My kitchen gets a workout during cold weather when we tend to crave hot savory foods: soups, stews, and roasted dishes. Plus, we end up cooking more meals because the groups of friends and family in the house are larger. This is also when I like to make and share special foods that taste good on almost everything and make great gifts (like my favorite chutney)! Cooking in the winter includes a gift for me. Most of my favorite winter dishes are easy to make in bulk and then freeze in smaller portions (jars work perfectly) for weekdays when I don’t have enough time to make dinner.
So it’s a good time to think about cooking methods and how they affect the safety and nutritional value of food.
Cooking can change the chemical make-up of foods in unexpected ways. It can make food better for our bodies, or it can add unexpected risks. Without knowing the facts, it’s hard to predict which cooking method is best for each type of food.
If you’re cooking vegetables, try microwaving or steaming. Microwaving cooks food by “energizing” the atoms in food, rather than by conducting heat from the outside. Steaming cooks food in a perforated basket sitting above an inch or two of simmering liquid, with the lid on tight.
Both methods cook foods quickly and with small amounts of liquid, which tends to maximize the antioxidants and other nutrients in vegetables. (Usually, but not always: In an earlier column titled To Cook or Not to Cook, I talked about how cooking improves the nutritional value of many vegetables, such as broccoli and kale, but lessens that of others, such as beets). Methods that use longer cooking times and more liquid, such as boiling, can destroy or dissolve some nutrients, including vitamins C and B12, riboflavin, and folic acid. Still, no matter how you cook or don’t cook your vegetables, just remember to eat them! Studies show that eating both raw and cooked vegetables helps reduce the risk of many cancers, including breast cancer.
Cook starchy foods at lower temperatures. High-temperature cooking, such as deep frying, can cause a chemical compound called acrylamide to form in starchy foods such as potatoes when they’re fried to make chips and French fries. Scientists don’t know if the levels of acrylamide that form in these foods pose any health risk for humans, but lab studies have linked eating acrylamide to cancer in animals. Since we don’t know for sure how acrylamide affects people and in what amount, it’s probably best to land on the side of caution. It doesn’t hurt to eat a few chips and fries, but eating them every day probably isn’t the healthiest thing for you. Plus, chips and fries don’t have any nutritional value — they’re just empty calories. If you’re cooking potatoes, try to bake, microwave or boil them. If you do fry potatoes, avoid overcooking — cook them until they’re golden yellow rather than dark brown.
Don’t let grilled meat, poultry, or fish get blackened: Grilling isn’t just for summertime anymore. If you’re someone who grills all year long, it’s especially important to minimize any possible risks. Grills tend to cook food at high temperatures and food often gets charred or blackened. This can increase the formation of chemicals called heterocyclic amines (HCAs). These compounds were found to cause cancer in animal studies, including breast cancer. The National Cancer Institute has said that HCAs could pose a cancer risk to humans.
Meat and poultry produce the most HCAs when they’re grilled because they contain the most amino acids and creatine, which are converted into HCAs. Seafood produces less, and plant foods, such as tofu, fruits, and vegetables, produce very little.
Grilling also can expose you to polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), which are also linked to cancer. PAHs form when the fat and juices from meat, poultry, and fish drip down into the grill and cause flames. The flames contain PAHs that then stick to the surface of the food being cooked. PAHs also can form when meat is smoked. Electric grills, such as the ever-popular George Foreman grills, cook meat without flames or much smoke, so PAHs are much less likely to form.
Grill wisely. Remember to clean off any charred pieces of food that are stuck to the grill racks before you start grilling again. Choose leaner and lighter meats that create fewer drippings (so fewer PAHs). To reduce HCAs, only cook food until it meets food safety guidelines for minimum internal temperatures but is still less well-done. You also can partially cook meat and poultry first in the microwave so it spends less time on the grill. If parts become charred during grilling, cut the blackened parts off. Precooking your meat or poultry and then finishing it on the grill is a safe strategy.
If you like grilled food, eat it in moderation as part of a well-balanced diet. Studies have found that women who eat a high amount of grilled, barbecued, and smoked meats and few fruits and vegetables had a higher risk of breast cancer. Risk was even higher for women who ate a lot of red meat. Fish is a better option, because it forms fewer HCAs. Grilling also helps reduce the amount of mercury your body absorbs from the fish. Plant foods, such as tofu, fruits, and vegetables, produce even fewer, if any HCAs. But remember that no foods — not even vegetables — should be eaten charred. (For other tips on safer grilling, read my Think Pink, Live Green column on grilling wisely.)
Try the oven instead of grilling. Meat and poultry that’s been baked or roasted in the oven isn’t associated with a higher risk of breast cancer. That’s probably because these methods tend to involve lower temperatures and no direct contact with flame. If you’ve never roasted meat before, try cooking it slowly at low heat. Recipes often advise you to brown meat over high heat before putting it in the oven, but this isn’t necessary. Skipping this step is another way to reduce HCAs. You’ll be rewarded with a tender and delicious main course. Remember, though, to keep cooking temperatures moderate and avoid overcooking. New evidence has linked eating lots of well-done meat, no matter how it’s prepared, to an increased risk of breast and prostate cancer. Use a good meat thermometer and cook meat only until it reaches the U.S. Food and Drug Administration recommended minimum safe cooking temperature.
Marinate meat and poultry. Marinating has been found to reduce the formation of HCAs. Scientists think that this is because herbs used in marinades, such as rosemary, sage, thyme, and garlic, are rich in antioxidants. Marinades with herbs and other plant extracts, such as lemon juice, also may inactivate Escherichia coli, the bacteria found in undercooked beef that can cause food poisoning.
Try stir-frying or sautéing instead of pan frying or deep frying. Both pan frying and deep-frying, which use lots of oil and high temperatures to cook food, have been associated with a higher risk for cancer and other health problems. Stir frying and sautéing methods use far smaller amounts of oil. And since food is first cut into bite-sized or thinly sliced pieces, it cooks quickly.
In any case, be sure to use healthier oils, such as sunflower oil or olive oil, instead of oils that contain trans fats, such as shortening and margarine. And if you’re frying, consider partially cooking the food first in the microwave. Once food is in the oil, flip or stir it often, and stop cooking while the food is less well done (but within the FDA safe temperature limits — see link above). These strategies can cut down on the formation of harmful substances.
Take steps to avoid food poisoning. Food-borne illnesses tend to go up during the winter and they’re not something you want to pass on to your family. So remember these tips when preparing food:
- Keep counters and the kitchen sink clean. Wash them often, and your hands, too. Your sponges and other dish scrubbers should go in the dishwasher now and then. And don’t keep re-hanging your dish towels on the oven door — toss them in the laundry!
- Keep raw meat, poultry, fish — and their juices — away from other food. After cutting raw meats, wash the cutting board, knives, and counter tops with hot, soapy water. Rinse three times.
- Cook food to proper temperatures, checking with a food thermometer. Again, follow FDA recommendations for safe cooking temperatures.
- Keep hot foods hot (140 degrees F or above) and cold foods cold (40 degrees F or below). Hot plates and slow cookers can help keep food hot. Or if you’re keeping things casual, keep foods like cooked vegetables and soups on the stove on low heat.
- Throw out any refrigerated food left out at room temperature for more than 2 hours.
- When in doubt, especially when it comes to leftovers, toss it out!
What are your favorite cold weather food traditions? Have you modified any of them to make them healthier? What’s your favorite marinade?