When it comes to preparing foods, there are quite a few of us who are stuck in a cooking comfort zone — in this case, relying too heavily on butter and salt when preparing foods. Here’s the thing: Sit down to a chicken dish prepared with a tablespoon or three of butter plus a generous salting and you might as well be serving up a bowl of ice cream with a side of chips for dinner. While it’s true butter has about the same calories and fat as olive oil, there’s one real major difference: Butter is loaded with artery-clogging saturated fat, whereas olive oil is high in monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats. However, the main benefit probably is related to the natural antioxidants that are found in olive oil. Meanwhile, salt will no doubt bring out the flavor in food — but your arteries pay the price, courtesy of elevated blood pressure and fluid retention.
Do yourself (and your family) a big favor and start experimenting with healthier cooking techniques pronto. We guarantee you’ll be more than pleasantly surprised with how darn tasty food sans salt and gobs o’ butter can be.
“People think healthy cooking means you sacrifice flavor, but lots of healthy cooking techniques retain the natural flavors of fresh food,” says Harriet Siew, a culinary producer at the Food Network. “Instead of using oil and sodium to bring out flavors, you’re enhancing the food’s true flavors.” Often, you’re preserving nutrients as well.
Here, a look at nine healthy cooking techniques that are long on flavor but require little or no added fat.
How it works: Baking uses the dry heat of the oven to cook food. Baking and roasting are often used interchangeably, but roasting implies cooking at a higher temperature.
Best foods for this method: While the term baking automatically has you thinking cakes, cookies and muffins; baked fruit, including apples and peaches, make pretty great-tasting desserts and are much more waist-friendly. Baking foods that contain a lot of water, like fruit, allows their natural moisture to evaporate slowly while the gentle heat of the oven helps concentrate their flavor. Tomatoes, sweet potatoes and mushrooms are other bake-friendly foods. Uniformly sized pieces of seafood, poultry or lean meat can be baked in an open pan or dish in the oven, though you’ll want to add a small amount of olive oil or liquid to prevent them from drying out. Gratins also work well baked in the oven, but these dishes often call for butter and cheese — instead, try swapping these ingredients for healthier alternatives such as low-fat milk, nonfat cheeses and canola spreads.
Health benefits: Baking can greatly reduce the amount of fat used for cooking, as well as the total calories per portion.
How it works: With this simple slow-cooking technique, food is browned on the stovetop or in the oven to help create depth of flavor, then the pan is deglazed with enough liquid to come roughly halfway up the food. The food is returned to the pan, brought to a simmer, and a tight-fitting lid is added so that the food can cook in the liquid with the help of the steam.
Best foods for this method: Fork-tender meats like chicken, as well as meltingly delectable vegetables, including everything from artichokes to turnips. The slow cooking means little sodium is needed; what is used is intensified by the long cooking.
Health benefits: High on flavor and low on fat, this technique allows for little added sodium and creates a rich-tasting, delicious meal.
How it works: Broiling is similar to grilling, except that the heat source — usually a gas flame or an electric coil — is above, not below, the food. The dry radiant heat browns the surface of the food as it cooks.
Best foods for this method: Broiling can be used for thin, tender pieces of meat, poultry or seafood that will cook quickly.
Health benefits: High-heat broiling is a fast and efficient way of cooking without adding liquids or fat, except for a little oil (olive oil is a healthy choice) rubbed on the surface of the meat.
How it works: Food is cooked on a rack over a heat source, such as a charcoal fire or ceramic briquettes heated by a gas flame. This method is fast and produces robust flavors.
Best foods for this method: You can grill just about anything, from fruits and vegetables to poultry, fish and meat.
Health benefits: Because little or no fat is added during cooking, grilling is considered a healthy cooking technique. In recent years, concerns over potentially cancer-causing chemicals called HCAs (heterocyclic amines), which are created when meat and poultry are cooked at high temperatures (as with grilling), have led to recommendations that grilled meat and chicken be eaten only occasionally to limit exposure. Marinating meat or poultry for at least five minutes in an oil- or vinegar-based marinade can significantly reduce the amount of HCAs that form. Grilling seafood doesn’t seem to produce a significant quantity of HCAs, and grilling vegetables or fruit does not cause HCAs to form at all.
How it works: To poach means to cook food completely submerged in barely simmering water or a flavorful liquid — such as broth, wine or juice — until cooked through and tender. Though usually done on the stovetop in a covered pan, food can also be poached in foil packets in the oven or on the grill. A gentle cooking method, poaching is very different from boiling, with which it is often confused.
Best foods for this method: Poaching is ideal for delicate foods, ones that are usually lean and low-calorie and need careful treatment to avoid breaking apart or overcooking — such as eggs, fish, chicken, asparagus and pears.
Health benefits: Usually foods are poached whole or in large pieces, which helps keep the food moist and succulent without the need for butter, large amounts of oil or high-fat sauces.
How it works: Using the dry heat of the oven to cook food, roasting is similar to baking but is usually done at higher temperatures and results in browned, hearty flavors. It’s a relatively hands-free method once food is in the oven, though some food requires basting during cooking.
Best foods for this method: Large joints of tender meat, such as whole chickens, are ideal for roasting. Most vegetables can be roasted; the technique works especially well with dense vegetables like winter squash, potatoes and sweet potatoes, beets and turnips. The roasting process concentrates their natural sugars and intensifies their flavors.
Health benefits: Little or no fat is added, and when chicken is roasted on a rack set inside a roasting pan, fat from the meat drips away during cooking. Roasting also preserves water-soluble nutrients in food. But remember to remove any chicken skin, which is full of saturated fat, before eating.
How it works: A basic cooking technique used in many recipes, sautéing cooks food quickly in a minimal amount of fat over relatively high heat. This method also keeps flavors vivid and textures intact, while the browning produced by sautéing adds a richness to meat and produce.
Best foods for this method: Many soup and stew recipes begin with sautéing vegetables since sautéed veggies enhance the flavors of these dishes. Tender cuts of meat, including chicken breasts or scallopini, fish fillets and more delicate vegetables like asparagus, mushrooms and bell peppers work well.
Health benefits: Sautéing cooks food in a relatively small amount of fat.
How it works: One of the most gentle cooking methods, steaming is a moist-heat technique that enhances fish, chicken and vegetables. Food is placed in a steamer basket or rack set over boiling liquid — such as water, broth, juice, beer or wine — in a pan with a tight-fitting lid. The liquid bubbles and steams, creating a hot, moist environment. Because the food is never touched by the liquid, it is less likely to be jostled, overcooked or absorb too much water.
Best foods for this method: Steaming works best for food that requires moisture and that should be soft, not crunchy, when served. Almost all vegetables can be steamed, except for spongy-textured ones like mushrooms and eggplant. Light, delicate proteins like chicken and most fish and shellfish work well when steamed, whereas beef, pork and lamb do not.
Health benefits: The steaming allows foods to retain their natural flavor without the addition of butter or oil.
How it works: A high-heat cooking method, stir-frying involves bite-size pieces of food being tossed and turned constantly in a small amount of hot oil in a wok or sloped-sided sauté pan.
Best foods for this method: Most vegetables can be stir-fried, even leafy greens like spinach, which will cook in seconds. Small pieces of tender cuts of meat like chicken breasts, shrimp and scallops, as well as firm-fleshed fish like halibut can all be stir-fried. It takes only about two to five minutes to cook food by stir-frying, so vegetables stay crisp and brightly colored, and meat is browned and succulent.
Health benefits: A minimal amount of fat is needed to produce flavors that are fresh and concentrated.