooking. If the veggies are bitter, you could add agave nectar or sugar to sweeten it a bit. Add a bit of vinegar or a squeeze of lemon juice for some acid; balsamic is fruity and rich and can stand up to the hearty vegetables like greens and mushrooms though apple cider and red wine vinegar are also good choices. I like to use vegan Worcestershire sauce for complex, savory flavors. Tamari, soy sauce, liquid aminos and seaweed add rich, salty umami flavor. Try this Miso Roasted Eggplant and Zucchini to see what I mean. Play around with your favorites and come up with combinations you like best. You don’t need to add a lot; you just want to enhance the flavors of the veggies, not cover them up.
By changing the flavor profile of the seasoning and sauces, 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 How to Add Ethnic Flavors to Dishes and Tips for Making Ethnic Food Taste the Best for inspiration.
5. The Way You Cook Them
There are so many ways to cook vegetables. You can saute them, fry them, steam them, roast them, grill them and braise them. Check out These 10 Methods for Cooking Flavorful Vegetables. If you always cook cauliflower the same way, try something new. The same veggie can taste very different when prepared a different way. Different methods lead to different flavors and textures. Simple Roasted Cauliflower with Chipotle and Lime is very different than Cauliflower Chickpea Patties or Cauliflower Fried Rice. You may find that you’re not crazy about eggplant when it’s stir-fried but you love it when it’s roasted like these Roasted Eggplant Sandwiches with Caramelized Onions.
6. No Matter How You Cook Them
Whichever method you use to cook your veggies, make sure you cook them correctly. Nothing is worse than sitting down to a plate of overcooked, mushy veggies or undercooked, bitter veggies. Read up on proper prepping, cooking times and methods for whatever vegetable you are planning to make. Season them properly and keep your vegetables bright and crisp-tender.
One of the advantages of blanching vegetables is that when you do go to stir-fry, grill or saute them, they will take much less time to cook and that will prevent them from getting overcooked while waiting for them to become tender enough to eat. Make sure you know the proper cooking times for different vegetables. In dishes that have several types of veggies like this Skillet Asparagus and Tomato Medley, cook the ones that take longer first, saving the delicate veggies for last. Don’t overcrowd the pan; cook in batches instead.
Check out my Secrets to Stir-Frying and Sautéing Veggies, The Ultimate Guide to Grilling Veggies, and The Ultimate Guide to Roasting Vegetables to learn more about cooking times and techniques. For more tips on what not to do, read How to Avoid These Common Mistakes When Cooking Vegetables.
7. The Recipes You Need
Now that you know all the dos and don’ts about cooking vegetables, it’s time to start enjoying them. We have so many amazing veggie-centric recipes, you could eat a different one every day for over a year! Start with these 15 Veggie Dishes That Rock and then try some our most recent recipes. You’ll love this Smoky Eggplant Pasta with Bok Choy and Pea Pesto, Tahini Kale Protein Bowl, and this Summer Veggie Gratin.
Enjoy this Curry Broccoli Salad, Overnight Savory Breakfast Mushrooms, Brunch Stuffed Peppers, Sweet and Sriracha Cauliflower Bites, Rainbow Veggie Lentil Fried Rice and Roasted Chickpea Stuffed Sweet Potatoes with Creamy Tahini Sauce.
Get creative and make vegan versions of classics using vegetables like these Carrot Dogs, Veggie Ceviche with Dill, Beanball Sub Sandwich with Marinara and Greens, Balsamic Portobello Cashew Tacos, Seriously Good Veggie Burgers and Hearts of Baltimore Crab Cakes.
Keep it simple and delicious with these Lemon Tarragon Asparagus, Rosemary Roasted Carrots with Creamy Thyme and Rosemary Sauce, Roasted Brussels Sprouts and Bursted Cherry Tomato Spaghetti, Lemony Kale Chips, Steamed Vegetables with Garlic Sauce and Coconut and Turmeric Roast Potatoes.
Vegetables are amazing but they need to be cooked correctly for people to love them. When you follow these tips, no one will ever have to remind you to eat your veggies again.
Lead image source: Lemony Kale Chips