Basic Cooking Tips: A collection of wisdom for a healthy cook
During my college years I ran into a lot of people that clearly had not used a kitchen for more than a bowl of cereal until the triumphant exit of their childhood home. There's some key things that you learn from being in the kitchen with your mom that many people miss. I've tried to boil down those tricks into a simple blog post, and this is what I came up with.
Raw vs. Cooked
Some foods need to be eaten raw and some need to be cooked. Some foods can actually be poisonous if eaten in the wrong way, or you won't digest it correctly. This is a secret that ancient people knew, and we must not forget. Especially with all this raw food craziness going on, we need to remember the wisdom of the people that first began to eat these foods.
To soak beans, or not to soak beans? Upon a brief scour of the internet, I found that this is quite the quandry. Personally, I like to soak my beans overnight because they take less time to cook. However, Mexicans don't soak their beans (and who better to trust about beans), but they cook them for longer than we do. If you don't soak, I would recommend using a pressure cooker or a slow cooker (leave it while you go to work) to expedite the process. My last word on this is that recent research is showing that soaking beans and grains before cooking can increase digestibility, so experiment for yourself! What we can all agree on is that beans need to be cooked. Kidney beans especially should be cooked above a particular temperature in order to dismantle toxic compounds.
It is a common practice to soak or rinse the rice before cooking in the middle east, east asia, southeast asia and many other areas that subsist off of it. This is not something to be ignored, as traditions tend to have very sound reasons. If 95% if your diet is one food, you will quickly learn how best to prepare that food for maximum nutrition, so trust and respect tradition. There are so many examples of the wisdom of traditional food prep, including the nixtamilization of corn in Mexico, the boiling of cassava in Africa and southeast asia, and sourdough bread making in Europe. I think that the current "carb scare" could be related to the loss of traditional processing methods.
Potatoes should always be cooked, as raw potatoes are mildly toxic. They're from the nightshade family, which you might recognize as the family of "deadly nightshade". The leaves and flowers of the potato plant is toxic, so anytime potatoes are sprouting, it should be cut off and thrown away. Finally, any time the skin of the potato is green, or if it is sprouting, they should be peeled. Once I ate some potatoes with green skin and got a real stomach ache! You can avoid the skin getting green by storing them in complete darkness. I keep mine in a drawer, and the sprouts are white when they emerge.
Oxalic acid is another subject I'd like to speak briefly on. It's a crystalline acid that can irritate your kidneys, is toxic in certain amounts, and can even cause death in large amounts (we're talking 10 pounds of rhubarb leaves, so don't get paranoid). It also inhibits your intake of calcium. Many leafy plants contain large amounts of this stuff, wild plants included: swiss chard, spinach, lemon sorrel, oxalis, miner's lettuce, sheep sorrel, dock and more. Rhubarb, which contains quite a bit of oxalic acid, is best cooked (though a tiny bit of it raw won't make you sick). The leaves are what you should avoid, as they contain toxic amounts of oxalic acid.
While we're on the subject of oxalic acid, I'd like to mention par-boiling. Par-boiling is the practice of boiling something in water, and then discarding the water. Oxalic acid is water- soluble, so it will leach into the water. Especially if you suffer from kidney stones, consider avoiding, reducing your consumption, or processing accordingly. Fermentation also reduces oxalic acid content, and increases absorption of other minerals, such as iron. Beet kvass, kimchee, and saurkraut are great examples.
On the other hand, there are things that I never cook; Lettuce, avocados, and cucumbers.
If in doubt, I usually store vegetables in the refrigerator. The most notable exceptions I made sure to list below. It's best to store vegetables in an airtight container or plastic bag to avoid water loss (wilting). It'll keep your lettuce looking fresh. I never use plastic bags at the grocery store, so I use washed out bread bags and such.
Keep in the refrigerator:
- Bell peppers
- Any fruit or vegetable that has been cut.
- Eggs should be kept in the refrigerator if they have already been in the refrigerator. However, eggs do not have to be refrigerated, and can last 2 weeks or more not in the refrigerator. In many other countries, eggs are not refrigerated at the supermarket.
Keep in a cool, dark, dry place:
- sweet potatoes will get weird and hard if they get too cold, and should never be put in the fridge.
- onions, shallots, garlic (cut onions that you don't use should be thrown away, as they absorb bacteria quickly)
Keep in a paper bag to ripen quickly: These fruits ripen with a gas called ethylene. The paper bag helps trap this gas and continue the conversion of starches into sugars. Plastic will cause mold to grow.
- peaches/ plums (and other stone fruits)
Keep in a fruit bowl:
- Apples, oranges, mangos, papaya, limes, lemons, avocados
- Tomatoes should never be kept in the refrigerator, as the cold makes them mealy and strange. Always keep them outside the refrigerator.
Cooking with Acids and Bases
Most of the food we eat is acidic to some degree. One notable exception is baking soda, but I probably won't catch you sprinkling it on your cereal. Acids and bases have very different chemical properties. Flavor, texture, color and nutrients can change drastically depending on the pH of the cooking environment. If you cook beans in alkaline water, they will become mushy, whereas if you cook them in acidic water they will be hard. Something as simple as the pH of your tap water could be the culprit of strange happenings in your kitchen.
Acids will effect food pigments differently depending on the color. Chlorophyll (greens) will become brown when exposed to acid, while anthocyanins (red and purple) will retain their brightness with acid. If you squeeze a lemon on blueberries, the color will become even more intense. However, if you squeeze a lemon onto your broccoli, the bright green color will fade. Yellow and orange pigments are fat-soluble, and will be the brightest when they have some fat to cling onto. That's why when you infuse chilies in oil, the oil becomes orange or red.
Acids are often added to meat marinades to tenderize the meat and help absorb flavor, and they do just this. Tomatoes, wine, lemon juice, vinegar and other fruits are all commonly used to tenderize meat in recipes. The acids actually start to break down the proteins, like in cooking. Ceviche is a recipe where lime juice is used to "cook" fish, though no heat is used.
Acids can also help extract minerals in some cases. When making bone broth, it's good to use acidic water (add some vinegar!) to help the minerals out of the bones and ligaments. Spring vinegar tonics are commonly used to boost minerals. Spring leafy herbs are
Choosing Ripe Fruits
- Fruits that should be soft when you squeeze them
Oranges, Avocados, peaches, nectarines, apricots, grapefruit, figs, and mangos
- Fruits you smell:
Pineapples should smell strongly of pineapple, or you should leave it on the counter until it does. Canteloupe and honeydew also should small strongly of canteloupe from the outside. The time to buy a melon is when you can smell the melons across the produce section.
- Fruits you knock on
try knocking on a watermelon. A deeper sound is a sign of a more juicy, sweeter fruit.
- Fruits that should be dark
Strawberries and raspberries should be deep red.
- Fruits that are almost never ripe when you buy them, but will be:
Pears, avocados, pineapple, melons and persimmons should sit for some time until soft.