Unlike meat, which is mainly proteins and fat, plants (including vegetables) are made up of carbohydrates: cellulose, starch, pectin. Plus a whole lot of water.
We cook vegetables for several reasons: to soften their texture; to make them easier to digest; and to modify their flavor. We could eat most vegetables raw, and often we do (salad anyone?), but cooking them adds diversity to our menu.
The best ways to cook a particular vegetable depend upon its structure, thickness, and water content. For most vegetables there are multiple good options, each with its own advantages and disadvantages. Those can include:
- Deep frying;
- Air frying;
- Sauteing; and
Boiling conducts a lot of heat into vegetables, though the heat is fairly low — right around 212 degrees F, the boiling point of water. Boiling also agitates the food a lot. It’s good for tough foods: e.g. starchy potatoes, peas, beans, corn on the cob. It’s bad for delicate foods like leafy greens and broccoli. Boiling can also leach out the color and flavor, and ruin the texture — especially if left to boil too long.
Steaming can often be a better option than boiling. It delivers more heat (steam is hotter than boiling water) so it tends to cook faster. It also doesn’t agitate food, so it can be better for delicate vegetables like broccoli.
Roasting, air frying, and grilling are also good options. Once again, we’re cranking up the heat; these tend to be in the 350-450 degree range. And that means we can get some browning that will add flavor.
Deep drying is in the same temperature range as roasting/air frying/grilling: 350-400 degrees, depending upon the kind of oil you’re using. Oil is a very efficient conductor of heat, so deep-fried foods cook very quickly. Done right, deep frying can provide a crispy exterior (sometimes with a battered crust like tempura) without overcooking the interior. The trick with deep frying is to ensure that the food has a chance to drain once it’s out of the oil so that your vegetables don’t end up a soggy, greasy mess.
Sauteing uses even higher heat: a hot pan or wok, with just a little bit of oil to help conduct the heat into the food. Sauteed food cooks very quickly, and can pick up a bit of char. Over medium heat, it can take 5-6 minutes for a 1-inch piece of vegetable to cook through; over high heat (such as in a wok), it can go much faster and pick up some tasty browning — just be careful not to let your vegetables burn as the browning can happen suddenly.
Finally, microwaving works on a different method altogether. Microwave ovens excite water molecules, causing them to heat up — and left long enough, to turn into steam. Microwaving vegetables often works very well: the interior cooks thoroughly, and the steam released will heat the exterior. Just remember to poke holes in solid vegetables to release the inner steam as it is generated. Also, loosely cover your vegetables: they can pop unexpectedly if steam builds up inside. Just make sure that the cover isn’t on too tight, as steam pressure can build up and be dangerous.
Tips when cooking vegetables:
- Wash all your vegetables before preparing and cooking them. Even the mushrooms; despite all the warning you may hear to the contrary, mushrooms won’t absorb much, if any, of the water you use to clean them, because they’re already full of water.
- If cooking different vegetables together, cut them into pieces that are approximately the same size first so that they will cook at approximately the same rate. Alternately, for something like a stir-fry you can cook each kind of vegetable separately and then combine them at the end.
- Add salt. Not only does it enhance flavor, but it can help draw out some of the liquid in the vegetables.
- It often helps to toss your vegetables in a bit of oil before cooking: not enough to soak them, but enough to lightly coat them. Oil will help herbs and spices stick to the vegetables while they cook (and after), and it will also aid in conducting heat into the vegetables.
Below is a recipe for microwaving vegetables, and here is a recipe for roasting vegetables. The other cooking options are great too, but with just a bit of practice on these two, you can always crank out tasty cooked vegetables with minimal hassle.
- 1 1/2 cups vegetables, single or mixed, chopped into 1″ pieces
- Water or olive oil
- 1/2 tsp. salt
Place chopped vegetables in a microwave-safe container. It doesn’t need to be a single layer. Microwaves are easy that way.
Sprinkle on or lightly spray the vegetables with water or olive oil. Use a light touch; don’t soak them. Water will generate some extra steam; olive oil will provide a bit of extra flavor.
Sprinkle on the salt, and lightly toss to evenly distribute it.
Loosely cover the container and microwave on high for two minutes. Be careful removing the cover! Super-hot steam can accumulate and can burn your hand. Play it safe and use a towel or oven mitt.