How to Cook Vegetables While Keeping Nutrients

Laurie Tardif
chopping vegetables to cook

Eating more vegetables is a smart way to add vitamins and nutrients to the diet. Finding the best methods for cooking vegetables can be confusing, as advances in food science and nutritional knowledge offer insights that conflict with conventional wisdom. Use these modern tips to optimize nutrients in the veggies you eat and serve.

Take a Balanced Common-Sense Approach

Cooks from grandma's generation would boil vegetables for hours on the stovetop. Researchers discovered that these long cooking times destroyed valuable nutrients, and a newer raw food movement encouraged the public to consume as many raw vegetables (as well as raw meat, eggs and dairy) as possible. Today's food scientists eschew overcooking while moving away from the raw-only mantra. By studying how various foods react with different cooking methods, anyone can make intelligent judgments on what to cook, how to cook it, and how it's likely to impact an overall nutritional approach.

The home cook doesn't need a PhD in food science to maximize nutrients in cooked vegetables, provided that the diet includes a variety of cooking methods along with a diverse array of veggies. When it comes to most vegetables, experts generally agree that the simple approach of cooking veggies in as little liquid for as little time as possible is the overall best strategy for keeping the health content high.

Maximize Vegetable Nutrients by Cooking Method

There's no one-size-fits-all procedure to retaining the maximum nutrients in vegetables, because veggies and their nutrients react in different ways to various cooking methods. For example, raw tomatoes retain the most vitamin C but cooking that same tomato boosts its antioxidant lycopene, according to Dr. Rui Hai Liu, food science professor at Cornell University. University of Arizona professor Dr. Andrew Weil finds that spinach retains more vitamins through steaming versus microwaving, yet broccoli's better when microwaved rather than steamed.

Microwaving

Cooking in the microwave with just a few tablespoons of water is one of the most calorie-saving and nutrition-preserving ways to cook veggies. While the microwave has a sullied reputation for uneven cooking, using proper microwaving techniques provides a fast and easy way to make great veggies.

Use this method for fresh broccoli and carrots, and nearly any frozen vegetable. Use the 'high' setting and cook between four to six minutes, stirring halfway through the cooking time.

Braising

Also called 'steam-frying,' braising involves sauteing food in a small amount of oil, then adding water or broth to finish cooking. Braising retains a veggie's nutritional value because it uses a minimum of liquid, and it's fast; in addition, the added oil can help release fat-soluble vitamins in the food.

Braising is an ideal method for cooking celery and fennel as well as hearty greens like collards and kale. Start the saute on high heat for three minutes, then reduce the heat to medium; cook until the food has softened but still retains its color, approximately five minutes.

Stir-Frying

While deep-frying is widely acknowledged as a fat-adding and nutrition-sapping cooking method, the classic Asian method of quickly stir-frying small pieces of food in a tiny amount of oil retains nutrients. Stir-frying need not be confined to Asian veggies; use the method on beans, broccoli, carrots, mushrooms, onions and peppers - as long as they are all cut into small pieces. The reason for this is so that the vegetables cook quickly at the same rate, resulting in colorful tender-crisp veggies chock full of nutrients.

Use high heat and cook until the veggies just become tender-crisp. Master the technique by trying this stir-fry vegetable dish from celebrity chef Jamie Oliver for a change of pace.

Steaming

steamed veggies

This tried-and-true method of cooking vegetables over - not in - a small amount of water preserves nutrients for most veggies, with a few exceptions. Steaming breaks down enough of a food's fiber, releasing nutrients for the body's absorption. It also retains more water-soluble vitamins than most other methods.

Steaming works well for nearly any veggie including corn on the cob, green beans, cauliflower, root vegetables, and spaghetti squash. Use high heat; cooking time depends on the veggie, with spinach taking no more than a minute or two and root veggies needing up to 10 minutes.

Griddling

As opposed to grilling (cooking foods on a grate over an open flame), griddling involves stovetop cooking on a hot griddle or grill pan. The simple technique has long been popular in the UK and is finding its way into American kitchens. The reason why is clear - griddling adds a nice char to vegetables without added fat or liquid.

Try griddling Swiss chard, asparagus, eggplant, zucchini and portabello mushrooms. Use high heat and cook three to four minutes before turning food to char the other side.

Make It Tasty

The best vegetables are the ones you will actually eat, so they need to taste fabulous regardless of how cooked. Try tossing cooked veggies with a drizzle of extra-virgin olive oil; then add a splash of fresh lemon juice, a dash of sea salt, and a couple grinds of black pepper to boost nutrition and flavor. Eat a wide variety of veggies prepared in different ways - whether steamed, stir-fried or enjoyed raw with a tangy dip - to get the biggest bang out of this natural nutrition source.

How to Cook Vegetables While Keeping Nutrients