The Healthiest Cooking Methods Explained
News flash: There are plenty of ways to cook up juicy and flavorful food without adding tons of unnecessary extras. While most people know to ditch the fryer when cooking up healthy meals, many don’t think about how their cooking method affects the nutritional make-up of their entrée.
Heat can break down and destroy 15 to 20 percent of some vitamins in vegetables — especially vitamin C, folate, and potassium. And as you'll see below, some methods are more detrimental than others! (This is why raw foodists cut out cooking altogether, claiming that uncooked food maintains all of it’s nutritional value and supports optimal health.)
But other studies suggest certain foods actually benefit from cooking. With carrots, spinach, and tomatoes, for example, heat facilitates the release of antioxidants by breaking down cell walls, providing an easier passage of the good guys from food to body .
Nuking may be the healthiest way to cook because of its short cooking times, which results in minimal nutrient destruction. Microwaves cook food by heating food from the inside out. They emit radio waves that “excite” the molecules in food (read: make them move all round), which generates heat, cooking the food. While microwave cooking can sometimes cause food to dry out, that can easily be avoided by splashing the item with a bit of water before heating, or placing a wet paper towel over the top of your dish. Regardless, the way that microwaves cook food nixes the need to add extra oils (bonus points!). The best part is, you can microwave just about anything, from veggies and rice to meat and eggs (and studies suggest it may just be one of the best ways to preserve nutrients in veggies). Just make sure to use a microwave-safe container! Interested in getting an extra-big dose of vitamin C? One study suggests microwaving broccoli is the best way to preserve the C in our favorite green veggie.
Boiling is quick, easy, and needs nothing but water and a touch of salt. (Oh, and whatever food you’re cooking.) But in addition to the high temperatures, the large volume of water dissolves and washes away water-soluble vitamins and 60 to 70 percent of foods' minerals ! While this method can dissolve vitamins and minerals in some foods (especially vegetables), research actually suggests boiling could be the best way to preserve nutrients in carrots, zucchini, and broccoli (when compared to steaming, frying, or eating raw).
Cooking anything from fresh veggies to fish fillets allows them to cook in their own juices and retain all that natural goodness. (Again, no need for fat-laden additions to up the moisture!) It’s always good to add a little seasoning first, whether that’s a sprinkle of salt or a squeeze of lemon juice. If the carcinogen-fighting glucosinolates in broccoli are important to you, some research suggests steaming could be the best way to cook the little green trees. In the body, glucosinolates become compounds called isothiocyanates, which some studies suggest inhibit the growth of cancer cells .
The same goes for boiling’s cousin, poaching — no additives. Basically, poaching means cooking the given food in a small amount of hot water (just below boiling point). It takes slightly longer (which some experts believe can decrease nutrient retention), but is a great way to gently cook delicate foods like fish, eggs, or fruit. (Plus, it’s just about the most delicious way to cook an egg in our books.)
Broiling entails cooking food under high, direct heat for a short period of time. Broiling is a great way to cook tender cuts of meat (remember to trim excess fat before cooking!), but may not be ideal for cooking veggies, as they can dry out easily.
In terms of getting maximum nutrition without sacrificing flavor, grilling is a great cooking method. It requires minimal added fats and imparts a smoky flavor while keeping meats and veggies juicy and tender. While these are definitely healthy benefits, not everything about grilling is so peachy. Some research suggests that regularly consuming charred, well-done meat may increase risk of pancreatic cancer and breast cancer. Cooking at high heat can also produce a chemical reaction between the fat and protein in meat, creating toxins that are linked to the imbalance of antioxidants in the body and inflammation, which can lead to an increased risk of diabetes and cardiovascular disease  
This doesn’t mean BBQs are forbidden — just stick with lean cuts of meat that require less cooking time, and keep dark meats on the rarer side.
While this method does require some oil in the pan, it should only be a moderate amount — just enough to get a nice sear on your meat and veggies. It’s effective for bite-sized pieces of meat, grains like rice and quinoa, and thin-cut veggies like bell peppers, julienned carrots, and snow peas.
Raw food diets have gained tons of attention recently, and for good reason. Many studies suggest there are of benefits of incorporating more raw foods into the diet: Studies have shown eating the rainbow consistently reduces the risk of cancer, but the jury’s out on whether raw or cooked is really best overall  . Plus, since the diet is mostly plant-based, more vitamins, minerals, and fiber are consumed overall, with no added sugars or fats from cooking. And while some raw items might be super-healthy, studies have found that cooking can actually amplify some nutrients, like lycopene in tomatoes and antioxidants in carotenoids such as carrots, spinach, sweet potatoes, and peppers.
What’s your favorite healthier way to cook? Share your opinions in the comment below or tweet the editor @ksmorin.
- Thermal processing enhances the nutritional value of tomatoes by increasing total antioxidant activity. Dewanto, V., Wu, X., Adom, KK, et al. Department of Food Science and Institute of Comparative and Environmental Toxicology, Stocking Hall, Cornell University, Ithaca, NY. Journal of Agriculture and Food Chemistry, 2002 May 8;50(10):3010-4.⤴
- Cooking losses of minerals in foods and its nutritional significance. Kimura, M., Itokawa, Y. Department of Hygiene, Faculty of Medicine, Kyoto University, Japan. Journal of nutritional science and vitaminology, 1990; 36 Suppl 1:S25-32; discussion S33.⤴
- Effects of different cooking methods on health-promoting compounds of broccoli. Yung, Gao-feng, Sun, Bo, Yuan, Jing. Journal of Zhejiang University, Science B, 2009 August;10(8):580-588.⤴
- Advanced glycation end products in foods and a practical guide to their reduction in the diet. Uribarri, J., Woodruff, S., Goodman, S., et al. Division of Nephrology, Mount Sinai School of Medicine, New York, NY. Journal of the American Dietician Association, 2010 Jun;110(6):911-16.e12.⤴
- Redefining oxidative stress. Jones, D.P. Department of Medicine, Division of Pulmonary, Allergy, and Critical Care Medicine, Whitehead Biomedical Research Center, Emory University, Atlanta, Georgia. Antioxidants and Redox Signaling, 2006 Sep-Oct;8(9-10):1865-79.⤴
- Vegetables, fruit, and cancer. I. Epidemiology. Steinmetz, K.A., Potter, J.D. Division of Epidemiology, School of Public Health, University of Minnesota, Minneapolis 55455. Cancer Causes Control. 1991 Sep; 2(5): 325-57.⤴
- Raw versus cooked vegetables and cancer risk. Link, L.B., Potter, J.D. Cancer Epidemiology, Mailman School of Public Health, Columbia University, New York, New York 10032, USA. Cancer Epidemiol Biomarkers Prev. 2004 Sep;13(9):1422-35.⤴
Comments Leave a comment
So which is it for broccoli? It's listed under microwaving, boiling, and steaming for best cooking method. Is it that one method is better than the other for preserving different nutrients?
@natmelchiorre This one's tricky. A handful of different studies have found that each of those methods is best at preserving a specific type of nutrient in broccoli. Frustrating, we know. It looks like in terms of preserving Vitamin C, microwaving is best. And while the study cited under "Boiling" found that it may be best at maintining overall nutrition, the study looking at steaming found specifically that that method kept broccoli's glucosinolates intact. So, in terms of overall health/nutrition retention for broccoli specifically, it looks like it's best to go with microwaving (with very little water) or boiling.
@ksmorin Thanks for the follow-up! That information is very helpful. I usually put my broccoli in the microwave just because it's so quick--they're tender in 2-3 minutes!
You might want to update the link to the 'eating the rainbow' reference, it's now here: http://www.ag.ndsu.edu/pubs/yf/foods/fn595.pdf
I cook all my fish "in a bag" in the oven and it leaves the fish so juicy and tasty!
@NatureHealMe LOVE cooking like that. Plus, if you call it by the classic name — en papillote — it sounds super fancy when it's actually the most simple process ever! :)
Hmm...I have a hard time trusting this article when you list microwaving food right off the bat as the best way to cook food. I mean, seriously?!?
@Mel_Mont Not saying it's always the healthiest choice! But some studies do suggest it's a great way to preserve nutrients in food. And while it is an urband legend that microwaves are bad for our health, there isn't any scientific evidence to back up those claims. Read more here! http://greatist.com/health/are-microwaves-really-a-health-hazarddangerou...
Microwaving is one of the least healthy ways to cook food. Microwaves give off radiation that reacts with the molecular structure of the food destroying its nutritional value. Steaming is much better and *almost* as fast.
Oh My God. This is the worst article ever. Any "studies" that claim microwaving any food is safe or better is either a hoax or in bed with Dr. Oz. I want to know how you can sleep at night even suggesting such a thing. If you want to destroy your food, put it in the microwave and make it an anti-nutrient. Boil or bake, but don't be so lazy! This is the sort of misinformation that will make me unsubscribe from a blog. A microwave isn't good for anything other than heating water.
@tizbelievin We totally understand if individuals have strong feelings against using microwaves. If you don't like 'em, don't use 'em!
However, to date, there have been no conclusive/reliable studies demonstrating negative health effects of using a microwave. We check for new studies on the subject regularly and will certainly update our articles if science says otherwise in the future. As you'll see above, some studies have actually found that microwave cooking can preserve even more nutrients than other methods for certain foods.
woohooo i microwave everyday, that makes me feel so much better!
When I boil (lightly simmer) food I also consume the water as in soup. Or put a little water in the bottom so it steams and then consume any little bit of water that is left along with the food.
Could you have your cake and eat it too? How about soaking food in the fridge in lemon water or vinegar for several days. The food is not exposed to heat but still might have many of the benefits of cooking and raw too?! This idea is for veggies and fruit (not with vinegar). I do not know how it would work for meat. I have soaked dried fruit such as prunes with lemon water. They are much like cooked but taste much better!