Cooking tips for healthy eating

Ian Carroll

We talk about being healthy a lot here at Outdoor Revival. And the reasons should be obvious. We’ve covered how to exercise, how to sleep, what to eat, what to drink, even what to think. However, one thing we don’t give enough credit is how to cook. After all, that’s a topic for a cooking blog right? Wrong! Cooking is something that everyone should know how to do, and it’s especially important for living a healthy and active lifestyle.

So let’s talk about it. I can’t believe I haven’t brought it up already, honestly. Having worked as a line cook, kitchen manager, and chef since I was a teenager, I’ve got some things to say. So if you’re just getting into cooking for yourself or are looking to pick up some pointers and hone your craft, you’ve come to the right place.

The first thing I’m going to say, however, is that there’s no right way to do it. There are a ton of techniques out there. Some work better than others. But everyone wants something different for dinner. So today, we’re not going to cover the right way to do anything. Instead, we’ll go over some suggestions for how to get creative, work with flavor, improvise, and have fun. Today we’ll keep it all in the home kitchen. But keep your eyes peeled in the coming weeks for an article specifically exploring camp cooking techniques.

Fat is your friend

The first thing we should cover is a common misconception. Fat isn’t evil, in fact, it’s an essential part of a healthy diet. Oils like coconut, avocado, olive, fish, and butter are good for you in the right quantities. I’ll refer you to Nina Teicholz’s book, The Big Fat Surprise if you don’t buy it.

Cooking oil is essential, and a good kitchen has a variety to choose from.
Cooking oil is essential, and a good kitchen has a variety to choose from.

The reason I bring this up first, is because fat is one of the most fundamental parts of cooking there is. When you cook, you pretty much have three choices for how to do it. Dry, with fat, or with water. Often, the best meals employ more than one medium. Such as fish that you fry in oil first and then steam with lemon juice. Or in traditional Latin cooking, you often toast your spices dry and then liquefy them with water to add flavor to a stew.

What I’m trying to say though, is that fat is an important part of cooking and you shouldn’t be shy with it. To be honest, 80% of why restaurant food tastes better than your home cooked version is probably butter, lots of butter. Just be sure you buy high quality, non-GMO oils and fats to cook with, and that you use each one at the appropriate temperature.

The Maillard reaction

Speaking of the right temperature, let’s talk about browning. In the restaurant industry, it’s called a color and it’s caused by the Maillard reaction. That’s a fancy name for when food burns. I mean, it’s more complicated than that, but basically, browning your food is like doing a controlled burn. And it’s where most of the amazing flavors in a kitchen come from.

Grilled corn on the cob cooked over the fire
The Maillard reaction is what makes this corn look so tasty.

We just mentioned cooking at the appropriate temperature for each type of cooking fat. What that means is that you should cook right at the temperature where the oil is as hot as it can get without burning (smoking). Sometimes you want to simmer, but usually, when you’re cooking with fat, you’re going for browning and you’ll achieve it best at the hottest temp you can hit. Once you get good at it, you’ll learn to use just the right temperature to have perfectly browned food, just when it’s cooked through and not a moment after.

This is really important when you cook meat. The next time you cook steak, or chicken, or any meat, try cranking your pan (cast iron is best) to the highest temperature it can hit. Once it’s ripping hot, pour a little bit of high temp oil into it, and then after just a couple seconds of letting it heat up, lay your meat in. It should sizzle a lot. In fact, you should make sure the meat isn’t wet because water will make hot oil spit.

Be careful anytime you put something wet into hot oil and make sure your hands aren’t dripping water either.
Be careful anytime you put something wet into hot oil and make sure your hands aren’t dripping water either.

Usually, the tastiest meat comes from hot and fast browning, and then some sort of slow cooking method to finish it off. It’s common to brown a steak in a hot cast iron and then broil it until it’s done. However, it’s often best to just keep your pan blazing, flip the meat once, maybe three times and give it the right amount of time on each side. Use a meat thermometer if you’re unsure.

A very important note about using liquid. When you’re browning food, you use fat, not water. The moment you add a water-based liquid like stock or wine, you stop the Maillard reaction and you start braising. Start with fat, then add liquid to halt browning. Never the other way around. This is great to know if you start burning food to your pan more than you want. Just add water and it will pull it all off and halt the Maillard reaction

Deglazing and building flavors

The best part about cooking steak or veggies hot and fast like this, is all the dark stuff left in the pan afterward. That’s where deep flavor lives. It just needs to be coaxed from the pan onto the plate. The secret to that, believe it or not, is alcohol.

Don’t leave any flavor in the bottom of your pan.
Don’t leave any flavor in the bottom of your pan.

Chefs are always pouring red wine on steak, white wine on sea food, or rum on, well… lots of things. And there’s a good reason. Alcohol plus heat will pull all those cooked flavors from the pan and create some of the most delicious sauces you’ve ever tasted. Try it next time. Pull your steak out of the pan, set it aside to rest, and then with the flame off or on very low heat, deglaze your pan with red wine. Add some garlic and veggie stock, maybe a couple of shallots, a pat of butter and you’re in business.

This works with water too, although the chemical process is slightly different. However, this is one of my favorite ways to treat veggies. Fry them hot and hard without stirring until they brown and start to stick to the pan a little bit. Maybe shake them around a bit, but once they’ve browned, pour in a bit of water or veggie stock and watch all that color come off the pan and into the cooking liquid. If you use just the right amount of liquid, it will steam your veg and be all gone just when your veggies are perfectly cooked. Then, they’ll be coated in all that flavor.

Timing is everything

Speaking of perfectly cooked, let’s talk about timing. Suppose I have onions, peppers and broccoli, and I want to cook them all perfectly to add to leftover rice from last night. Which one is likely to take the longest to cook? I’ll give you a hint. It’s probably not the onions or peppers.

Every vegetable cooks at a different speed and is best at a different doneness.
Every vegetable cooks at a different speed and is best at a different doneness.

This is something that comes from experience and experimentation. But you have to add things in the right orders and at the right times. So before you start cooking, always think about cook times. If you’re cooking something unfamiliar, look up it’s cook time online so you don’t wind up with half cooked food on your plate.

This is especially important when you’re cooking meat or seafood because too little can be dangerous and too much can be disappointing. But it holds true for all ingredients. Usually, the easiest way to sort it out is to cut things to different sizes so they’ll all take the same amount of time. That means you’d cut your carrots and broccoli a bit thinner than your onions and peppers. Throw them in together and they’ll all come out just right.

Getting veggies just right

Now, just right is debatable. Everyone likes their steak done differently. Some people like crunchy veggies and some people like caramelized veggies. You’ll have to decide what’s best for you. However, I do have a few suggestions.

Carmelizing onions and mushrooms together is a classic combo.
Carmelizing onions and mushrooms together is a classic combo.

First, what most people like about soft, caramelized, or browned vegetables is the rich flavor they have. Onions are a great example. Caramelizing onions changes their intense flavor into a smooth sweetness that’s entirely unique. What most people love about less cooked vegetables is their texture. But, when you cook in restaurants, most chefs ask you to achieve both color and texture at the same time.

It’s not as hard as it sounds. The secrets are all contained in things we’ve already covered. In order to get the flavor of the Maillard reaction without compromising the texture of each of your vegetables, you’re going to need to use fat, and you’re going to need to use plenty of heat. Stir fry is a great example. Too often, amateur stir-fries go way too long in the pan. By the time they’re served, they feel like vegetable mush. Prep all your vegetables in advance, decide the order they go in at and cook it all in less than seven minutes. Less than five is even better.

Seriously, just try it. Crank your pan up wicked hot (a wok works great). Then throw your veggies in in order of cook time. Don’t hesitate or wait around, let them sizzle and fry. For things like green onions, leafy greens, garlic, or anything sliced small or thin, just put them in in the last thirty seconds or less. For more browning, add any sauces or liquids near the end. If you like your veggies to feel a bit fresher, add liquid earlier to halt browning. Voila.

Slow cooking

Now, the cooking styles we’ve covered so far can make for really tasty and healthy meals. However, if you want to know what is the healthiest style of cooking in the book, stewing and slow cooking would be likely number one. Why is that?

Stews, stocks, and slow cooked meals are some of the healthiest there are.
Stews, stocks, and slow cooked meals are some of the healthiest there are.

It’s because of the way that nutrients, and particularly animal products break down over time at low heat. Now, I know that flavor is improved even with vegetarian cooking if you slow cook. But where you really start to reap nutritional benefits is when bones get involved. Traditional cuisine all over the world uses bones, heads, and whole parts in stews and soups, and it’s incredibly healthy. That’s because when bones, tendons, and other connective tissues cook, they release collagen and other nutrients into the cooking liquid in large doses.

This is a level of healthy that you can’t achieve in any other way. And we haven’t even mentioned the flavors yet. If you’re unfamiliar with the flavor of a slow cooked beef stew or a day-long chili, then you’re missing out big. So next time you have a late day at work, make dinner in the morning.

Put your stew together by browning meat and veggies in the pan first, just like we talked about already. Then deglaze with stock and add all your liquids to the pot. Throw in any raw veggies you want to cook in it all day, and set it to low. Remember that liquid will cook off, so you’ll need to add plenty of it. This is best not tried for the first time when you can hang around and babysit it. You may need to add more liquid or turn it down.

Healthy cooking is simple

Remember that healthy food is usually simple food. Cooking itself actually reduces the nutritional value of some (not all) foods. So there’s no need to overdo it. The fewer ingredients you can use to make a meal delicious, the better.

Simple is delicious.
Simple is delicious.

Cooking is all about how you do it, not how many fancy ingredients or tools you use. Really talented chefs don’t have high tech tools and inaccessible ingredients. Well, they do actually, but that’s not why their food tastes so good. It’s because of how they cook it.

So choose healthy ingredients, cook them simply, and see what you can learn. Try something new each time you cook. Experiment. If you discover something delicious, write it down and try to improve upon it next time. If you create something truly terrible, make a note of what went wrong and learn from your mistakes.

Over time, you’ll gain skills, confidence, and experience. When you can cook well, you can make just about anything taste good. If you can do that, eating healthy doesn’t feel like such a chore. In fact, it’s pretty fun.

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ian-carroll is one of the authors writing for Outdoor Revival