Sugar and salt have been made into the two poles of the American palate—possibly the packaged food and fast food industries had good intentions when they started pumping their products full of sodium and fructose, but it’s not likely. Although it’s hard to avoid unhealthy foods when eating out (and particularly when traveling on U.S. highways), you can easily cook healthy meals at home. Besides choosing food that’s close to the earth (in other words, minimally processed and grown locally), you can use some handy tricks to make your meals healthier.
1. Bake with whole grains instead of white flour
The starchy carbohydrates in white flour cause blood sugar spikes and crashes, increasing the risk of diabetes and weight gain. Whole-wheat flour has a milder effect on the bloodstream, and it has 12 or more grams of fiber per cup, along with zinc, magnesium, and B vitamins. Try using whole-wheat flour in muffins, cookies, breads, pie crusts, and cakes—you won’t sacrifice taste.
2. Olive oil, not butter
Butter has seven times more saturated fat than oil. Excess saturated fat gets stored in the artery walls as cholesterol, and results in hardening of the arteries and stress on the heart. Olive oil is a monounsaturated fat, which reduces bad cholesterol and fights inflammation in the body. Sautee vegetables or meat in olive oil over medium high heat (too hot and you’ll burn the oil, losing some of its good qualities); canola oil is another good choice. There’s a misconception that cutting out butter loses flavor—somewhat true with baking, not so with cooking.
3. Another way to fry
Deep fried foods contain vast amounts of heavy fats, and minimal nutrition. Instead of deep frying on top of the stove, you can fry meat and vegetables inside the oven. Dip fish, chicken, peppers—whatever you like—in egg, milk, or buttermilk, and dredge it through breadcrumbs or whole-wheat flour. Last, brush or spray olive or canola oil over the food, place it on a baking sheet (or piece of aluminum foil), and bake it at 425° to 450°F, until it’s crispy. Two servings of oven-fried chicken have 4 fewer grams of saturated fat and 40% less calories than deep-fried chicken.
4. Egg whites
Egg yolk is a very dense protein—it must sustain a baby chick through several weeks of early life. One egg yolk has five grams of fat and 54 calories; the egg white has sixteen calories and no fat. Substitute two egg whites for one whole egg in most recipes. Applesauce is another good alternative for eggs, in baking—two tablespoons of unflavored applesauce works as one egg.
Browning is used to flavor a wide range of foods—meat, cookies, coffee, fish—and involves different heat levels. Searing is a form of browning that’s friendly to novice cooks: heat meat or fish over high heat to seal in juices and flavors, and form a crust on the outside—this is a quick process, not more than five or six minutes. Then finish the cooking in the oven, if necessary (some meat and fish cook very fast). Before searing the meat, rub it with spices to make the crust more flavorful. It’s great way adding flavour without adding excess sugar, salt or fat.
6. Slow cooking
The opposite of searing, slow cooking over low heat is another way to build flavors. The classic example here is soup, which ideally should simmer all day, to best meld its ingredients. Turn down the heat when sautéing asparagus, and use lemon juice and olive oil instead of butter—the vegetable will hold on to much more of its nutrients, and taste better too. Slow cookers can be bought quite inexpensively at second hand shops, many of which were only used once or twice. It’s another great way adding flavour without adding excess sugar, salt or fat.
7. Herbs over salt
The USDA recommended daily sodium intake is 2,300 mg, about a teaspoon of salt. This is a hard guide to live by, even when cooking at home. Here are a few strong tasting flavors to use in place of salt, when sautéing or cooking in the oven: lime or lemon juice, dill, basil, mint, ginger root, fennel, cayenne pepper, anise. Fresh herbs are best; you might consider keeping a window herb garden in your kitchen.
8. Poaching meats
Another way to build flavor in dishes, poaching is kind of a lost art. White wine, chicken stock, and vegetable stock are the main liquids used in poaching chicken, salmon, and other light fish. Flavor the broth with citrus fruit juice (lemon, orange), or with coriander. Poaching is done over medium heat; keep it going until the liquid reduces down, amplifying the flavor.
Carmelizing is the other way to sear meat, fish, or vegetables. It brings out natural sweetness in foods, and compounds their flavors. Onions carmelize nicely: cook them over medium heat (not high) until they turn gold—add a sprinkle of sugar if you like, no more is needed. When you add the onions to the other ingredients (or to soup), they’ll bring a more layered texture than if you had sautéed them over high heat. One more tip on meat: when making burgers or meatloaf, add whole grains, like brown rice or bulgur, to the meat before cooking. This bulks up the portion size and adds more grain into the meal—the fiber in the grains make it easier to digest the meat.
10. Pungent cheese
Cheeses bring lots of flavor and texture to dishes; unfortunately, many cheeses also bring lots of calories and heavy fats. Instead of mozzarella or Munster cheese, choose a pungent cheese, like Parmigiano, Asiago, or extra-sharp cheddar. Their strong tastes will allow you to use less in the recipe, without sacrificing flavor.