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The Right Way to Cook Vegetables

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from Fine Cooking #110, p. 36-37

You go out of your way to buy the freshest, peak-season vegetables, not only because they taste good but also because they’re packed with vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants. But did you know that how you cook them makes a huge difference in how well they retain those nutrients? Some cooking methods preserve nutrients and even help them enter your bloodstream, while others can destroy them. So once you get those vegetables home from the market, look to the strategies here to get the most nutritional bang for your buck.

1. Limit the water
When you cook vegetables in water, you lose nutrients. You know that green hue the water takes on after you’ve boiled or blanched your broccoli? That’s a sign that vitamins like C and B have leached into the water, only to be poured down the drain. To retain these vitamins, cook vegetables in as little water as possible for a minimal amount of time (unless you’re planning to consume the water, as in a soup). Steaming and microwaving, both of which use little water, will give you the same results as boiling or blanching but with much less nutrient loss. So instead of boiling potatoes before mashing them, steam them. Instead of blanching broccoli, green beans, or asparagus, steam or microwave them until crisp-tender.

Similarly, if you want your vegetables cooled, don’t plunge them into an ice bath; like hot water, cold water can also leach nutrients. Instead, cook vegetables for a minute less and then spread them in a single layer on a baking sheet so they’ll cool quickly at room temperature.

2. Use a little fat
Eating plain steamed vegetables may sound like the best way to go nutritionally, but you’re actually better off eating vegetables with some fat. Many nutrients, like beta carotene, vitamin D, and vitamin K are fat soluble, so they can only pass from our intestine into our blood stream with some fat to carry them across. It’s like a nutritional buddy system. So toss those steamed veggies with a flavorful vinaigrette, or sauté or stir-fry them—all of these methods use some fat (which helps maximize absorption) but little if any water (to minimize nutrient loss). They’ll also make your vegetables tastier than plain steamed ones, so you’ll be inspired to eat more.

3. Add citrus
Vegetables like spinach, broccoli, and kale contain lots of iron, but it’s in a form that’s difficult for our bodies to use, so most of it passes through undigested. Vitamin C, which citrus fruits provide in spades, reacts with iron chemically, changing it into a form that’s more easily absorbed by our bodies. In other words, it makes the iron user-friendly. So go ahead and add a splash of lemon, lime, orange, or grapefruit juice to that stir-fry or sauté.
The three strategies here are all used in the recipe opposite; it’s a perfect example of how to maximize nutrition in a delicious way. The green beans are briefly steamed instead of boiled. Then they’re sautéed with yellow peppers and shallots in a touch of healthful olive oil until just tender. Fresh spinach is tossed in at the end, and the dish is finished with splash of orange juice. I can’t think of a better way to get the most out of your vegetables.

Vegetable Sauté with Orange and Balsamic
Vegetable Sauté with Orange and Balsamic

Good to Know: Prepping Vegetables

Cooking affects how vegetables retain nutrients, but how you prep them matters, too. Here are some tips:

Wash before cutting Cutting a vegetable breaks its cell walls, allowing nutrients to escape into any water on contact. By washing uncut vegetables, nutrients stay safely tucked inside their cell walls and won’t be leached into the water.

Keep the peel on Many key nutrients are found in or just under the vegetable peel, so leave the peel on whenever possible.

Cook soon after cutting Nutrients can be destroyed when exposed to light and air. Cook and eat vegetables soon after cutting to keep vitamins and minerals secure in their cells as long as possible.

Cut larger, uniform pieces Larger pieces mean fewer cell walls severed and fewer nutrients lost to heat, light, or cooking water. Cutting uniform pieces ensures that everything is done at the same time, eliminating overcooked pieces and loss of nutrients.

Photos: Scott Phillips


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