Getting the Most - Flavor and Nutrients

Reviewed by Sarah Klemm, RD, CD
roasted chicken dinner

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Did you know that how you store, prepare and cook foods may affect their flavor and nutrition, as well as safety? For example, nutrients in some foods are lost by cooking whereas others may become easier to absorb. With just a few tips on food preparation and cooking techniques, you can maximize the nutrient quality and flavors of your favorite foods.

Preparing Foods with Nutrition, Flavor and Safety in Mind

Properly handling and preparing food is key to food safety and may also affect the quality of foods.

  • Wash all fresh fruits and vegetables before use. Use a clean produce brush on thick-skinned vegetables and fruits, such as melons or squash, to help remove dirt and clean corners and crevices. Although it might seem like a time-saver, don’t leave fruits and vegetables in the water to soak as some vitamins and minerals dissolve when soaked in water.
  • Leave the skin on vegetables and fruits or trim away as little as possible. Cucumbers, potatoes and apples all have soft, edible skins that contain vitamins, minerals and dietary fiber. These nutrients are in the skin of the plant or just underneath it, not in the center. Peels also help vegetables and fruits to hold onto more of their nutrients when they’re cooked. Just clean them properly before using.
  • Keep vegetables in larger pieces when cooking. When less surface area is exposed, fewer vitamins are lost.
  • Avoid cross-contamination by using a separate cutting board and utensils for fresh produce and raw meat, poultry and seafood.
  • Check the package before rinsing. Some grains, such as quinoa, may benefit from being rinsed before cooking. Other grains, such as rice, may lose some of their nutrients in the water.

Cooking for Nutrition, Flavor and Safety

How food is cooked can either enhance or destroy flavor.

  • Check the temperature with a food thermometer to determine when meat is done cooking. Not only does this help improve food safety, but it may also improve the flavor and texture as meat can lose moisture and become tough and dry when overcooked.
  • Use a timer to prevent overcooking vegetables. Short cooking times help vegetables keep their bright color and a crisper texture. Strong-flavored vegetables, such as Brussels sprouts and turnips, may become overpowering if cooked too long.
  • Steam vegetables or use only a small amount of water to cook produce. Steaming keeps vegetables and water separated – which helps reduce the amount of vitamins that get lost to the liquid when cooked in large amounts of water.
  • Quickly cook vegetables such as asparagus, green beans, broccoli and snow peas – and only until tender. Heat destroys the B vitamins and vitamin C, so shorter cooking times help retain nutrients as well as crisp textures.
  • Consider the microwave as a helpful tool. Microwaves decrease the amount of time heat-sensitive nutrients are exposed to high temperatures. They can help limit added fats that may otherwise be used when cooking in the oven or on the stove top. There's also a flavor advantage: Unless they’re overcooked, vegetables tend to remain crisp and colorful when cooked in a microwave.
  • Add lemon juice or vinegar to the water when cooking beets or red cabbage. This helps retain their bright-red color. For green vegetables, wait until after cooking to add these acidic ingredients or it may turn them unusual shades of green.
  • Heat is typically used during canning, so canned foods are already cooked. Just reheat on the stovetop or in the microwave.

Storing

How foods are stored also effects their flavor, nutrients and safety.

Store foods at the appropriate temperature – whether they are refrigerated or kept in a pantry. When foods are stored in the wrong environment, they may be more likely to spoil or grow harmful bacteria. Be sure to check the food packaging, as many foods require refrigeration after opening.

Incorrect storage also alters the flavor and quality of food, which is why foods that may seem similar are stored differently. Fresh thyme and dill are kept in the refrigerator but basil is stored at room temperature, otherwise it turns brown. Certain fruits and vegetables need to be stored separately or last longer when refrigerated; whereas other produce such as potatoes and onions should be stored in a dry, cool and dark place, such as a kitchen cabinet or pantry.

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